Jul 10 2009 2:38pm

From Death Ray to Star Wars: Nikola Tesla's WMD

Genius inventor Nikola Tesla is responsible for A/C current, the radio, the remote control, and...the death of thousands? One of his ideas chillingly mirrored the infant Manhattan Project, which he refused to work on for ethical reasons, preferring his own weapon of mass destruction:

“This ‘death-beam,’ Dr. Tesla said, will operate silently but effectively at distances “as far as a telescope could see an object on the ground and as far as the curvature of the earth would permit it.” It will be invisible and will leave no marks behind it beyond its evidence of destruction. An army of 1,000,000 dead, annihilated in an instant, he said, would not reveal even under the most powerful microscope just what catastrophe had caused its destruction. - The New York Times, 11 July 1934

Naturally, this Death Ray would be used to—what else?—“make war impossible.”

Fear will keep the local systems in line, sure, but was it ever built? By the Russians, or maybe Ronald Regan? Could Superman withstand it? In honor of Tesla’s 153rd birthday, listen to Mike Daisey’s tale of Nikola Tesla’s legendary Death Ray. This segment originally aired on Studio 360; visit PBS for more about Tesla’s strange genius.

Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
Tesla is one of the more fascinating people in the history of ever.

I could never support the idea that a weapon could inspire peace. Peace is not a reaction to a threat. But even though I don't subscribe to Tesla's view, it doesn't detract at all from the admiration I feel for him as an innovator.
Ian Tregillis
2. ITregillis
A cynic might suggest that Tesla was overly optimistic about abolishing warfare by inventing something called the "Death Beam".

But *my* invention, the Explodes-The-Brains-Of-Anybody-Who-Disagrees-With-Me Beam, is going to usher in a new age of peace and brotherhood for all mankind. Probably. I think.

Either way, Tesla was one interesting guy.
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger

Man, I better get to work on my "Anti-Brain-Ray-Cranium-Protector Helmet" right away!
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
@ 3

Well, nuts. Now we have an arms race on our hands! Heads. Whatever.
Pablo Defendini
5. pablodefendini
@3: "Anti-Brain-Ray-Cranium-Protector Helmet"... You mean your tin-foil hat?
Richard Fife
6. R.Fife
Tesla is not unique in his thought of amazing overpowering force bringing peace. After all, that is more or less the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction with nuclear weaponry. Also, I believe it was Hobbes who theorized that the only way humanity would ever "play nice" was for there to be an overarching behemoth of military might that made it do so. Hmm, The Day the World Stood Still? Or perhaps Errand of Mercy from TOS, in which space-douches force the Klingons and Federation to play nice.

So yeah, for my part, I'll wear my tin-foil and not punch anyone.
Jason Henninger
7. jasonhenninger

Shh! Don't give away my defense secrets!


Yeah, that was pretty much the whole justification for the nuclear arms build up in the cold war. But what was the real result? A few nations armed to the teeth, poised to press the "history eraser button" and rather than "peace through superior firepower" there were armed conflicts throughout the cold war and a heap of death anyhow. Well done, there.
Richard Fife
8. R.Fife
@7 I never said it was a Utopian solution, and I think Hobbes was being rather pessimistic about humanity when he wrote of behemoths and leviathans.

As to the cold war, yes there was plenty of "limited warfare" and death, but imagine what even a non-nuclear full war between the USA and USSR would have been like. I'd like to think that M.A.D. did it's job of stopping us from actually erasing history thus far. Now to wonder if it will work again with certain other quickly-arming countries in a different geographic locale. Let us hope none of them are trying to maintain their Purity of Essence and get the first hit in.
Jason Henninger
9. jasonhenninger

I didn't take it as a Utopian solution. I was just throwing in my two cents.

Supposing you are correct and the M.A.D. did what it was supposed to, do you think the existence of Tesla's Death Ray (assuming it worked just as he described) would have had the same effect as nuclear weapons, deterrence-wise? (Not asking to be argumentative. Just curious.)
Richard Fife
10. R.Fife
The Death Ray is a little scarier of an option, honestly. Part of what made MAD work with nukes was the fear of the fallout afterwards as well. Tesla's weapon reminds me of the theorized "Q bombs" or Neutrino bombs that would destroy organic life without fallout and leave buildings untouched.

So no, I don't think the Death Ray would have worked very well with MAD, especially since it was also a very limited-range weapon. I mean, we have howitzers that can fire over the horizon now with dead-on accuracy, and the long range of nukes was also part of what made them scary. The Death Ray would most likely have only forced us even quicker away from line-warfare to a more ranged and dispersed model of fighting.
Jason Henninger
11. jasonhenninger

That's pretty much what I was thinking. No fallout=more likely to have been used.
Clifton Royston
12. CliftonR
Sounds like a fairly precise description of a particle-beam weapon (allowing for the newspaper science level of the '30s.) The military is still working on developing them.
Jon Evans
13. rezendi
The death ray is actually reasonably well-documented:

What puts Tesla's death ray in a league of its own is that his design actually had competent, even inventive, engineering about it. His idea was to use a gigantic electrostatic generator run by one of his turbines to accelerate tiny particles of mercury until they became a stream of super high-powered bullets of several million volts. Since they were accelerated in a vacuum, Tesla needed a way to spit them out of the accelerator sphere without letting air in. He proposed to do this with a special nozzle which blew high-pressure air around an open tube leading to the evacuated sphere and acted like a constantly renewing plug to preserve the vacuum. What happen to the mercury stream after it left the nozzle and had to travel through the atmosphere was another matter that was never quite figured out.

Incidentally, by "particles" Tesla did not mean protons, neutron and the like, but tiny droplets. Tesla had little truck with atomic theory and for an electrician he had no time for electrons.

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14. Nentuaby

I shudder to think of the catastrophe that would have been Tesla's deathray used for MAD posturing. The important thing about the nuke is that, in wide-scale deployment, it's "almost as dangerous to your enemy as it is to you". Even if one side wiped out the other before retaliation could be launched, nuclear winter still killed everyone else. With the death ray, you don't have that additional level of deterrant, which means somebody could actually win with a hard enough first strike.
Madeline Ferwerda
15. MadelineF
Robin D. Laws, a RPG author who wrote Feng Shui among other awesome things, has been thinking about the Pain Ray currently being considered for deployment. In reference to Iran he says, "I’ve mentioned my fears about pain ray weapons before, but these events put the issue in a stark context. Popular uprisings against repressive regimes are games of chicken played for deadly stakes. The people confront the security forces, hoping that the enforcers will reach a point where they can’t bring themselves to apply the degree of violence needed to suppress them. Newly effective means of non-lethal force remove this tactic from the equation."

Tesla's Death Ray would have easily wiped out striking pro-union crowds leaving nothing sympathetic to photograph.
16. GoblinRevolution
The idea that a weapon of mass destruction would make war impossible seems far fetched to today's populace, but they forget that this idea was developed after the horrific use of modern weapons in the First World War. The reaction of the people to the automated and machined death on a scale completely unimaginable to them before had created the perception that if you made war horrific enough, people would not fight it. While we who grew up in the era of MAD (for me the 1970s-80s) see the fallacy of that argument, the intellectuals of that era truly believed it.

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