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(NOTE TO READER: This essay was originally written as an article for Would That It Were, A Journal of Historical Science Fiction,, in October, 2004)


By Michael Ricciardi
Most who recognize the name Nikola Tesla, know him as the discoverer of alternating current--the 'AC' in 'AC / DC'--with its 'competitor' being direct current (discovered by Thomas Edison). More studied folks might also know that he received over a hundred patents in his career (80% of which were awarded before 1900). These were primarily electrical devices for generating and transforming electrical currents and their potentials/frequencies, but his discoveries also included the electric dynamo, the first remote-controlled "robot" (a miniature submarine), and a method of wireless signal transmission. This last method was demonstrated at lectures given as early as 1893-- believed to have been the first successful demonstrations of 'radio'. The famous inventor Marconi , who was later credited with the invention of radio, had attended at least one of these lectures {note: In 1943, a U.S. Appeals Court determined that Marconi's radio application utilized several of Tesla's patents, and declared Tesla to be the true inventor of radio}.
And there were many more: x-rays (Tesla took the first x-ray photographs), the technological basis for the electron microcope (this 'carbon lamp' was also the first use of a sub-atomic chain reaction for practical use), radar (pre-dating WWI, more on this later), and even the very first (analog) 'logical switching circuit', a variation of which is used to this day in telephone circuit switch designs--and the precursor to today's digital logic circuits. He was also the very first to experiment with plasma--considered the fourth state of matter--and was even successful at manipulating it, though his techniques for doing so remain unknown. Lastly, there is a host of modern innovations (such as wireless phone networks, fax machines, paging systems, microwave technology} that was described/foreseen by Tesla over a hundred years ago.
Without doubt, Tesla was that rare type of creative genius who makes an enormously profound, long-term mark on human culture--though such a mark would not be recognized fully until his old age and seizure-addled brain had made him rather confused, no longer 'visionary', but hallucinatory. Though famous in his time (he had a knack for provoking sensational headlines), his true contributions to our technological age have only recently become more widely known. Yet, despite many books and biographies, his life is still rife with mystery, intrigue, and controversy.
If the reader wishes to learn more about Mr. Tesla, I urge you to pick up any one of a number of fine biographies, for I cannot do justice to the inventor's life in these few pages. It is my wish in this essay to focus on a few of Nikola Tesla's more 'radical' ideas/discoveries, and to speculate as to their actual and/or possible ramifications for society. I say 'radical' because that is what they were, and remain so to this day.
In 1900, after returning to Long Island from his famous laboratory in Colorado Springs, and following his patent application for a 'Method of Intensifying and Utilizing Effects Transmitted Through Natural Media' (1901, USP# 685,953) and subsequent related patents, Tesla began a new project in earnest. This ambitious project ostensibly concerned the transmission of complex/multiple signals across the Atlantic. This intense work centered upon the construction of the now infamous Wardenclyffe Tower. The structure, over 180 feet high, was designed by W.D. Crow (an associate of Stanford White), and was done so under great secrecy. It was capped by a 50 ton, octagonal dome sheathed in copper. It was an impressive, perhaps unnerving, structure. Like so many 'firsts' in Tesla's career, this was the first ever transmission tower. Initially, Tesla had managed to secure the financial backing of financier J.P. Morgan. However, this support would be withdrawn when Tesla disclosed to Morgan his ulterior goal of free, global transmission of power, what Tesla called his 'World System Project'. A famous correspondence follows (excerpted):

July 3, 1903

"…If I would have told you such as this before, you would have fired me out of your office…Will you help me or let my great work—almost complete—go to pots?"

Nikola Tesla
July 14, 1903

N. Tesla, Esq.
"I have received your letter . . . and in reply would say that I should not feel disposed at present to make any further advances."

J. P. Morgan
Tesla was not the most practical of businessmen. Though he recognized the need to appeal to business sense for his funding, his unique vision would often reach beyond mere profit-making enterprise. His pioneering vision of 'free distribution of power' may have even contributed to the modern conception of a public utility. (Though certainly not 'free', publicly owned electric utilities are still subject to competitive market pressures, and not immune from corporate manipulation, as we have seen in the case of ENRON).
How might Tesla's plan for "the free transmission of energy" anywhere on earth have changed our present world? Although much of Tesla's work was in secret, and his methods obscure, his work was quite influential. He believed that the earth and its atmosphere were essentially massive electrical conductors and oscillators--capable of transmitting (and transforming) electric power to any place from any starting point.
Could such a use have been fostered in an intensely capitalist economy? Was his humanistic far-sightedness subverted by his continuous need for financial support?
For Nikola Tesla, the free, worldwide transmission of electrical power was the key to world peace; so much conflict being due to inequitable distribution of, and access to, power. Tesla had already thought the problem through, determining that it was access to energy (electrical or otherwise) that lay at the heart of economic disparity. Though the system of transmission would be owned by the Tesla Corp. (or it creditors), its beneficent purpose was in keeping with the spirit of collectivism/socialism, if not its ideology. For J.P. Morgan, the penultimate capitalist, 'free transmission of power' smacked too much of the radical communist thought that was beginning to make a foot-hold amongst America's working poor and immigrant laborers. Within the framework of Morgan's world-view, he had no choice but to cease funding Tesla. Even amongst Tesla's friends, admirers, and colleagues, this 'visionary' concept of a "world system of intelligence transmission" was puzzling and irrational. "It is not a dream", wrote Tesla a few years later, "it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!"
But now let us suppose that such a concept was unveiled to the world not in 1901 (when America was seized with fear of 'anarchists' in the wake of the McKinley assassination), but instead, in 1929 following the great stock market collapse. How more receptive to the idea (and with Morgan dead) would the government, the people, be? It seems not at all unlikely that society would be open to some system of free (or cheap) energy transmission. It is possible indeed that our society (and others) might have taken a new direction in its economic evolution. Would the world have become significantly better off? Well, to the extent that suffering and poverty--both symptoms of a lack of power-- are strong correlates, yes, I think it would.
But we can also validly argue that commercial exploitation of power generation and transmission was inevitable and that trying to stop this would itself create more human conflict etc. But if the people actually owned the means of energy production--through the aid of a private benefactor, the State, or revolution--what then would be the cause of the conflict? The answer to that question requires that we define the motives, and values, of 'private enterprise' relative to the people, and this is not a treatise on Economic Theory. So, let us leave the question there for all to speculate on.
The 'Death Ray' as envisioned (but never built) by Tesla would utilize a system of high-energy (frequency) oscillators to produce a directional beam of energy (plasma?) that would destroy enemy tanks/ships/planes in mere seconds. I note that President Reagan's "star wars" (SDI) particle beam bore a remarkable similarity in concept to Tesla's--conceived nearly 80 years earlier (though Tesla's concept was not space-based). Although advocated for defense from ICBMs, it could easily have been utilized for knocking out reconnaissance and communication satellites, giving its users a significant offensive advantage. However, the Russians saw the vulnerability of this system (which it could not compete with financially) to even small amounts of sand released into orbit by a Russian spacecraft or satellite.
Tesla was plagued by debts and lack of funding for most of his professional career. What if he had been more successful? What if there was no nemesis in the person of Thomas Edison? If Tesla had his own fortune--enough to finance the noted inventions--he would surely have built test models. Would such demonstrations have forced the US military's hand? Tesla lived during the most violent period in the history of the world (two world wars, countless 'low level' conflicts, coups, and insurgencies)...if the practical use of his Death Ray were shown, who could have stopped its appropriation for military purposes?
'Apparatus for the Utilization of Radiant Energy' [1901, USP #685,957] and 'Method for Utilizing Radiant Energy' [1901, USP# 685,958], the technological bases for modern radar, would not be understood until decades later; Tesla's proposal was originally rejected by the U.S. Navy as having no practical use for military applications. Consider how many American lives lost in sea battles might well have been saved--as well as 'enemy' lives saved through easier detection of ships, planes, and submarines, thus not prolonging a war. Radar technology would not be adopted until late in WWII, after millions of lives had been lost in the current and previous world war.
But of course, any defensive weapon can also be employed as an offensive weapon. The U.S, first to create a nuclear weapon, was also first (and only) to use it in warfare. Might the early adoption of radar by US military forces have given us too great an edge? The lessons of history seldom show exception to the abuse of a powerful new technology.
The reader may recall from history, that a tremendous rivalry existed between Tesla and Edison. At times, the rivalry could get rather vicious. The two were critically aware of each other's work, and egos. Was Thomas Edison (who was heavily involved with Federal energy/military contracting) partly responsible for Tesla's lack of financial success? Alternately, had there been no political obstacles to the US military contracting of Tesla's inventions, might they have been exploited in horrific ways? Tesla, despite his numerous inventions for military applications (intended to bring in enough money to fund his other work) was staunchly anti-war. He, like many other scientists, held to the notion that if a weapon was 'horrible' enough (or a defense strong enough), then all would see the futility/pointlessness of war, and abolish it forever. His 'Death Ray' was conceived with this purpose.

Interestingly, The US Government denied for more than 50 years that it had in its possession any of Tesla's papers. This was later (1994) proven to have been a falsehood, as the DOE admitted to having some of his papers, while apparently engaging in some kind of 'turf war' over them with another government agency. Not all of these papers have been released, and this does not diminish the speculation that the federal government has in the past, and is still today, utilizing Tesla's discoveries. Secreted away in the wilderness of Alaska, sits the HAARP (High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program) array. This heart of this high security installation is a large field of high frequency radio antennas that energize, or "excite", portions of the ionosphere (aka, 'natural media') to effect a number of experimental goals: a "defensive shield" (to disrupt enemy missile guidance systems), 'earth-penetrating tomography' (to detect underground weapons systems), and manifest local changes in the weather/climate ('weather warfare'). Many feel that this concept was a more sophisticated, though less elegant, application of Tesla's original concept of transmitting high frequency energy utilizing the natural, conductive properties of the Earth's upper atmosphere. This top-secret project is the brainchild of DARPA, the R&D arm of the DOD. Many have criticized this project for its expense and intended (though still quite experimental) uses.

There is an additional candidate for a modern version of Tesla's Death Ray: the Tactical High-Energy Laser system developed by the U.S. Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. The THEL was first tested in June of 2000--successfully tracking and destroying a Russian-made, medium-range missile with a live warhead (conventional). Though other laser based tracking and defense systems have been tested, the THEL is the first stand-alone, mobile, directed energy weapon. The THEL 'shoots' speed-of-light pulses of high-energy laser (with a temperature approximately equal to the surface temperature of the sun). The actual design of this system bears a striking similarity to Tesla's concept design from the 1930's.

Tesla's greatest gift, and greatest shortcoming, was his far-sightedness. A visionary of the highest order, Tesla saw perhaps too far ahead, and so, would not live to see his ideas utilized, or appropriated. His far-sightedness may have created a 'blind spot' as well: Tesla made no provision for the legal transference of his research papers, notes, and designs upon his death. Perhaps he would have objected to the intended use of the HAARP array, but, like Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Fermi, who implored the US government not to use the A-bomb on civilian populations, but who saw there efforts ignored--would have had little control over its use, once contracted/appropriated by the military.

Tesla's real life often read like pure science fiction. Indeed, the inventor's notebooks alone would seem some alien esoterica to the average man of his day. There have been stories told of Tesla marvels that defy, to this day, scientific explanation. Though renowned for his fantastical story-telling abilities, Mark Twain (a dear friend of Tesla) recounts a visit to Telsa's New York City laboratory and being confronted with a most startling enigma. Tesla produced a box that when opened, displayed a small ball of blue fire. The inventor then proceeded to remove the ball of flame with his fingers, and then placed the flame on his shoulder, head, and other parts of his body. It neither caught fire, nor appeared to harm Tesla. After a few minutes of such theatrics, he placed the blue flame back into its box, stored it away, and directed Twain's attention to some other new apparatus.
Tesla's extensive work with generating artificial lightning may have led to the discovery of the means to generate/control plasma, a bizarre state of matter closely associated with the phenomenon/function of lightning. Was this 'blue ball of flame' a form of plasma? None of his patents specifically detailed the method by which one could accomplish such an effect. Perhaps, this was an amalgam of several applications. But why is it that Tesla never formally described this process? Was it, like many 'other worldly' effects produced in his laboratory, merely something Tesla would do to show-off--a parlor trick to impress the guests (or potential backers), with no scientific principle to explain it or even any practical application? In this author's opinion, there had to have been something more to this. During his Colorado Springs days, Tesla was able to produce tremendous arcs of electrical discharge--including the largest point-to-point electrical discharge (over 100 feet) ever recorded. He performed thousands of experiments involving high frequency energy generation and transmission--only a handful of which resulted in a patent application. Perhaps even the great inventor himself could not recognize any practical application for such a curious phenomenon. Then again, perhaps Tesla did indeed recognize, or envision, such an application and, fearing its misappropriation by less principled interests, held back its disclosure.
Whichever, the secret to local plasma field generation and manipulation may have to await a more detailed analysis of his voluminous notes, diagrams, and papers--currently secreted away in some Department of Energy file case, or that sit amongst dense archives now in the possession of the Tesla Museum in Belgrade.
How would the world be different had Tesla's vision been shared by those with the means and the power? Given the evidence of the historical record since 1900, perhaps it was a good thing that someone as inventive as Tesla was not understood, or embraced, by those in power at the time. One can easily imagine some megalomaniac--straight out of an Ian Fleming novel--appropriating Tesla's inventions for his own nefarious, world domination scheme. Tesla's creative arrogance and isolationist lifestyle may have saved the world from himself. I sometimes think that, in the final analysis, the 'disappearance' of Tesla's papers/archives may have been the right thing--his awe-inspiring applications doomed to bureaucratic oblivion. Then again, there is the HAARP array.
Perhaps not now, but someday soon, human civilization will be ready to dust off Tesla's old papers and view them with new eyes.
What discoveries await us then?
Michael Ricciardi

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