This is part two of my article on Nikola Tesla. Read part one here.
Tesla built a facility in Shoreham, NY: Wardenclyffe Tower, and succeeded in transmitting a short wireless signal to Europe. He worked on other things, too. Dangerous things. A steam-powered oscillator invented by Tesla at that time succeeded in destroying the building. Morgan (who wasn’t crazy about the “free energy” aspect of the project, anyway) stopped funding Tesla’s work when Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, invented a cheaper way of transmitting transatlantic radio signals in 1901. Some people think that it was Marconi that was transmitting the signals Tesla thought might have come from another planet.
Interestingly enough, Tesla was writing articles for one of publisher Hugo Gernsback’s science magazines around that time. Gernsback may be better known to our readers as the publisher of Amazing Stories, the world’s first science fiction magazine, but he also published many magazines for hobbyists and science enthusiasts. Gernsback and Tesla remained friends for the rest of inventor’s life.
Morgan was gone, but Tesla found another investor, and managed to hang on to Wardenclyffe until 1915. Tesla’s personal income had dried up completely with the lead-up and start of World War I. Foreign investors had kept him afloat for years, but the war meant that pursuing their patronage was out of the question. Tesla was broke. Perhaps even worse, Marconi received a Nobel Prize for an invention that Tesla had claimed was based on almost a dozen of his own patents.
Tesla’s mental health began to deteriorate. He started having trouble with anxiety and depression, and developed symptoms of what might have been obsessive compulsive disorder. He was obsessed with the number three, and washed his hands constantly. Sick and feeling cheated by the world, Tesla became a recluse. He lived in hotel rooms and spent most of his time feeding pigeons. He brought injured ones back to his room, where he nursed them back to health. Tesla grew deeply attached to one pigeon in particular, and said that he loved it as a man loves his wife.
Tesla’s mind wouldn’t stop coming up with new ideas. He played around with an idea for a system of energy transmission that received modern radar, and never abandoned his dream of worldwide energy transmission. The last patent he received was in 1928 for an airplane that could take off and land vertically.
In the last decades of his life, he became obsessed with inventing a high power death ray. He felt that the weapon would be the ultimate deterrent. Tesla loathed war, and hoped that by releasing this weapon into the world, he could end it. Tesla stated in 1937 that he had finished plans for the ray. He also claimed that people had broken into his hotel room to find his notes, but that he had not committed them to paper.
Tesla He tried to sell the plans to the governments of Great Britain, the United States, Canada, France, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. The USSR was the only one that took an interest. Tesla met with a weapons manufacturer that was thought to be a front for the Soviet military, and after Russian scientists completed some initial tests in 1939, Tesla received a check for $25,000.
Tesla died in his room at the New Yorker Hotel on January 7, 1943. He was 86 years-old. After his death, the FBI claimed his papers for reasons of national security, but determined that there was nothing in them that was a security risk. There are still some people today who think that there really was a death ray, though, and that the Soviet and American governments were trying to cover up its existence. Other conspiracy theorists believe that Tesla’s “free energy” plans were valid, but were suppressed by J.P. Morgan and his wealthy friends. Neither of these are probably true.
The legend of Tesla is bigger than the man himself, and his image – right or wrong – as the archetypal mad scientist has inspired music, games, books, movies, and much more. The inventor has appeared in Scott Westerfield’s novel Goliath and DC’s Justice League of America comic books. He was portrayed by David Bowie in the 2006 film The Prestige, and a vampiric Tesla played by Jonathan Young is a recurring character on the television series Sanctuary. There’s a rock band named for the inventor, too. Last, but certainly not least, my friend Duncan Trussell told a very inebriated version of Tesla’s meeting with Edison on Drunk History, with John C. Reilly in the role of Tesla.