When Nikola Tesla Claimed to Have Invented a “Death Ray,” Capable of Destroying Enemies 250 Miles Away & Making War Obsolete

Just last week I vis­it­ed Nia­gara Falls and beheld the noble-look­ing stat­ue of Niko­la Tes­la installed there. It struck me as a fit­ting trib­ute to the inven­tor of the Death Ray. But then, its pres­ence prob­a­bly had more to do with Tes­la’s hav­ing advised the builders of the falls’ pow­er plant to use two-phase alter­nat­ing cur­rent, the form of elec­tric­i­ty of which he’s now remem­bered as a pio­neer. And in any case, Tes­la nev­er actu­al­ly invent­ed a death ray, or at least he nev­er demon­strat­ed one. He did, how­ev­er, claim to have been work­ing on a sys­tem he called “tele­force,” which shot what he described as a “death beam” — rays, he insist­ed, would nev­er be fea­si­ble — both “thin­ner than a hair” and pow­er­ful enough to “destroy any­thing approach­ing with­in 200 miles,” mak­ing war­fare effec­tive­ly obso­lete.

These pro­nounce­ments attract­ed spe­cial media atten­tion in the 1930s. “Hype about the weapon real­ly took off in the run-up to World War II as Nazi Ger­many assem­bled a fear­some air force,” writes Sam Kean at the Sci­ence His­to­ry Insti­tute. “Peo­ple in Tesla’s home­land, then called Yugoslavia, begged him to return home and install the rays to pro­tect them from the Nazi men­ace.” But no known evi­dence sug­gests that the elder­ly Tes­la had fig­ured out how to actu­al­ly make tele­force work.

At that point he had more press­ing prob­lems, not least the cost of the hotels in which he lived. “In 1915, his famous War­den­clyffe tow­er plant was sold to help pay off his $20,000 debt at the Wal­dorf-Asto­ria,” writes Men­tal Floss’ Sta­cy Con­radt, and lat­er he racked up a sim­i­lar­ly large bill at the Gov­er­nor Clin­ton. “He couldn’t afford the pay­ment, so instead, Tes­la offered the man­age­ment some­thing price­less: one of his inven­tions.”

That “inven­tion” may have been the box exam­ined after Tes­la’s death in 1943 by physi­cist John G. Trump (uncle of for­mer Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump). Left in a hotel vault, it was rumored to be “a pro­to­type of his death ray.” Tes­la had includ­ed a note, writes Kean, that “claimed the pro­to­type inside was worth $10,000. More omi­nous­ly, it said the box would det­o­nate if opened incor­rect­ly.” But when “the physi­cist steeled him­self and began tear­ing off the brown paper,” he “must have laughed at what he saw under­neath: a Wheat­stone bridge, a tool for mea­sur­ing elec­tri­cal resis­tance. It was a com­mon, mun­dane device — some old junk, real­ly. It was cer­tain­ly not a death ray, not even close.”

Though it must have been as pow­er­ful a dis­ap­point­ment as it was a relief, did that dis­cov­ery prove that Tes­la nev­er invent­ed a death ray? The U.S. gov­ern­ment did­n’t take its chances on the mat­ter: as History.com’s Sarah Pruitt tells it, agents “swooped in and took pos­ses­sion of all the prop­er­ty and doc­u­ments from his room at the New York­er Hotel” right after Tes­la’s death. And “while the FBI orig­i­nal­ly record­ed some 80 trunks among Tesla’s effects, only 60 arrived in Bel­grade,” home of the Niko­la Tes­la Muse­um, near­ly a decade lat­er. The idea of death rays has long sur­vived Tes­la him­self, tak­ing on forms from the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion’s “Star Wars” nuclear defense pro­gram to the mil­i­tary laser weapons test­ed in recent years. Few such tech­nolo­gies seem capa­ble of end­ing all war, as Tes­la promised. But if one ever does, we could hon­or his mem­o­ry by refer­ring to it, in the man­ner he pre­ferred, as not a death ray but a death beam.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1926, Niko­la Tes­la Pre­dicts the World of 2026

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

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

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

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.

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