Nikola Tesla’s Predictions for the 21st Century: The Rise of Smart Phones & Wireless, The Demise of Coffee, The Rule of Eugenics (1926/35)

nikola tesla

The fate of the vision­ary is to be for­ev­er out­side of his or her time. Such was the life of Niko­la Tes­la, who dreamed the future while his oppor­tunis­tic rival Thomas Edi­son seized the moment. Even now the name Tes­la con­jures seem­ing­ly wild­ly imprac­ti­cal ven­tures, too advanced, too expen­sive, or far too ele­gant in design for mass pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion. No one bet­ter than David Bowie, the pop artist of pos­si­bil­i­ty, could embody Tes­la’s air of mag­is­te­r­i­al high seri­ous­ness on the screen. And few were bet­ter suit­ed than Tes­la him­self, per­haps, to extrap­o­late from his time to ours and see the tech­no­log­i­cal future clear­ly.

Of course, this image of Tes­la as a lone, hero­ic, and even some­what trag­ic fig­ure who fell vic­tim to Edis­on’s designs is a bit of a roman­tic exag­ger­a­tion. As even the edi­tor of a 1935 fea­ture inter­view piece in the now-defunct Lib­er­ty mag­a­zine wrote, Tes­la and Edi­son may have been rivals in the “bat­tle between alter­nat­ing and direct cur­rent…. Oth­er­wise the two men were mere­ly oppo­sites. Edi­son had a genius for prac­ti­cal inven­tions imme­di­ate­ly applic­a­ble. Tes­la, whose inven­tions were far ahead of the time, aroused antag­o­nisms which delayed the fruition of his ideas for years.” One can in some respects see why Tes­la “aroused antag­o­nisms.” He may have been a genius, but he was not a peo­ple per­son, and some of his views, though maybe char­ac­ter­is­tic of the times, are down­right unset­tling.


In the lengthy Lib­er­ty essay, “as told to George Sylvester Viereck” (a poet and Nazi sym­pa­thiz­er who also inter­viewed Hitler), Tes­la him­self makes the pro­nounce­ment, “It seems that I have always been ahead of my time.” He then goes on to enu­mer­ate some of the ways he has been proven right, and con­fi­dent­ly lists the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the future as he sees it. No one likes a know-it-all, but Tes­la refused to com­pro­mise or ingra­ti­ate him­self, though he suf­fered for it pro­fes­sion­al­ly. And he was, in many cas­es, right. Many of his 1935 pre­dic­tions in Lib­er­ty are still too far off to mea­sure, and some of them will seem out­landish, or crim­i­nal, to us today. But some still seem plau­si­ble, and a few advis­able if we are to make it anoth­er 100 years as a species. Tes­la’s pre­dic­tions include the fol­low­ing, which he intro­duces with the dis­claimer that “fore­cast­ing is per­ilous. No man can look very far into the future.”

  • “Bud­dhism and Chris­tian­i­ty… will be the reli­gion of the human race in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry.”
  • “The year 2100 will see eugen­ics uni­ver­sal­ly estab­lished.” Tes­la went on to com­ment, “no one who is not a desir­able par­ent should be per­mit­ted to pro­duce prog­e­ny. A cen­tu­ry from now it will no more occur to a nor­mal per­son to mate with a per­son eugeni­cal­ly unfit than to mar­ry a habit­u­al crim­i­nal.”
  • “Hygiene, phys­i­cal cul­ture will be rec­og­nized branch­es of edu­ca­tion and gov­ern­ment. The Sec­re­tary of Hygiene or Phys­i­cal Cul­ture will be far more impor­tant in the cab­i­net of the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States who holds office in the year 2025 than the Sec­re­tary of War.” Along with per­son­al hygiene, Tes­la includ­ed “pol­lu­tion” as a social ill in need of reg­u­la­tion.
  • “I am con­vinced that with­in a cen­tu­ry cof­fee, tea, and tobac­co will be no longer in vogue. Alco­hol, how­ev­er, will still be used. It is not a stim­u­lant but a ver­i­ta­ble elixir of life.”
  • “There will be enough wheat and wheat prod­ucts to feed the entire world, includ­ing the teem­ing mil­lions of Chi­na and India.” (Tes­la did not fore­see the anti-gluten mania of the 21st cen­tu­ry.)
  • “Long before the next cen­tu­ry dawns, sys­tem­at­ic refor­esta­tion and the sci­en­tif­ic man­age­ment of nat­ur­al resources will have made an end of all dev­as­tat­ing droughts, for­est fires, and floods. The uni­ver­sal uti­liza­tion of water pow­er and its long-dis­tance trans­mis­sion will sup­ply every house­hold with cheap pow­er.” Along with this opti­mistic pre­dic­tion, Tes­la fore­saw that “the strug­gle for exis­tence being less­ened, there should be devel­op­ment along ide­al rather than mate­r­i­al lines.”

Tes­la goes on to pre­dict the elim­i­na­tion of war, “by mak­ing every nation, weak or strong, able to defend itself,” after which war chests would be divert­ed to fund­ing edu­ca­tion and research. He then describes—in rather fan­tas­ti­cal-sound­ing terms—an appa­ra­tus that “projects par­ti­cles” and trans­mits ener­gy, enabling not only a rev­o­lu­tion in defense tech­nol­o­gy, but “undreamed of results in tele­vi­sion.” Tes­la diag­noses his time as one in which “we suf­fer from the derange­ment of our civ­i­liza­tion because we have not yet com­plete­ly adjust­ed our­selves to the machine age.” The solu­tion, he asserts—along with most futur­ists, then and now—“does not lie in destroy­ing but in mas­ter­ing the machine.” As an exam­ple of such mas­tery, Tes­la describes the future of “automa­tons” tak­ing over human labor and the cre­ation of “a think­ing machine.”

Matt Novak at the Smith­son­ian has ana­lyzed many of Tes­la’s claims, inter­pret­ing his pre­dic­tions about “hygiene and phys­i­cal cul­ture” as a fore­shad­ow­ing of the EPA and dis­cussing Tes­la’s work in robot­ics (“Today,” Tes­la pro­claimed, “the robot is an accept­ed fact”). The Lib­er­ty arti­cle was not the first time Tes­la had made large-scale, pub­lic pre­dic­tions about the cen­tu­ry to come and beyond. In 1926, Tes­la gave an inter­view to Col­lier’s mag­a­zine in which he more or less accu­rate­ly fore­saw smart­phones and wire­less tele­pho­ny and com­put­ing:

When wire­less is per­fect­ly applied the whole earth will be con­vert­ed into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er instant­ly, irre­spec­tive of dis­tance. Not only this, but through tele­vi­sion and tele­pho­ny we shall see and hear one anoth­er as per­fect­ly as though were face to face, despite inter­ven­ing dis­tances of thou­sands of miles; and the instru­ments through which we shall be able to do this will be amaz­ing­ly sim­ple com­pared with our present tele­phone. A man will be able to car­ry one in his vest pock­et. 

Tel­sa also made some odd pre­dic­tions about fuel-less pas­sen­ger fly­ing machines “free from any lim­i­ta­tions of the present air­planes and diri­gi­bles” and spout­ed more of the scary stuff about eugen­ics that had come to obsess him late in life. Addi­tion­al­ly, Tes­la saw chang­ing gen­der rela­tions as the pre­cur­sor of a com­ing matri­archy. This was not a devel­op­ment he char­ac­ter­ized in pos­i­tive terms. For Tes­la, fem­i­nism would “end in a new sex order, with the female as supe­ri­or.” (As Novak notes, Tes­la’s mis­giv­ings about fem­i­nism have made him a hero to the so-called “men’s rights” move­ment.) While he ful­ly grant­ed that women could and would match and sur­pass men in every field, he warned that “the acqui­si­tion of new fields of endeav­or by women, their grad­ual usurpa­tion of lead­er­ship, will dull and final­ly dis­si­pate fem­i­nine sen­si­bil­i­ties, will choke the mater­nal instinct, so that mar­riage and moth­er­hood may become abhor­rent and human civ­i­liza­tion draw clos­er and clos­er to the per­fect civ­i­liza­tion of the bee.”

It seems to me that a “bee civ­i­liza­tion” would appeal to a eugeni­cist, except, I sup­pose, Tes­la feared becom­ing a drone. Although he saw the devel­op­ment as inevitable, he still sounds to me like any num­ber of cur­rent politi­cians who argue that soci­ety should con­tin­ue to sup­press and dis­crim­i­nate against women for their own good and the good of “civ­i­liza­tion.” Tes­la may be an out­sider hero for geek cul­ture every­where, but his social atti­tudes give me the creeps. While I’ve per­son­al­ly always liked the vision of a world in which robots do most the work and we spend most of our mon­ey on edu­ca­tion, when it comes to the elim­i­na­tion of war, I’m less san­guine about par­ti­cle rays and more sym­pa­thet­ic to the words of Ivor Cut­ler.

via Smith­son­ian/Pale­o­fu­ture

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Elec­tric Pho­to of Niko­la Tes­la, 1899

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Future in 1964 … And Kind of Nails It

Mark Twain Plays With Elec­tric­i­ty in Niko­la Tesla’s Lab (Pho­to, 1894)

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today

In 1900, Ladies’ Home Jour­nal Pub­lish­es 28 Pre­dic­tions for the Year 2000

Philip K. Dick Makes Off-the-Wall Pre­dic­tions for the Future: Mars Colonies, Alien Virus­es & More (1981)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Radacci says:

    Eddi­son did­n’t invent any­thing, he sold Tes­las inven­tions, as his own.
    At the rate our pop­u­la­tion goes up, and with research into extend­ing our life-span, we’ll need eugen­ics, or we’ll become gross­ly over­pop­u­lat­ed, and most humans will die from star­va­tion, and war/murder over resources. It’s eugen­ics or apoc­a­lypse.

  • Mary Mitchell says:

    What? No cof­fee?😏

  • James Studer says:

    Edmund Mor­ris biog­ra­phy of Edi­son should be required read­ing for those relay­ing false infor­ma­tion

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