Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 19, 1907 – Nikola Tesla Wins Military Contract

Just as Dr. Nikola Tesla was sitting down to write a letter to the editor of The New York Times explaining that they had mistakenly stated he “attained no practical results with my dirigible wireless torpedo,” he received a telegram from Washington, D.C., on the very topic. Earlier that month, he had given a display of his new design for warfare: a remotely controlled torpedo with nearly any amounts of explosives that could be directed into the underbelly of a warship from the safety outside cannon-range. Tesla’s display had been a simple bobbing engine in water, but he had controlled it remotely through the use of electromagnetic waves rather than a physical connection such as wires. Ultimately, however, the exhibition would prove underwhelming, so much so that the attending newspaperman from the Times had taken it as a failure.

Tesla finished his letter, also commenting on the possibilities of wave-energy as a weapon itself, provided humanity’s calculations of the Earth’s diameter was accurate, which it would be as soon as his tower at Wardenclyffe was completed. He wrote, “My wireless plant will enable me to determine it within fifty feet or less, when it will be possible to rectify many geodetical data and make such calculations as those referred to with greater accuracy.” The telegram from Washington, however, would prove a distraction from his experiments as a summons to discuss with President Theodore Roosevelt (himself once Assistant Secretary of the Navy) who wished to see more about these radio-guided torpedoes. In an era where nations were spending millions, even billions, on massive Dreadnaughts and battleships of seemingly impossible size, a small, cheap defensive weapon would prove far more progressive.

Tesla met with Roosevelt, and the president put him in charge of developing the weapon for the Navy. His tower at Wardenclyffe would be mothballed, but the money was enough to keep him from his overwhelming debts. His assistants and Navy overseers found great difficulty in working with Tesla; some said in awe of his genius, others that he was plainly mad. Despite official difficulties, Tesla produced a working model by 1910, and the Navy was well stocked with defensive measures of long-range wireless torpedoes by Wilson’s election in 1912. During Wilson’s term and the start of the First World War, the feared German U-boat would serve as Tesla’s next project: using waves to detect the position of hiding submarines. Using his old research on frequencies, he developed methods of detection both through sound waves as well as those sub-sonic. He would be hailed as a hero, saving hundreds of lives and sparing millions of tons of material from German predators by sensing them and then attacking at long-range torpedoes before they could attack.

Most notably, however, would be his advances in the wave-energy weapons he had mentioned in letters years before, such as his 1908 letter to the editor of the Times stating, “Even now wireless power plants could be constructed by which any region of the globe might be rendered uninhabitable without subjecting the population of other parts to serious danger or inconvenience.” When Wardenclyffe and several other towers were functional, Tesla managed his calculations for geodetical data as well as those necessary for precision strikes. Once America entered the war in 1917, it was ended quickly as Tesla’s towers proved capable of destroying the German trenches with the “bolts of Thor.” Continued use pounded Germany to utter defeat as whole sections of a city could be destroyed with a single blast.

The 1920s would stand as a time of excitement with an undercurrent of fear that these towers, which were quickly emulated across Europe and Asia, would be used to bring about the downfall of man. Although there would be diplomatic close calls, the next two decades would be roughly quiet until Hitler, the Fuhrer of Germany, used his newly constructed towers in literal blitzkriegs. The United States attempted to stay out of the war and protected by its “electrical wall of fire” built by Los Angeles engineer Charles H. Harris, but it proved as impractical as Tesla had long declared when the Empire of Japan made surprise attacks on naval bases at Midway, Pearl Harbor, and along the West Coast.

Tesla himself would die in the middle of the war on January 7, 1943, from heart failure at age 86. Many said that his death was really from a broken heart as he saw what humanity had done with his weapons. His room in the New Yorker Hotel overlooked much of the rubble and blackened harbor water from where thor-bolts had struck in the ongoing and devastating Second World War.


In reality, the United States Navy politely turned down the inventor’s offering of remote-controlled torpedoes. Tesla wrote “The time is not yet ripe for the telautomatic art” in his letter to the Times, one of many attempting to explain why his wild concepts were not understood. He continued work at Wardenclyffe, though debts and legal battles over his radio patent would eventually force him to give it up. On June 30, 1908, a mysterious explosion in Tunguska, Russia, would destroy 80 million trees covering 830 square miles with a force not to be seen again until the Castle Bravo thermonuclear bomb test in 1954. Some suspect the explosion was the work of Tesla experimenting haphazardly with wave-energy from Wardenclyffe, while other theories suggest an airburst meteor, a rare meteorological event, or even black holes.

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