The Man Who Made Lightning
The enigma of Nikola Tesla
© Brian Allan 2002

There were many people whose inventions influenced the 20th century; Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, John Logie Baird, Gotleib Benz, Guglielmo Marconi (who figures later in this account), William Shockley and Alan Turing are just some of the more notable. There was however one man in particular whose inventions and patents were often greeted with total incredulity, they were in the true sense of the word revolutionary. There has been a great deal of speculation about him concerning what he did and did not achieve. Some of this speculation goes beyond the mundane, the normal, into the realms of science fiction. Even today, there is doubt that these devices ever existed, that they were sheer speculation or misunderstood concepts. There was however one group that did pay attention, that did listen, not surprisingly this group were the military/industrial complex of the USA...the man was Nikola Tesla.

Tesla was of Serbian origin; born in 1856 in the village of Smiljan where his father was a priest of the Greek Church and his mother although not well educated was nonetheless highly intelligent. His family encouraged him to learn and as a result, his parents initially taught him at home. As is the way with the clergy, his father was 'called' to a new ministry in Gospic where Nicola was enrolled at public school, he was later advanced to the 'Real' school as it was termed. Although a talented student, Tesla was no different from any other boy of his age. His most memorable scrape was when he attempted 'fly' using an umbrella. The aerodynamics of an umbrella are not of the best, resulting in young Tesla spending six weeks in a hospital bed. It was about the same time that he began taking an interest in physics and arithmetic for which he showed an aptitude. Following his discharge from hospital, he was sent to live with an aunt in the town of Cartstadtt to complete his studies at the 'Higher Real School'.

Tesla proved to be an apt pupil, compressing four years study into three. He graduated in1873, returning home only to contract cholera, which was of epidemic proportions in the area. This interrupted his studies for almost two years which might have proved disastrous, but during this period, the young Tesla devoted much of his time to the study of electricity and its uses. It had originally been his fathers' intention for his son to follow him into the priesthood, however Nikola had other ideas. He was adamant about this and managed to persuade his father that his future lay in science not religion. At Nikola's request, his father agreed to let him attend the technical university at Gratz in Austria to complete his studies.

Originally, Tesla had intended to teach physics and mathematics, but once he had observed what he considered to be limiting factors in a teaching aid, the Gramme dynamo, which in common with devices of this type, could be used as both motor and generator, his career changed direction. During the second year of the course, he switched from teaching to the engineering curriculum, which he pursued for a further three years. Shortly after returning home, regrettably, his father died. Tesla, after a short period of grief and adjustment realising that his future still lay in electrical research, travelled to the university of Prague in Czechoslovakia. From there, he moved on to Hungary where he lived in Budapest, it was here he first theorised the concept of a rotating magnetic field and developed plans for an induction motor.

It was at about this time that Tesla began to appreciate the financial sacrifices that his family had made to further his career. Without the support of his family, Tesla knew that in order to complete his studies he would have to find a way of financing himself. Fortunately, through the intervention of his friends, he secured an assistants post in the government telegraph office. This arrangement was beneficial for all parties, the government had a first class employee, and Tesla got practical experience of electrical equipment. Always keen to learn, he became frustrated with the level of technology and decided that the only way to improve his knowledge was by moving to a country using technology that was more advanced. He attempted to finance this by patenting various devices, regrettably, no one was interested, and so he was temporarily forced to await a suitable opportunity.

At around this time the telephone was making an appearance and Tesla made a point of becoming involved with this new technology. Typically, he quickly identified areas that could be improved and had several patents registered relating to them. This however was not a sufficient challenge for him and he knew that the only way forward was to leave this relative backwater for the mainstream of scientific research. In 1881, he travelled to Paris and secured employment as an electrical engineer with the Continental Edison Company. He was put in charge of a large installation project in Strasbourg where, in his spare time he began constructing his first induction motor. On his return he commenced designing modifications and improvements to some of the existing equipment. Always interested in innovations, his attention was taken by progress being made in the American electrical industry. Instinctively, Tesla knew that his future lay there. Once again, he took the bull by the horns and in 1884, immigrated to the United States.

On arrival, with the princely sum of four cents in his pocket, some poems and, bizarrely, the calculations for an aircraft design, he found work in with Thomas Edison. The two men were not an ideal pairing, being quite different both in background and approach, which led to an inevitable separation. During his time with Edison, Tesla had continued developing and patenting his ideas. In May 1885, George Westinghouse bought the patents to Tesla's polyphase system of AC motors, generators and transformers, leading to collaboration between Westinghouse and Tesla.

This collaboration resulted in a bitter struggle between Tesla-Westinghouse and Edison, in effect, alternating current (AC) versus direct current (DC). Alternating current won, and the rest is history. One of the dirty tricks employed by Edison was the use of the Tesla / Westinghouse AC system to power an invention he was developing on behalf of (and later accepted by) the US Government, the Electric Chair. Edison's objective was to instil the idea within the public domain that AC power was associated with death. This did not have the desired effect and instead Edison lost the battle on sheer cost. To utilise a direct current system, because of power loss in the cables, would have meant having a generator on practically every street corner rather than one single, large, generating plant supplying a city or town.

Tesla's colleagues suggested that he open his own research laboratory utilising his inventions and in 1887, the Tesla Electrical Company of New York was formed. It was here that he carried out public demonstrations to allay fears that persisted regarding AC power. He would, in front of an invited audience of fellow scientists and reporters, illuminate light bulbs without wires, by allowing electricity to flow through his body. It was coincidentally at around the same time, that a Professor Ferraris in Europe published his own findings, which mirrored Tesla's. There was no suggestion of plagiarism however, it was a case of parallel development, and even Ferraris admitted that there was no chance that Tesla could have known of his work. By this time, such was Tesla's ability that he was virtually re-writing the rules of electrical engineering as he went along and decided to branch out in a new direction. His most widely known invention the Tesla Coil probably came from this era, this device is still in use today used in various applications in TV sets and radios.

In 1889 at his Colorado Springs laboratory, Tesla produced what he regarded as his most important discovery, the 'Terrestrial Standing Wave'. Using this discovery, he proved that the earth could be made to act as a conductor. It could be made to resonate like a tuning fork when specific frequencies were applied to it. As a demonstration, he illuminated 200 lamps, without wires, at a distance of 25 miles (40 kilometres) from the power source. During his experiments he claimed to have received radio transmissions from another planet, unsurprisingly, this was greeted with incredulity and disbelief in certain scientific journals. At this time he announced one of his most ambitious and incredible projects to the world: broadcast power.

His idea involved the construction of an antenna that would transmit power; this in turn would be received by aircraft and other devices to provide the motive force for their engines. He obtained backing from financier J.P Morgan to commence fabrication of the 'Wardenclyffe Tower' at Long Island in New York State. It was intended that the tower would also be used for worldwide radio broadcasts. Unfortunately, because of an unsettled financial climate and burgeoning costs, Morgan withdrew his backing and the project collapsed. This was Tesla's most bitter defeat.

Perhaps spurred on by this major setback, he continued to experiment and innovate. Always willing to 'grandstand' with the ability of a born showman if it helped to further his cause, he made some remarkable announcements, claiming that he could split the earth, "Like an apple". He also claimed to have invented a purported 'death ray' capable of destroying, to quote his own words, "10,000 aircraft at 250 miles". From the public's perspective, it is at this point the real legends surrounding Tesla begin and the speculation starts, almost as if he takes on the mantle of a latter-day sorcerer tampering with the forces of nature, which in a real sense in some ways he was. It is interesting to note that at this juncture Tesla formed a strong personal and professional relationship with Guglielmo Marconi, which later allegedly produced some remarkable results.

There is however a germ of truth behind both of these seemingly outrageous claims, the avowal that he could split the earth presumably come from his discoveries regarding harmonics, resonance and the Terrestrial Standing Wave. It is likely, based on his own observations, that by applying the correct frequency at a great enough intensity, a harmonic wave of sufficient strength would be generated within the earth's crust to achieve the desired result. Whether or not this is possible is a moot point. It is however quite probable that Tesla, once he had carried out the calculations, did attempt this on a small scale to observe the results. Bear in mind that when the first atomic bomb was under construction, certain scientists genuinely believed that the reaction released by the detonation process would ignite the earth's atmosphere. This, thankfully, did not happen; the destructive forces released by nuclear fission are quite hellish enough without any additional enhancement.

The so called 'death ray' also has some basis in fact. There is at present an experimental device designed to cause malfunctions in the engine management systems of vehicles. This will of course result in manufacturers designing better shielding for the integrated control systems that nowadays control the processes of internal combustion engines. One recent example of this was demonstrated in the preparations for the Gulf War. There was a genuine fear that the 'electromagnet soup' generated on the modern battlefield would adversely affect the guidance and control systems on both aircraft and missiles. Radar's and communications equipment emit this electromagnetic (EM) radiation and the modern battlefield is awash with EM pollution.

The tests included suspending an entire aircraft from pylons and bombarding it with the full spectrum of EM radiation used in combat. On a more mundane level, it is for this specific reason the use of mobile phones is forbidden in hospitals and on board aircraft. So, the 'death ray' is feasible and it is likely that Tesla had witnessed similar effects in his laboratory experiments. It is known that following his 'death ray' claims; he carried out research on behalf of the US government, presumably to prove the effectiveness of this and other devices. Considering that we did not see any overt signs of this device being deployed during the Second World War, we must assume that it either didn't work or, due to the level of available technology, was impractical at that time.

These considerations do not deter the conspiracy theorists; they speculate that with the co-operation and collusion of Marconi, - who incidentally used several of Tesla's patents when he designed and built his radio transmitter, - he produced some truly amazing devices. We should be quite clear that from now on, we are now in the realms of pure speculation. Amongst the wilder claims attributed to the partnership, were rumours that Marconi, with Tesla's help, after withdrawing to a secret city in the Amazon jungle of South America in 1937, had developed an anti-gravity 'flying saucer' Here he and a band of sympathetic fellow scientists, ninety eight in number, were working in the city on projects for the greater good of mankind, but wait, it gets better. As they developed and refined these craft, they were able to visit the planet Mars in the late 1940's or early 50's, well, maybe. The rationale behind this is the theory that Marconi faked his own death in 1936 and travelled to South America aboard his yacht The Electra. Also theorised, is that likewise, Tesla was encouraged to fake his own death and move to Marconi's underground city to continue his work in an atmosphere sympathetic to his ideals.

Evidently, like Tesla, Marconi had developed his own variety of the 'death ray' or 'wave gun', which he demonstrated to Benito Mussolini in June 1936. The demonstration, (which allegedly immobilised cars on a busy highway north of Milan) was successful and Mussolini was pleased with the outcome. However, the device was never developed because, allegedly, Pope Pius XI learned of the device and persuaded Mussolini to stop Marconi's research. This incident is reported in the autobiography of Mussolini's wife Rachele. It was after this that Marconi apparently decided to take himself out of the mainstream by supposedly faking his own death.

Well, what to make of it all, death rays, broadcast power, communications, earthquake machines, anti-gravity, interplanetary messages, electric submarines, weather control, thought devices, even alleged time travel! To be sure, Tesla did make some astonishing (and legitimate) discoveries, as for the rest, well…maybe. After his supposed death in 1943, the U.S. Government's 'Custodian of Alien Property' impounded his diaries, papers and laboratory notes. This is surprising and of doubtful legality, since Tesla was a naturalised United States citizen and had been since 1891, it is therefore fair to assume that the US authorities wanted to evaluate his ideas, 'just in case'.

Due to a lack of cash, Tesla had for some time been, through force of circumstance, reduced to keeping his ideas within the confines of his notes and presumably the US Government knew this. When his papers were eventually released, (and it's by no means certain that they were complete), they were inherited by his nephew Sava Kosanovitch who gifted them the Nikola Tesla museum in Belgrade. To this day, engineers still scrutinise his notes for any new concepts or ideas that may still be there. Perhaps even now there is still something, some new secret to be learned. This may relate to a quotation attributed to Tesla, when asked if there was any fundamental truth in the world, he reputedly said, "Vibration, frequency and resonance". This was certainly what constituted his life, his world and universe. Perhaps his researches gave him rare insights into the nature of reality which are unsuspected by the rest of us, perhaps even of life itself.

You can contact the Author of this Article on this address: