Why a Conspiracy Theory About Nikola Tesla Just Can’t Be True
Almost all of the fanciful inventions attributed to Tesla by conspiracy theorists are fake.
As he died in 1943, it’s easy to make claims about Nikola Tesla, the inventor, engineer, and futurist who is credited with more than 300 patents. He also held remarkable popular appeal at the time and was known as a promotional expert, not unlike the CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, whose electric car company is named after the inventor. For one example of his popular appeal, anyone who has visited Los Angeles’ famous Griffith Observatory has likely marveled at the Tesla Coil on display just as much as what the telescopes reveal in the night sky.
Because of Tesla’s varied accomplishments, conspiracy theorists have given credit to the innovator for numerous inventions they say world governments have hidden away over the years for various reasons, from oppressing their people or using those inventions own selfish reasons.
The theory that Tesla’s potentially world-changing inventions are being hidden away is one that author and podcaster Brian Dunning explores in his new book, Conspiracies Declassified: The Skeptoid Guide to to the Truth Behind the Theories, which was released today, June 5. Inverse is republishing with permission his examination of Nikola Tesla, which is included in the section of the book titled “Suppressed Science.”
The theory about Tesla isn’t as widespread or ridiculous as the one about all-powerful lizard people, but it’s equally as fascinating.
The name of Nikola Tesla is associated with crazy conspiracy claims that have nothing to do with his real work.
By Brian Dunning via Skeptoid
No personality in the history of science has been pushed further into the realm of mythology than the Serbian-American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. He is, without a doubt, one of the true giants in the history of electromagnetic theory. As an inventor he was as prolific as they come, with approximately 300 patents having been discovered in at least 26 countries, but many more inventions as well that stayed within his lab and were never patented. As remarkable as were his talents was his personality: private, eccentric, possessed of extraordinary memory and bizarre habits, and with a headlong descent into mental illness during his later years. Tesla’s unparalleled combination of genius and aberrance have turned him into one of the seminal cult figures of the day. As such, at least as much fiction as fact have swirled around popular accounts of his life, and devotees of conspiracy theories and alternative science hypotheses have hijacked his name more than that of any other figure. Today we’re going to try and separate that fiction from the fact.
First, a very brief outline of his life; but in order to put it in the proper perspective, we have to first clear up a popular misconception. Tesla did not invent alternating current, which is what he’s best remembered for. AC had been around for a quarter century before he was born, which was in 1856 in what’s now Croatia. While Tesla was a young man working as a telephone engineer, other men around Europe were already developing AC transformers and setting up experimental power transmission grids to send alternating current over long distances. Tesla’s greatest early development was in his mind: a rotary magnetic field, which would make possible an electric induction motor that could run directly from AC, unlike all existing electric motors, which were DC. At the time, AC had to be converted to DC to run a motor, at a loss of efficiency. Induction motors had been conceived before his birth, but none had ever been built. Tesla built a working prototype, but only two years after another inventor, Galileo Ferraris, had also independently conceived the rotary magnetic field and built his own working prototype. Rightfully fearing that his own obscurity as a telephone engineer was hampering his efforts as an inventor, Tesla arranged to move to the United States. He did so in 1884, getting his famously ill-fated and short-lived job in Thomas Edison’s laboratory.
The tycoon George Westinghouse, who understood the potential of AC and induction motors and was actively seeking them, gratefully purchased some of Tesla’s patents as soon as he learned about them. Royalties from Westinghouse fattened Tesla’s wallet, and a number of highly public projects on which they collaborated made him a celebrity, including the 1893 illumination of the World’s Fair with alternating current, and the subsequent creation of the Niagara Falls power plant. It was as a result of this windfall that Tesla set up his own laboratories and created his most intriguing inventions. Let’s run through a list of some of the seemingly magical feats attributed to Tesla, beginning with . . .
These theories are purely abstract and without hard evidence to support them … they cannot be proven.
Tesla Didn’t Invent Alternating Current And He Wasn’t A Major Power In The War Of The Currents
Nikola Tesla has become something of an Internet hero. According to legend, he was a mad genius who almost never got the credit he deserved in the money-hungry world of science. It’s easy to argue that Tesla didn’t make it further because of his eccentricities: He hated everything, suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and might have been autistic. The truth, however, is far simpler: Many of his ideas just weren’t viable. Although many people would like to believe otherwise, Tesla was far from perfect.
10 • Alleged Eidetic Memory
It’s often claimed that Tesla never needed to write anything down because he had either a photographic or eidetic memory. While scientists have not ruled out the claim, the researchers who have studied the phenomenon have admitted that they can’t even prove its existence, although others have pointed out flaws in their methodologies.
As a brilliant scientist and inventor, it’s quite possible that Tesla had excellent visual memory, but it was never tested. It’s certainly not true that he never needed to write anything down—Tesla kept copious notes on his inventions and ideas, many of which have survived to this day. Scientists were thrilled by the possibilities they might contain, but upon examination, these notebooks were found to be highly speculative and contain no useful scientific knowledge.
9 • Irresponsibility With Money
Many people claim that Tesla died penniless, and some go so far as to say he always was. This is decried as a great injustice against such a brilliant mind. The truth, much like the man himself, is a little more complicated. There is some evidence that he could have made more money if his patents had been secured better or he had not been exploited by people like Thomas Edison. Tesla never cared much for the business aspect of his work, though, and even if he had made a fortune, he likely would have blown it.
Tesla had a reputation for hemorrhaging money. He lived in fancy hotels and sunk the rest of his money into increasingly ambitious—and expensive—projects. He had a history of borrowing money from friends and getting evicted from those hotels. He would sometimes even leave some of his notebooks behind as collateral for the debt when he moved out.
Tesla once commented on his poverty when the city tried to force him to pay a tax bill, admitting that he had no money and “scores” of other debts he owed. He explained that he had been living on credit at the Waldorf for several years. He had plenty of opportunities to pay off his debts and keep his patents from lapsing, but instead, he maintained his lavish lifestyle until the day he died.
8 • Wild Claims
Thanks to the Tesla revival, every absurd claim he made to newspapers back in the day is now being repeated as fact. The truth is that Tesla made many claims so far out of left field that they would destroy a scientist’s credibility even today, often with no evidence or results to back them up. But if Tesla was crazy, he was crazy like a fox. Oftentimes, his claims were reported shortly before the historical experiments of other scientists.
For example, when Marconi was gearing up for some important radio signal tests, Tesla told the media that he had already received radio transmissions that he believed were from Mars. With his technology, he claimed, we would soon be able to communicate with other planets almost instantaneously. Other projects he claimed to be working on included a torpedo that could be recalled even after being fired and a powerful death ray.
As bizarre as these claims sounded, they gave the impression that Tesla was light-years ahead of everyone else. But if the general public was impressed, the scientific community was decidedly not, regarding Tesla as being mostly full of hot air. While this is an overreaction—Tesla certainly did contribute to our body of scientific knowledge—the plausibility of many of Tesla’s inventions is greatly exaggerated.
7 • Strange Visions
Tesla’s tall tales weren’t confined to his inventions or supposed interactions with Martians. He also believed that he received a variety of important visions. The first occurred when he was walking in the park with a friend after suffering a nervous breakdown due to his constant lack of sleep.
According to Tesla, he had a vision of the entire model for his AC motor and started drawing it in the dirt. Considering that he had already stated that he had been thinking about the idea for about six years, he probably wasn’t being entirely truthful.
His second “vision” occurred much later in life, involving his beloved pigeons. He claimed that he was alone in his hotel room one night when a white pigeon for whom he harbored particularly great affection came to see him. He was then suddenly blinded by two powerful beams of light that communicated to him that he had finished all of his life’s work and would die soon.
6 • Insomnia And Addiction To Work
Tesla’s visions could probably be more reasonably attributed to his lack of sleep than any mystical properties. He was known to be a workaholic, to the point that any kind of rest was inconceivable. He claimed that he went to bed at 5:00 AM and rose only five hours later, and only two of those hours were spent sleeping. Once a year, he indulged himself and actually slept all five hours. He never stopped thinking about his work, even when he was snoozing.
There’s no doubt that Tesla’s insomnia had a profound impact on his physical and psychological health for his entire life, but it’s likely that its extent was another of his exaggerations. Humans simply aren’t capable of maintaining such a lack of sleep and remaining alive. However, it is possible Tesla had simply deluded himself. The hotel employees who attended his room said they often found Tesla standing silently, apparently awake but totally unaware of his surroundings. It’s likely that he slept more than he realized, falling into these nap-like trances as a natural reaction to that level of sleep deprivation.
When impoverished inventor Nikola Tesla died in New York City, the U.S. government confiscated his notes. Why? Were they trying to steal his technology?
“The distinction between the past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” –Albert Einstein
These days, even respected physicists like Stephen Hawking are being forced to admit that time travel may be possible. But has it already happened? These people say it has.
10 • A Visit To Mars With Barack Obama
Seattle attorney Andrew Basiago says that when he was a child, he and William Stillings were “chrononauts” in a secret United States government time travel program called Project Pegasus. The purpose of the program was threefold—to protect Earth from threats from space, to establish territorial sovereignty over Mars, and to acclimate Martian humanoids and animals to our presence.
The best part of Basiago’s and Stillings’ claim, however, is that one of their fellow time travelers was none other than a 19-year-old Barack Obama, who went by the name “Barry Soetero.” In 1980, the three men and seven other youths from their “Mars training class” at California’s College of the Siskiyous (a real institution) traveled to Mars via a top-secret teleportation “jump room” modeled on technical papers found in Nikola Tesla’s apartment after his death. They jumped through a field of radiant energy into a tunnel, and when the tunnel closed, found themselves at their destination.
The White House has officially denied that Obama ever went to Mars.
9 • An American Soldier From The Future
In late 2000, posts began appearing on the Internet from someone claiming to be an American soldier from the year 2036. John Titor, as he called himself, was on his way back to 1975—using a device installed in a 1987 Chevy Suburban, naturally—to obtain an IBM 5100 computer to fight a computer virus destined to destroy the world. Titor hinted at a world beset by conflicts, culminating in a series of Russian nuclear strikes in 2015 that would kill almost three billion people.
Titor’s posts abruptly ceased in 2001, but Titormania continued. In 2003, a bound edition of Titor’s 151 message board posts was released under the title John Titor: A Time Traveler’s Tale. Though no longer in print, one can still buy a new copy for an eye-popping $1,775, or a used one at a more modest $150. The book was published by the John Titor Foundation, a for-profit corporation run by Florida entertainment attorney Lawrence Haber. The Foundation also owns the copyright to the purported insignia of Titor’s military unit, the Fighting Diamondbacks, which is inscribed with a quote from Ovid: tempus edax rerum, meaning “time devours all things.”
Except, it would seem, the myth of John Titor.
8 • Christ’s Personal Photographer
Father Pellegrino Ernetti was a Benedictine monk and respected authority on archaic music. He also claimed to have co-invented—as part of a team that included Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi and German rocket scientist Werner von Braun—the “chronovisor,” a device that looked like a television but could tune in to events from the past.
According to Ernetti, he had observed the last supper and Christ’s crucifixion, as well as Napoleon and Cicero. The team had later voluntarily dismantled the device, because in the wrong hands, it could create “the most fearsome dictatorship the world has ever seen.” It had been inspired, he said, by Nostradamus—who had personally related to him the device’s possibilities.
When pressed for evidence, Ernetti produced a picture of Christ on the cross reportedly photographed through the chronovisor. After the photo’s resemblance to a carving by Cullot Valera was noticed, however, Ernetti was forced to admit the photo was a fake. Nevertheless, Ernetti insisted the chronovisor was real.
7 • The Pilot Who Entered A Parallel Dimension
In 1935, a wing commander with Britain’s Royal Air Force named Sir Victor Goddard flew his open-cockpit biplane from Scotland to England on weekend leave. On the way, he passed over Drem Airfield near Edinburgh, which had been constructed during World War I. The tarmac and four hangars were in disrepair and barbed wire divided the field into numerous pastures filled with grazing cattle. Returning home a day later, Goddard ran into a violent storm and lost control of his plane. When he finally recovered from a downward spiral that should have resulted in his death, he was just several feet above a stony beach.
As Goddard climbed back up through the rain and fog, the sky suddenly filled with sunlight. Below him was the Drem Airfield—only the farm had disappeared, and the hangars were no longer decrepit. At the end of the restored tarmac stood four bright yellow planes, one an unfamiliar monoplane. These were surrounded by mechanics in blue overalls, notable to Goddard since RAF mechanics only ever wore brown.
Had Goddard—considered one of the founders of the RAF—simply been confused about his location, as some skeptics suggest? Or had he traveled forward in time? Goddard died in 1987, so we may never know the truth. Unless, of course, he returns from the past to tell us.
6 • The Sole Survivor Of The Philadelphia Experiment
In the fall of 1943, the USS Eldridge was allegedly made invisible and teleported from Pennsylvania to Virginia in an incident that came to be known as the Philadelphia Experiment. Of course, the incident never occurred—but that didn’t stop Alfred Bielek from achieving notoriety as Eldridge’s reputed lone survivor. His memories were “buried” until he saw the movie The Philadelphia Experiment in 1988, at which time he “remembered” that he was born in 1916 as Ed Cameron.
As Cameron, he’d been recruited in 1940 for an alleged Navy Project called Project Rainbow, whose purpose was to figure out how to make ships invisible. For reasons not entirely clear, “black ops” soldiers later sent Cameron through a portal at the Pentagon to Alpha Centauri One, where aliens interrogated him and then “physically regressed” him into one-year-old Al Bielek in 1927. Bialek claimed he later became director of mind control for the Montauk Project, whose members in the ‘80s traveled through a time vortex and changed the outcomes of various wars. When they returned to their own time, they would decide if they’d changed things for the better. If not, they would simply restore the status quo.