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What If Nikola Tesla Lived Forever?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Nikola Tesla is the archetypal mad scientist. A cult figure, and one of the most intriguing inventors of all time. He invented (or helped invent) the radio, radar and remote control technology - but his most famous work was on AC electricity (battling Thomas Edison). So, what would the world have been like if Nikola Tesla had unlimited time? What if Tesla lived forever?

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What if Nikola Tesla Had Unlimited Time?

Lots of us don’t get enough credit for our ideas, but few go quite as underappreciated as Nikola Tesla. A pioneer of technologies ranging from electricity to x-rays, Tesla was all too often overlooked for the likes of Guglielmo Marconi, Wilhelm Röentgen, and Thomas Edison. But, he simply never stopped as a relentless innovator and one-of-a-kind inventor.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if Nikola Tesla was given unlimited time?

Tesla was born in 1856, in the Austrian Empire, in modern-day Croatia. According to an old wives’ tale about his birth, which Tesla himself backed up but was never conclusively proven, he was actually born at precisely midnight, in the middle of a violent, electrical storm. The midwife allegedly declared that Tesla would be a “child of the storm,” but his mother said he’d instead be a child “of light”. Or, so the story goes, anyway… It’s perhaps a little too prophetic to actually be believable, but meteorological records from 1850’s Croatia are pretty hard to come by, so you just never know.

And, really, it’s not the only strange, urban legend that surrounds Tesla. He was known to be obsessed with pigeons, and was also an intense germaphobe, reportedly living a life controlled by a fear of dirt and illness, and even refusing to eat meals if a fly was seen at his table. If those habits weren’t difficult enough for the workers at the various hotels he lived in – including the Waldorf-Astoria – he was also notorious for racking up enormous bills, but never paying them.

Whether during a lightning storm or otherwise, Tesla certainly was born – showing signs of genius early on, with an eidetic memory and being able to do advanced calculations in his head. He never completed university (thanks in part to a brief gambling habit), but his potential was finally seen while working for the Continental Edison Company in the early 1880s – with which he emigrated from Europe to America, relocating to New York City.

But, it wasn’t meant to be. For reasons still largely unclear, Tesla left the Edison Company after only six months, to branch out on his own. According to a popular story, Thomas Edison had offered Tesla $50,000 – around $1.2 million today – to fix various problems with Edison’s inventions. Tesla solved the issues, but Edison went back on his word and refused him the bonus – prompting Tesla to abandon the company, and establishing the historic rivalry between the pair. As with most of Tesla’s early life, the exact circumstances of the bust-up are again an ‘urban legend’. So, if Tesla were given unlimited time, we’d at least have a clearer picture of what actually happened. Would Edison still be as revered? Would Tesla’s impact be more widely known? Regardless, the two men were professional nemeses.

After some less successful attempts at a 19th century start-up (including Tesla Electric Light), Tesla met Alfred Brown and Charles Peck – businessmen prepared to back him – and together they formed the Tesla Electric Company. There followed the “war of the currents” of the 1880s and ‘90s, which saw Tesla (via George Westinghouse) truly battle Edison – the former favouring his new method, alternating current, and the latter championing direct current. The argument over electricity raged for years, triggering various now-infamous moments – including the time the Edison Company actually filmed a circus elephant being electrocuted, in an apparent bid to prove that AC was dangerous.

The public personas of both men seemed set: Tesla was usually billed as some kind of non-conforming, possibly crazy maverick, while Edison was a reliable, serial inventor and a ‘safe pair of hands’. Even today, Tesla’s often painted as an archetypal ‘mad scientist’. Had he the luxury of unlimited time, perhaps these perceptions would’ve changed – after all, the man was in many ways simply too far ahead of his peers. Were he alive today, some of his ideas wouldn’t seem quite as outlandish.

That said, a lot of his now-accepted ideas and products aren’t always traced back to him. Yes, there’s the Tesla Coil – his most famous invention, one of the only products he put his name to, and a favourite in modern-day classrooms and museums. The legitimacy of that famous photograph of him checking notes with an active coil in the foreground is constantly brought into question, but it’s all part of the Tesla legend.

He’s not so closely linked with so many other important technologies he pioneered, though. It was actually Tesla who first suggested using radar to the United States Navy before World War One, but they turned him down. He also effectively invented the radio years before the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi did. Tesla first suggested the existence of x-rays, calling them “invisible radiation”, in 1894, a year before Wilhelm Roentgen officially discovered them – and he even warned about the dangers they could pose if misused. Finally, Tesla invented the first-ever remote-controlled device, a miniature boat nicknamed the “Tele automaton.” He was eventually able to patent the remote-control technology, but was reportedly refused at first on the basis that what he was suggesting was impossible. Were Tesla gifted unlimited time, he’d at least have been around long enough to see the massive impact his ideas ultimately had. And that’s before we even consider the things that weren’t even realised – by him or anyone else – in his lifetime.

Tesla had much loftier ambitions than just building an RC boat, and to some extent he was supported. In 1901, with his reputation growing, Tesla got significant funding from from venture capitalist J.P. Morgan to build a tower that could wirelessly transmit electricity. Called the Wardenclyffe Tower, it was built on top of his Long Island lab, but the project was only part-realised. The aim had been to supply all of New York with wireless power, but, by 1917, the tower itself was demolished. With more time or money, Tesla might’ve turned this venture into a reality, too – ridding the world of electrical wires, in the process. He even believed in the possibility of electrifying Earth’s atmosphere, keeping major cities perpetually illuminated to make them safer – in some ways it feels like the very definition of a waking nightmare, but no doubt Tesla would’ve continued to try it out.

Then there’s the slew of inventions which didn’t even get as far as Wardenclyffe Tower. Tesla famously created a weapon of mass destruction, interchangeably called both a “death ray” and a “peace ray”, but officially named the “teleforce”. Describing this, he said it would accelerate mercury particles inside a vacuum chamber to create a beam capable of destroying 10,000 planes at once, and fear of the weapon would be enough to end all wars and conflict. He came up with the concept in the mid-1930s, but the governments he approached were sceptical and uninterested, the ideas were never implemented, and Tesla eventually destroyed all trace of it – which was probably for the best. The Cold War, for example, would’ve posed an all new level of threat had the “teleforce” been realised.

Similarly, there was the time that Tesla, in a bid to create yet another new means of generating electricity, accidentally built an earthquake machine. The machine worked by vibrating at a high frequency, but when it was first turned on it was much too powerful – and Tesla allegedly had to physically break it to get it to stop, or it would have destroyed the entire building he was in. A machine powerful enough to create earthquakes could clearly have had dire implications if translated into a weapon, but vibrating power plants may well have come to fruition in a world with an immortal Tesla at its centre.

More positively, and perhaps more feasibly, if Tesla had gotten his way then even basic travelling might now be completely different too – and not only because of the advent of electric cars bearing his name. The man himself once had theoretical plans to build an airship capable of travelling faster than the speed of sound, powered wirelessly by electrical power plants on the ground. It would have made travel faster and more efficient by eliminating traditional fuel altogether, but the question of whether passengers would ever feel especially safe in the fabulous flying machine is another matter entirely.

And, lastly, in his lifetime Tesla came up with some bizarre ideas to photograph people’s thoughts. The theories worked on the assumption that since thoughts have a visual aspect to them, they must appear in a person’s retina somehow, and that photographing a retina at the right moment would capture their thoughts in action. Essentially, Tesla envisaged a mind-reading machine. Even in today’s world he’d likely struggle to find an investor to back the project, but clearly it wouldn’t be the first time for his ideas to raise eyebrows.

Though he lived for 86 years and probably accomplished more than any other inventor of his generation, the planet would truly be a different place had he been given complete freedom to develop his ingenious designs. And that’s what would happen if Nikola Tesla was given unlimited time.

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