By Brian Boone
Nikola Tesla was a person ahead of his time, developing breakthroughs and advances in electricity and radio well before the world was ready. He’s become almost a mythological figure, such was his level of intelligence, ambition, and productivity. Here then are just a few of the lesser-known — and stranger — inventions that came from the mind of Nikola Tesla.
At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Tesla unveiled his discoveries in electrodynamic induction — a process by which he showed it was possible to send electric power through the air, as opposed to a cord. Tesla lit up a bunch of phosphorous light bulbs with the wireless transmission of electricity, sending a charge through the air. He believed it could be used to bring electricity (at that time, a novelty found only in the largest cities) to remote and rural areas cheaply — which is probably why the existing power companies at the time weren’t interested in adopting Tesla’s tech.
Ultra-fast and Gas-free Aviation
By the 1910s, Tesla had drawn up plans for a passenger air travel system that would operate with the inventor’s wireless electricity transmission. In a 1919 interview with Reconstruction, Tesla explained his concept of a supersonic airplane that would travel at an altitude of 40,000 feet, powered not by fuel but electricity beamed up by a network of ground-based power plants. The energy transfer was so efficient that it would enable Tesla’s planes to go really fast — he estimated a transatlantic trip between London and New York would take all of three hours. This method of air travel never took off.
In 1933, Tesla told a reporter that for the previous 40 years, he’d been attempting to build a device that could photograph thoughts and memories. He theorized that as the brain recalled and formed images, those visuals must be projected onto the retina of the eye in some way. With the right machine, Tesla attested, those pictures could be captured and then projected onto a screen, making “reading minds” an actual thing people could do. Tesla never built his thought camera — because the brain doesn’t actually send images to the eye.
No comic book supervillain can be taken seriously if they don’t have access to a “death ray” — a futuristic handgun that uses energy beams or lasers to instantly destroy or obliterate its target. Tesla actually came up with a concept for such a death ray in the 1930s. According to the inventor’s plans, it operated by creating a concentrated and targeted stream of energy that could be fired great distances without any diminished capabilities; Tesla theorized that a military operation on land could fire his ray at enemy airplanes up above. He tried to sell the idea to various military branches, but he got no takers. A strange addendum: Tesla’s instructions and research for the death ray disappeared shortly after his death in 1943.
Read lots more about Tesla and his tech from the man himself — a beautifully crafted, leather-bound edition of The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla and Other Works is available right now from Canterbury Classics.