Nikola Tesla Accurately Predicted the Rise of the Internet & Smart Phone in 1926

Cer­tain cult his­tor­i­cal fig­ures have served as pre­scient avatars for the tech­no-vision­ar­ies of the dig­i­tal age. Where the altru­is­tic utopi­an designs of Buck­min­ster Fuller pro­vid­ed an ide­al for the first wave of Sil­i­con Val­ley pio­neers (a group includ­ing com­put­er sci­en­tist and philoso­pher Jaron Lanier and Wired edi­tor Kevin Kel­ly), lat­er entre­pre­neurs have hewn clos­er to the prin­ci­ples of bril­liant sci­en­tist and inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la, who believed, as he told Lib­er­ty mag­a­zine in 1935, that “we suf­fer the derange­ment of our civ­i­liza­tion because we have not yet com­plete­ly adjust­ed our­selves to the machine age.”

Such an adjust­ment would come, Tes­la believed, only in “mas­ter­ing the machine”—and he seemed to have supreme con­fi­dence in human mastery—over food pro­duc­tion, cli­mate, and genet­ics. We would be freed from oner­ous labor by automa­tion and the cre­ation of “a think­ing machine” he said, over a decade before the inven­tion of the com­put­er. Tes­la did not antic­i­pate the ways such machines would come to mas­ter us, even though he can­ni­ly fore­saw the future of wire­less tech­nol­o­gy, com­put­ing, and tele­pho­ny, tech­nolo­gies that would rad­i­cal­ly reshape every aspect of human life.

In an ear­li­er, 1926, inter­view in Col­liers mag­a­zine, Tes­la pre­dict­ed, as the edi­tors wrote, com­mu­ni­cat­ing “instant­ly by sim­ple vest-pock­et equip­ment.” His actu­al words con­veyed a much grander, and more accu­rate, pic­ture of the future.

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. 

The com­plex­i­ty of smart phones far out­strips that of the tele­phone, but in every oth­er respect, Tesla’s pic­ture maps onto the real­i­ty of almost 100 years lat­er. Oth­er aspects of Tesla’s future sce­nario for wire­less also seem to antic­i­pate cur­rent tech­nolo­gies, like 3D print­ing, though the kind he describes still remains in the realm of sci­ence fic­tion: “Wire­less will achieve the clos­er con­tact through trans­mis­sion of intel­li­gence, trans­port of our bod­ies and mate­ri­als and con­veyance of ener­gy.”

But Tesla’s vision had its lim­i­ta­tions, and they lay pre­cise­ly in his tech­no-opti­mism. He nev­er met a prob­lem that wouldn’t even­tu­al­ly have a tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tion (and like many oth­er tech­no-vision­ar­ies of the time, he hearti­ly endorsed state-spon­sored eugen­ics). “The major­i­ty of the ills from which human­i­ty suf­fers,” he said, “are due to the immense extent of the ter­res­tri­al globe and the inabil­i­ty of indi­vid­u­als and nations to come into close con­tact.”

Wire­less tech­nol­o­gy, thought Tes­la, would help erad­i­cate war, pover­ty, dis­ease, pol­lu­tion, and gen­er­al dis­con­tent, when were are “able to wit­ness and hear events—the inau­gu­ra­tion of a Pres­i­dent, the play­ing of a world series game, the hav­oc of an earth­quake or the ter­ror of a battle—just as though we were present.” When inter­na­tion­al bound­aries are “large­ly oblit­er­at­ed” by instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, he believed, “a great step will be made toward the uni­fi­ca­tion and har­mo­nious exis­tence of the var­i­ous races inhab­it­ing the globe.”

Tes­la did not, and per­haps could not, fore­see the ways in which tech­nolo­gies that bring us clos­er togeth­er than ever also, and at the same time, pull us ever fur­ther apart. Read Tes­la’s full inter­view here, in which he also pre­dicts that women will become the “supe­ri­or sex,” not by virtue of “the shal­low phys­i­cal imi­ta­tion of men” but through “the awak­en­ing of the intel­lect.”

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Elec­tric Pho­to of Niko­la Tes­la, 1899

The Elec­tric Rise and Fall of Niko­la Tes­la: As Told by Tech­noil­lu­sion­ist Mar­co Tem­pest

The Secret His­to­ry of Sil­i­con Val­ley

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

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