Nikola Tesla’s hidden contribution

Tesla cover image

Tes­la fea­tured on the cov­er of the Elec­tri­cal Exper­i­menter, 1902

Niko­la Tes­la is a hero to geeks every­where, who will be cel­e­brat­ing his birth­day this week. World-famous in his life­time, the prodi­gious­ly gift­ed inven­tor fell into semi-obscu­ri­ty after his death in 1943, even though his inven­tions helped cre­ate the world we live in now.

Tesla’s fans know about his ground­break­ing work in many fields: his inven­tion of radio (sor­ry, Mar­coni), his cre­ation of the alter­nat­ing-cur­rent motor, his sin­gle­hand­ed devel­op­ment of remote-con­trol robot­ics, to name a few—all before 1900. Like some vir­tu­oso of inven­tion, Tes­la worked solo, per­fect­ing most of his inven­tions in his head. Even­tu­al­ly, he held sev­er­al hun­dred patents.

But there is one devel­op­ment for which he hasn’t got­ten cred­it, even as a col­lab­o­ra­tor. And if you’re think­ing it may be the elec­tric car—that’s not it. We should also give Tes­la his due for con­tribut­ing to the birth of mod­ern sci­ence fic­tion.

Tesla’s imag­i­na­tion nev­er turned off, and he con­tin­ued to churn out ideas with world-chang­ing implications—if they had been real­ized. His World Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem, antic­i­pat­ing the Inter­net by decades, end­ed as a half-built ruin on Long Island. He thought up “death rays” made of charged-par­ti­cle beams, exper­i­ment­ed with using prin­ci­ples of res­o­nance to cause earth­quakes, and even pro­posed pulling elec­tric­i­ty down from the ionos­phere, to pro­vide vir­tu­al­ly free ener­gy around the globe.

These and oth­er huge-scaled projects didn’t come to be, but they inspired oth­ers who were part of Tesla’s cir­cle. One of them was Hugo Gerns­back, a young writer, inven­tor and pub­lish­er of pop­u­lar sci­ence and sci­ence fiction—a term that he coined. (The Hugo award, one of sci­ence fiction’s high­est hon­ors, is his name­sake.) Tesla’s inven­tions and ideas res­onat­ed intense­ly with Gerns­back: arti­cles about Tes­la ran reg­u­lar­ly in his ear­ly mag­a­zine, The Elec­tri­cal Exper­i­menter, and Tesla’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, My Inven­tions, appeared in its pages. The young author insert­ed Tes­la into a sci-fi sto­ry of his own, The Mag­net­ic Storm, in 1918. A few years lat­er, Ger­snback found­ed the leg­endary Amaz­ing Stories—the first mag­a­zine devot­ed sole­ly to sci­ence fic­tion.

Tesla’s work can be seen as a kind of tem­plate for ear­ly sci­ence fic­tion: they both share a world­wide focus, spec­u­la­tion on war and peace, and a gen­er­al hope in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of human progress. The way I see it, it was as if some of the visions Tes­la was offer­ing couldn’t be encom­passed by soci­ety in his time, and had to spill over into the are­na of imag­i­na­tion. There they fed the blos­som­ing of a new art form—the first in human his­to­ry to focus on the future.

Sci­ence fic­tion has become an immer­sive back­ground to our lives, via Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, the Matrix and many oth­er imag­ined future worlds that owe their exis­tence to the genre of pop­u­lar sci­ence fic­tion. It’s almost sec­ond nature for us now to slip into these vir­tu­al envi­ron­ments, try­ing on pos­si­bil­i­ties and work­ing through omi­nous sce­nar­ios, using the future as a can­vas to help us fig­ure out what’s hap­pen­ing now, and where we want to go. We take this time-shift­ing between present and future for granted—as much as we take for grant­ed the elec­tri­cal pow­er that sur­rounds us, thanks to Tesla’s world­wide elec­tri­cal grid.

Hap­py Birth­day, Niko­la Tes­la, and thank you for help­ing to intro­duce us to the future.


7 thoughts on “Nikola Tesla’s hidden contribution”

  1. Thanks, Diane! I was think­ing about this while I was work­ing on Vio­let Fire, but it didn’t quite fit into the libret­to…

  2. GREAT arti­cle, Miri­am, and shame on me for miss­ing his birth­day. Fas­ci­nat­ing that, as time flits by, Tes­la looms larg­er and Edi­son small­er in our minds. Appro­pri­ate that the Inter­net moth­ered the Tes­la renais­sance? You have giv­en us all much to con­tem­plate and made Tes­la much more appro­pri­ate to yours tru­ly, Arthur

    1. Thanks, Arthur! Actu­al­ly, you didn’t miss his birth­day — as Tes­la nerds the world over know, he was born at mid­night between July 9 and 10, so tech­ni­cal­ly you can still cel­e­brate!

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