Not long after Nikola Tesla died in 1943, the world seemed to forget him. The first public tribute paid to his considerable research and development in the realm of electricity thereafter came in 1960 with the introduction of the tesla, the SI unit of magnetic flux density. But in the decades since Tesla has enjoyed an afterlife as an icon of under-appreciated prescience. Some of this reputation is based on interviews given in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was still a celebrity. Take the short Colliers magazine profile from 1926 in which he foresees the emergence of devices that will allow us “to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance”; a man, Tesla predicts, “will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
This article is one source of the words spoken in the Voices of the Past video above. In it, Tesla also speaks of a future hugely enriched by the “wireless energy” he spent much of his career pursuing. It will power “flying machines” in which “we shall ride from New York to Europe in a few hours.” A household’s daily newspaper “will be printed ‘wirelessly’ in the home during the night.”
Thanks to instant worldwide communication, “international boundaries will be largely obliterated and a great step will be made toward the unification and harmonious existence of the various races inhabiting the globe.” All the while, new generations of ever better-educated women “will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.”
Many will applaud Tesla’s views on the advancement of women, though here his thinking takes a turn that may give pause even to the most forward-thinking among us today: “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.” The inventor of alternating current has much to say in favor of apian society, “the most highly organized and intelligently coordinated system of any form of nonrational animal life.” And so why not restructure human civilization around a single queen?
This video also draws on a 1937 interview with Tesla in Liberty magazine, which features even more discomfiting propositions. “The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct,” Tesla insists. “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 2035 than the Secretary of War.” Despite perhaps having crossed the line into mad-scientism, Tesla remained incisive about the persistent condition of humans under high technology. “We suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age,” he claims. “The solution of our problems does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.” Here in the 21st century, of course, many of us would be content simply to gain mastery over the one in our vest pocket.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.