Century of No Progress

Soon we will be living in a magical future, a world without wires, in which all of our energy and information needs will be met invisibly, pulsing in the air around us, not causing cancer at all.

And only a century too late to save poor Nikola Tesla.

Tesla (1856-1943) was sort of the sad sack of the scientific genius world, brilliant and only a little insane, who nevertheless failed in most of his endeavors due to a lack of fiscal acumen and the conniving of douchebags like Thomas Edison. His AC was far superior to Edison's DC, but Edison proved better at publicity stunts. Arguably Tesla invented the radio, but Elmo Marconi beat him at the patent office, with the financial and political backing of the asshole Edison.

In 1898, Tesla began working on a project that would show them all, dwarfing the meager accomplishments of Marconi and Edison and making him as rich as Kubla Khan, a reference not dated at the time.

He had rather big ambitions:

"As soon as it is completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place …"

In 1901, Tesla began construction of the Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham, Long Island.


The nearly 200-foot tower was intended as the first hub of a "world system of intelligence transmission." Tesla promised J. Pierpont Morgan, his financier, "When wireless is fully applied the earth will be converted into a huge brain, capable of response in every one of its parts."

But Wardenclyffe had a second, secret purpose, which Tesla only admitted to Morgan when he needed more money: to send electrical power through the air.

Tesla had been experimenting with "electrostatic induction," probably most familiar to fans of James Whale's Frankenstein pictures (designer Kenneth Strickfaden used an induction coil built by Tesla himself.)

"If I had told you such as this before, you would have fired me out of your office," Tesla wrote Morgan in 1903, sounding a bit like Victor Frankenstein, "Will you help me or let my great work–almost complete–go to pots?"

"I should not feel disposed at present to make any further advances," Morgan replied.

Tesla hobbled along, laying off the crew and selling off equipment to pay outstanding lumber and water bills. Foreclosure followed, and Tesla abandoned the facility in 1911.

Critics jumped on him, calling Wardenclyffe his "million dollar folly." Tesla response was emblematic of his maturing into a full-blown mad scientist.

"It is not a dream, it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive–blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!  Humanity is not yet sufficiently advanced to be willingly led by the discoverer's keen searching sense.  But who knows? Perhaps it is better in this present world of ours that a revolutionary idea or invention instead of being helped and patted, be hampered and ill-treated in its adolescence–by want of means, by selfish interest, pedantry, stupidity and ignorance; that it be attacked and stifled; that it pass through bitter trials and tribulations, through the strife of commercial existence.  So do we get our light.  So all that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combatted, suppressed–only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle." 

"But has Tesla had the last laugh after all?" The Economist asked recently, citing the various companies — Fulton Innovation, eCoupled, WiTricity and Powercast – pursing wireless electricity today. Likely not. If Tesla were still alive – and he might have figured that out, too – he would not be laughing, but suing, which he did for much of the latter part of life, growing crazier, until he died poor at the age of 86.

Eight months later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he was the true inventor of the radio.

(There was an excellent PBS documentary on Tesla last year, which has an informative website. In Go, Mutants!, the PLEX, or Pneumatic Light and Energy eXchange, is based on Tesla's unrequited genius.)