Today, we credit Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla for several technological advancements that have greatly contributed to the continued development of modern human society. The eccentric genius is regarded by some people as a pioneer of several impressive strides we had taken during the 20th century for his indispensable contributions in radio, motors, and electricity, particularly the alternating current technology that powers most of the world today. However, while he is rightly praised for his futuristic vision, he was also brains behind several proposed inventions that were never fully realized either because his ideas were too outlandish or bizarre, were impossible to have been built with the technology available at the time, or were simply not viable enough in the long run.
Let’s take a look at seven of Tesla’s brilliant inventions that never got built.
1. WIRELESS ENERGY
In working with radio, microwaves and his creation of the Tesla coil, Nikola Tesla also seriously entertained the possibility of creating a system for the wireless transmission or distribution of energy across vast distances. In 1901, he took a big step toward achieving this goal when he received funding from financier J.P. Morgan to construct a 185-foot-tall wireless power station in Shoreham, Long Island, New York referred to as Wardenclyffe Tower. Apart from being able to transmit messages across the Atlantic, he envisioned the tower to be a wireless telecommunications facility that would compete against the radio-based telegraph system by Guglielmo Marconi while also being able to light up all of New York City.
Unfortunately, Morgan decided to cease funding the project any further and because Tesla was unable to look for additional backers, he had to abandon the project completely after just a few years. The Wardenclyffe Tower failed to ever become operational as Tesla intended it to be.
2. ELECTRIC-POWERED SUPERSONIC AIRSHIP
Following the failure of Wardenclyffe Tower, Tesla turned his attention to aviation, hoping he could put to good use his knowledge in electrical and mechanical engineering to develop an electric-powered supersonic airship. In 1919, the scientist discussed in an article in Reconstruction magazine about this aircraft which would be able to transport passengers from New York City to London in just three hours. According to Tesla, the power supply of these high-speed airships was “virtually unlimited” as these vehicles would be powered by electricity straight from power plants.
As for how this would be done, Tesla planned to use his wireless energy transmission design, which if successful, would have completely eradicated the need for flying vehicles to stock and carry fuel.
3. HUMANOID ROBOTS
In 1898, Tesla demonstrated at an electrical exhibition in New York City’s Madison Square Garden a radio-controlled boat, which some people of the time regarded as the world’s first remote control weapon. However, Tesla saw the potential of his boat design in a different light, treating it as the first step towards the development of a “race of robots” or “mechanical men” which would do most of the heavy-lifting for the rest of the human race. He referred to his model as a telautomaton and he thought that the military establishment could stand to benefit from his design, offering the weapon to the governments of the United States and Great Britain.
While Tesla’s invention is recognized by a few people today as what gave birth to the field of robotics, his idea was just too far ahead of its time and its practical applications were not explored until several decades later.
4. THOUGHT CAMERA
At some point, it crossed Tesla’s mind to invent a machine that could read people’s thoughts and projecting photographs of them in the real world. In a news article published in 1933, the mechanical engineer revealed that one of the projects that he had been working on over the years was building a device for the “photographing of thought.” He first conceived the idea in 1893, believing that images formed in thought are reflected on the retina, which could then be viewed or captured by an apparatus. According to Tesla, if this had been accomplished, “every thought of the individual could be read” and that human minds would be just like “open books.”
While Tesla never realized his plan to construct a “thought camera,” scientists today have been exploring methods of interpreting brain signals and converting them into crude versions of images as “seen” by a person in his mind.
5. EARTHQUAKE MACHINE
In 1893, Tesla patented a steam-powered mechanical oscillator which he designed to vibrate up and down at very high speeds in order to generate electricity. Several years later in 1898, he told reporters that his oscillating machine caused the ground to shake while he was tuning his device at his laboratory in New York City. Police and ambulances supposedly arrived at the scene but Tesla disabled the oscillator and instructed his employees to feign ignorance at what really happened and keep the real cause of the earthquake a secret. The scientist also went on to claim that his “earthquake machine” could even bring down something as tall as the Empire State Building if he wanted it to.
6. ARTIFICIAL TIDAL WAVE
Tesla believed that science held the key in preventing future conflicts and wars. And in 1907, the New York World published an article revealing Tesla’s proposal to utilize wireless telegraphy to detonate powerful explosives at sea, which would trigger the formation of massive tidal waves capable of capsizing enemy fleets. According to the newspaper, the artificial tidal wave would render navies useless, much like paper boats floating in bathtubs. This particular military innovation by Tesla, while bringing its own horrors to the world as a weapon of war, was regarded by some people at the time as a tool that would help mankind get closer to achieving world peace. The technology conceptualized by Tesla was not realized but the intent of developing high-powered weapons as a deterrent of war did come in the form of nuclear weapons many years later.
7. DEATH RAY
In the 1930s, Nikola Tesla, who was already in his 70s, told The New York Times that he had come up with a new military invention that could “cause armies of millions to drop dead in their tracks.” It involved accelerating mercury particles around 50 times faster than the speed of sound in a vacuum chamber, producing a powerful beam that can “bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles.” This proposed military weapon was dubbed by the media at the time as a “death ray” but Tesla himself preferred to call it a “peace ray” as it would be able to save lives by being an effective and impenetrable defense against airborne attacks and invasion attempts.
The scientist attempted to find a government willing to fund the construction of this “death ray” but the only country who entertained his idea was the Soviet Union, which attempted a partial test in the late 1930s. It remains unknown if Tesla succeeded in building a working prototype of his peace ray. When he passed away, the government purportedly rummaged through his belongings in order to find his plans for the particle beam. However, such plans were supposedly never found.
Considering his unique personality and his often futuristic and larger-than-life proposed inventions, it is no surprise that many label Tesla as a “mad scientist.” However, supporters of this innovative engineer and physicist share the opinion that he is so much more brilliant than other more famous inventors during his time like Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. Following his demise, his little-known scientific accomplishments did not get enough of the recognition they deserve for many years. Fortunately, more of his talents and achievements are coming to light in recent years and the public has grown more appreciative of the legacy he had left behind.