Tesla's crack-pottery was a swimming pool his death ray would be the deep end.
As early as 1916 Tesla was trotting out his idea for the ultimate
weapon that would make war obsolete by providing nations with
unopposible destructive power. Well, we got that little number
in 1945 and look how well that worked out! While Tesla wasn't
the first (or last) to come up with a scheme for building a death ray,
he was the one with the credentials to get the press to take him
seriously enough to interview him without breaking out in a case of
Perhaps the best description of Tesla's death ray can be found in a
1937 New York Times Interview
where he described how the borders of a country could be ringed by a
series of towers, each of which contained his death ray generator.
Any approaching foe by land, sea or air would be instantly detected
and each tower, in the word of the times,
will send concentrated beams of
particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they
will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250
miles from the defending nation's border and will cause armies of
millions to drop dead in their tracks
When put into operation, Dr. Tesla
said, this latest invention of his would make war impossible.
This death-beam, he asserted, would surround each country like an
invisible Chinese wall, only a million times more impenetrable.
It would make every nation impregnable against attack by airplanes or
by large invading armies.
Yep. Chinese wall, Maginot Line;
big static defences. What do they have in common? They
don't work worth squat if anyone actually tried to breach them.
Maybe Tesla's death ray was unstoppable, but the towers
look very stoppable indeed, so I doubt there would would have had
a sudden khaki surplus even if Tesla's device had worked.
Tesla tried to sell his death ray to
Great Britain for $3,000,000 and promised to make the British Isles
invulnerable within three months. Whitehall opted for radar and
spitfires instead. He then tried to sell it to the League of
Nations without success, actually managed to rook $25,000 out of the
Soviet Union without delivering, and became convinced that the US
government were making unsuccessful attempts to break into his hotel
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