Since the mid-’90s, a historical figure has oddly crept into several conspiracy theories. As you can tell from the title, it’s Nikola Tesla.
To hear conspiracy believers tell it, Tesla discovered the greatest secrets of the universe, and figured out how to produce free electricity. But the powers in control knew that they could only make a profit if Tesla’s discoveries were destroyed. Thus, the free energy that we might have all enjoyed, and which still exists somehow, continues to be suppressed by the government and by the wealthy people who control it.
I’ve now heard this 100 times. And since Tesla was indeed a fascinating person I admire, it might be worth doing our first little biography in years, to offer a more realistic portrait of the man.
Born in 1856 in what is now Croatia, Tesla emigrated to the US in 1884 and soon worked for Thomas Edison. He was very smart, and had a photographic memory. And boy, he was handsome. He had a movie-star charisma at six foot two inches tall, and he weighed only 140 pounds, maintaining that lankiness his whole life.
He left Thomas Edison after a dispute and set off on his own. It was Tesla who conceived of practical alternating current, which changed energy transmission forever. He also produced one of the first radio broadcasts – possibly even before Guglielmo Marconi, even if the Italian got the patents for the blockbuster technology. Still, Tesla astonished a New York City crowd by building the first radio-controlled model boat, which he wirelessly maneuvered in a pool in 1898. It was the world’s first drone.
He ultimately earned hundreds of patents that made him wealthy for awhile, and he accrued enough fame to land on the cover of Time in 1931. Yet a mere dozen years later, after living in a series of upscale Manhattan hotel rooms, he died in poverty. For decades afterward he sank into oblivion and was initially unknown to the next generation, the Baby Boomers, until his recent revival made him virtually worshipped as a sort of mystical genius.
He deserves admiration. Nonetheless, many seem unaware that Tesla wasted endless time with grand ideas that couldn’t work. For example, he was fixated with transmitting electricity through the air. These days we think of his Tesla coil, which ramps up voltage to make hair stand on end or sends lightning-like sparks jumping to a person’s hand. In a similar vein but on a larger scale, Tesla was obsessed with transmitting electricity into every home from a giant tower, and kept trying to broadcast a long-distance current through the air like radio waves.
It was a dead end that consumed large sums of investors’ money. It failed because Tesla didn’t realize that, while radio waves are a form of light, electricity is the motion of little particles. They’re two different animals. Electricity is the movement of electrons, which Tesla was sure didn’t exist. As it turned out, resistance by our atmosphere’s gases make long-distance electrical air transmission impossible. It wasn’t a matter of his ideas being suppressed; they were just wrong. In practice, cheap copper wire carries electricity wonderfully, so inexpensive transmission was and still is commercially viable, and no air transmission is required! If, instead, Tesla had spent a little more early time with radio-wave transmission, he would have beaten Marconi and made himself a millionaire many times over.
Unfortunately, Tesla’s genius was often channeled toward wacky ideas. In his early experiments with Crookes tubes, he very nearly discovered X-rays ahead of Wilhelm Roentgen. Yet after experimenting with them, he wrongly believed that they were not harmful to health. He also thought that radio waves could penetrate water and detect submarines, which is incorrect. He was convinced he could build a camera that would photograph people’s thoughts.
Tesla believed in the ether. He criticized Einstein’s relativity. He thought that you could boost someone’s intelligence by applying electricity to the brain. He said schoolchildren’s health would be improved by bathing classrooms in electrical waves – and nearly got the New York City education commissioner to agree to it!
In short, Tesla was an innovator, but had far more wrong notions than right ones. And despite him being suddenly resurrected and glorified these past 20 years, he created no technology that anyone would have wanted to suppress – except for Edison, whose competing DC current lost out to Tesla’s superior alternating technology.