Nikola Tesla and the cult of the mysterious genius

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Mark Hornehttp://www.merseysideskeptics.org.uk/
Mark Horne is a board member of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He currently works as Development Manager at a university and has been a fundraiser, copywriter, researcher and campaigner.

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Polymath inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is celebrated every 10th July with World Tesla Day. He’s rightly held in high regard for his numerous inventions, most notably his key role in the development of alternating current, the system that powers electricity grids around the world to this day. The Serbian-American engineer was also a pioneer in many other fields, including wireless communication, radio control and wireless power transmission, and in his lifetime he held more than a hundred patents. 

Tesla is everywhere. Chances are you’ve seen him portrayed by David Bowie in the Christopher Nolan movie The Prestige, or by Nicolas Hoult in The Current War. Representations of Tesla, or thinly-veiled allusions to him, have appeared in dozens of comics, books, films and video games. Perhaps most prominent of all are the electric cars named in tribute to him. 

On the left David Bowie as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, on the right Nicolas Hoult as Nikola Tesla in The Current War. Both portrayals show Tesla as a slim man with brown hair and a brown moustache. In both cases the actors wear a white shirt with a waistcoat and blazer over the top and a tie or cravat around the neck. Hoult's Tesla wears a top hat.

Tesla’s representation in The Prestige, in which he is the creator of a machine that I won’t discuss in detail for spoiler reasons (I know it is a sixteen year old movie, but seriously, go and watch it now if you haven’t), hints at a reputation that Tesla has in the more woo and conspiracy corners of the internet, as a mysterious genius whose inventions were suppressed, and whose secret knowledge would have changed the world if only They hadn’t suppressed it.

To tackle the Tesla woo first, it tends to centre on the following quote attributed to him: 

If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6, and 9, then you would have a key to the universe.

It is unclear that Tesla ever spoke these words, but it is commonly held that he was obsessed with certain rituals involving numbers in his life, such as walking around buildings three times before entering, insisting on staying in hotels with room numbers divisible by three, or curling his toes a hundred times before bed each night to stimulate brain cells. Notably, this last habit of his is not divisible by three, suggesting his numerological fans aren’t right about his supposed obsession with these numbers being all-consuming. In any case, this obsession seems to have arisen in his later years, when it has been speculated he was suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, and when his greatest innovations were behind him. 

As to the substance of the idea that 3, 6 and 9 hold some profound truth, you can play a lot of games and find references to these numbers in maths, cosmology, religion, history and philosophy. Of course, they’re almost a third of the numbers in base ten, so that shouldn’t be at all surprising, but it doesn’t stop enthusiasts from thinking that these numbers do hold the secrets to the universe. Others believe that you can use these numbers to somehow manifest your wishes into reality – much like The Secret – and there are whole communities on Tik Tok devoted to this nonsense. 

Of course, numerology is fundamentally based on some very human flaws in understanding the world, including noticing patterns where there are none, the inevitability of coincidence with a limited number of small, whole numbers, and the obvious fact that “numerology is… based on an invented system of counting.” Base 10 isn’t the only way one can count.

Even if Tesla did believe that these numbers held secrets to the universe – and it is not clear that he did – Tesla was capable of being wrong, even in areas close to his own expertise, for example regarding theoretical and experimental physics:

Tesla disagreed with the theory of atoms being composed of smaller subatomic particles, stating there was no such thing as an electron creating an electric charge. He believed that if electrons existed at all, they were some fourth state of matter or “sub-atom” that could exist only in an experimental vacuum and that they had nothing to do with electricity. Tesla believed that atoms are immutable—they could not change state or be split in any way. He was a believer in the 19th-century concept of an all-pervasive ether that transmitted electrical energy.

What, then of his suppressed inventions? Certainly he had a series of disputes with rivals, from Marconi to Edison, so there are examples of legal challenges and attempts to suppress each other’s inventions and patents, from Edison’s grim and futile attempts to win the current wars, to Tesla’s unsuccessful attempt to sue Marconi

Some conspiracy theories suggest that Tesla invented methods of generating free energy, distributing that energy wirelessly to users, and that this technology has been intentionally suppressed by Big Energy to protect their profits. His ideas for wireless transmission did actually exist, most obviously in the form of the Tesla Coil and induction lighting, but Tesla was aware that this approach was only effective at a room scale. He had other big ideas for wireless power transmission, culminating in the construction in 1901-2 of the Wardenclyffe Tower, which Tesla aimed to use to demonstrate the feasibility of a global wireless power network: 

…[using] the earth itself as the medium for conducting the currents, thus dispensing with wires and all other artificial conductors… a machine which, to explain its operation in plain language, resembled a pump in its action, drawing electricity from the earth and driving it back into the same at an enormous rate… In this manner I was able to transmit to a distance, not only feeble effects for the purposes of signaling, but considerable amounts of energy, and later discoveries I made convinced me that I shall ultimately succeed in conveying power without wires, for industrial purposes, with high economy, and to any distance, however great.

So did Big Energy suppress Tesla’s plans to ensure we are all still lumbered with an electricity meter and endlessly rising bills? They didn’t need to. A lot of physics we take for granted was far from settled in 1902, and Tesla was simply wrong in a lot of his assumptions in this area, as writer Dan Elton explains in some detail:

like many of the electrical engineers of his day, Tesla harbored ideas about electromagnetism that were if not fully wrong, at least partially so – radio transmission doesn’t work like a telegraph circuit, electromagnetic waves are not like sound waves, and it isn’t possible to create current waves that pass through the earth for thousands of miles unimpeded.

Over a century on, wireless charging is finally in commercial use in mobile phones, and the subject of arguably less plausible plans to charge electric vehicles directly from the road surface – but these are not the long-range transmission of free earth-generated energy, and you should be suspicious of anyone who tells you that their free energy idea draws directly on Tesla’s ideas, as with any other free energy scheme. 

The other most common Tesla conspiracy theory is that he had invented a death ray, and that this has been used in secret by the government. Again, this has its source with the man himself, as he did in fact announce that he had created a “death beam” in 1934

Dr. Nikola Tesla, inventor of polyphase electric current, pioneer in high frequency transmission, predecessor of Marconi with the wireless, celebrated his seventy-eighth birthday yesterday by announcing his invention of a beam of force somewhat similar to the death ray of scientific romance.

It is capable, he believes, of destroying an army 200 miles away; it can bring down an airplane like a duck on the wing, and it can penetrate all but the most enormous thicknesses of armor plate. Since it must be generated at stationary power plants by machines which involve four electrical devices of the most revolutionary sort, Dr. Tesla considers it almost wholly a defensive weapon. In peace times, he says, the beam will also be used to transmit immense voltages of power over distances limited only by the curvature of the earth.

Conspiracy theorists believe Tesla’s ideas were feasible and were actually put into action. Some even claim that his invention was even responsible for the Tunguska event of 1908, although for others this is a step too far. 

What is known is that when Tesla died in 1943 – the Second World War at its height – the US government seized many of Tesla’s papers, apparently spooked at the possibility that his ideas may be of military application, and fearful that they could fall into enemy hands.

Since-declassified analysis said that his papers did “not include new sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results”, but conspiracy theorists would point out that the US government did go on to develop the not entirely dissimilar Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”), to shoot down enemy missile attacks from space or using beam weapons. The SDI did not actually work, of course, and missile defence systems continue to use more traditional approaches that bear no resemblance to a ‘Tesla Death Beam’.

None of which should take away from the reputation of Nikola Tesla, who obviously ranks as one of the world’s greatest inventors. But we should just be wary of those cashing in on his name, and we need to be aware that he was working with a knowledge of physics that is now over a century out of date.

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