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The untold truth of Tesla's death ray

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Nikola Tesla was a lot of things. He was an inventor, a futurist, and a genius. Also he really liked pigeons. And until recently, everyone agreed he probably didn't invent a death ray. Except that he kind of did. FBI documents declassified in 2016 show that the eccentric inventor was working on a "death beam" that would have pretty much made every tank, rocket launcher, battleship, and bomber totally obsolete. So is it a good thing that Tesla died before he could make this sci-fi horror an actual thing? Maybe. Maybe not, reported Grunge.

While most Bond villains, upon learning the secrets of building a death ray, would have to put their cats down or risk suffocating them in world-domination-fueled convulsions of ecstasy, Tesla didn't envision a death ray as a way to give certain countries a tactical advantage over every other country.

According to PBS, Tesla hated war, and the death ray was supposed to make it "unthinkable." He considered it an "invisible Chinese wall" that all countries would possess. After all, if your enemy had a weapon that could "bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles," you probably wouldn't send 10,000 airplanes their way. In fact, Tesla liked to think of his idea as a "peace beam," but he was never able to get anyone to finance the thing. He even sent a technical paper to a handful of Allied countries just before World War II and actually got as far as initial testing in the USSR, which despite the whole "peace beam" thing is actually pretty freaking terrifying.

Every sci-fi writer knows that if you want to destroy someone, something, or an entire planet, you just hit it with a particle beam. Particle beams are the technology behind everything from Halo's "sniper beam rifle" to Star Trek's "Xindi Superweapon." And lucky for the sci-fi genre, no one really expects writers to solve technical problems like the fact that a particle beam rifle would require a battery too large for its wielder to actually carry around, or that actually firing the thing would probably expose you to enough radiation to either turn you into Doctor Manhattan (unlikely) or just kill you (likely).

As it turns out, Tesla's death ray was also a particle beam. In a Liberty Magazine article published in February 1935, Tesla reportedly explained the idea like this: "My apparatus projects particles which may be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind. Many thousands of horsepower can be thus transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist."

Now the real question is why every nation on the planet didn't try to get into space double-time after hearing about this, because that seems like the most logical way to escape the crazy person and his terrifying invention.

Guess which of these ideas belonged to Tesla, and which are fictional devices used in the plot of a Star Trek episode: 1) A death ray 2) A process for heating upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere that would create an aurora borealis effect in the sky or 3) A device that pumps massive amounts of energy into the Earth, converting it into a sort of high-pressure balloon filled with electricity instead of air. The answer is that those were all Tesla's ideas, although Star Trek did steal the death ray thing once or twice.

If the concept of the mad scientist ever had a poster boy, it was Nikola Tesla. His ideas went beyond practical and into the realm of, "Awesome, but you know, if something went wrong it would destroy the entire planet, or just really annoy a lot of people." Let's take the aurora borealis idea as an example. This was the same technology Tesla envisioned for the death ray, only it would be used to light up the night sky. And who could fail to appreciate the benefits of never being able to see the stars again and having to buy blackout curtains for every room in your house because the concept of night doesn't exist anymore? No one but the people who sell blackout curtains. And never mind the obvious difficulties associated with heating the upper atmosphere … because climate change just isn't happening fast enough, right?

Say what you will about Nikola Tesla, he really didn't give much of a poop who might hear about his potentially world-ending ideas or what those people might do with that information. Tesla didn't really seem to understand the importance of "top secret," which is why he was forever talking about death rays and hundred-billion-watt transmitters. Fortunately, most people thought he was crazy, and there weren't very many who entertained the idea that one squirrelly little dude might be able to annihilate the entire human race.

Fortunately, he never shared any of the deadlier details, though it once looked as if he might be giving away his secrets to some pretty questionable people, namely, hotel management. Toward the end of his life he found himself in significant debt over a hotel bill — according to Mental Floss, Tesla couldn't afford the $20,000 debt he'd accrued while staying at the Governor Clinton Hotel in Manhattan, so he tried to pay the bill with a death ray. He warned management that if they tampered with this very odd bit of currency they might actually explode, which was a pretty ingenious way of making sure they didn't look closely enough at it to learn that it was actually just a pretty box with a bunch of electrical components inside of it. (It wasn't opened until his death.) That's really fine, though, because you never know if an aspiring Bond villain might be working as a bellhop at the Governor Clinton Hotel.

In 1924 the Colorado Springs Gazette proudly proclaimed that "Tesla discovered 'Death Ray' in Experiments He Made Here." Local residents remembered all sorts of freakishly weird events from the 1899 experiments, including a 200-foot pole "topped by a large copper sphere," which sounds absolutely Frankenstein, and evidently was also capable of generating 135-foot lightning bolts. Although there were no reports of reanimated corpses walking the streets, the device did seem to cause other disturbing phenomena, such as sparks that appeared around people's feet, flames that leaped out of kitchen faucets, and butterflies that "helplessly swirled in circles, their wings spouting blue halos of 'St. Elmo's Fire.'"

In those days there was no such thing as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and there also wasn't any actual accountability for things like mad scientists making flames shoot out of kitchen faucets and creating death ray-charged butterflies, so the events were met with surprisingly little alarm. No one died, no one rose from the dead, and glowing blue butterflies are kind of cool, so no harm done. Tesla did also fry the city's generator, though history doesn't seem to remember whether the inventor had to pay for a new one or if he just stroked a cat and laughed like mad scientists usually do when they destroy infrastructure.


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Location: United States
Location: United States
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