First, a shocking truth about myself. Until a number of months ago, I did not know specifically who Nikola Tesla was, my first experience of the word Tesla was in the computer game Command & Conquer: Red Alert where by the Soviets used Tesla Coils to defend/attack (from) their enemy. Little did I know that these electricity inspired weapons were from principles and demonstrations by the famous engineer, Nikola Tesla. It is perhaps of some irony then, that it was not just a computer game that took interest in creating a weapon from Nikola's inventions; more on that a bit later.
I consider Nikola to have lead a long life having been born on July the 10th in 1856 in Smiljan, Lika, Yugoslavia/Serbia/Croatia (delete as historically/timeline appropriate) he managed to live to the age of 86. By then he had been living in America for some considerable time and spent his remaining days in the Hotel New Yorker, how this seemingly odd living arrangement came about is up for conjecture and hypothesis depending on the sources you read. Nikola truly did live at the hotel, many of his belongings were in storage there along with a working model of (at least) one of his projects, particularly it was said to be held as collateral against his rent payments to the approximate tune of $400. I couldn't find any recording of what this "working prototype" was or what happened to it.
When searching for information about Nikola Tesla, I of course happened upon The Oatmeal's comic and the Wikipedia article. What I did not expect to find was a freely available document from the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) which covers (possibly) everything they have on the scientist. The size of this document is definitely not for the faint of heart and over the course of at least a week I only covered approximately 108 (or was it 180?) pages out of the 290 total. What I found so far, was quite a compelling compendium of historical articles and an underlying narrative.
In fact, the File #100-2237 from the FBI shows a letter (well it shows many actually) writ to none other than John Edgar Hoover on the 24th of September, 1940 to bring to his attention an article from the New York Times about Tesla's "invaluable instrument of war and/or defense". Tesla had been interviewed claiming to be able to make a "Death Ray" for specific 'plants' to "melt engines" with "teleforce" at a distance of 250 miles. Considering this was during the start of the second world war, this type of weapon would've been of great interest, if not to create then to protect from allowing others to get their hands on. To read an excerpt from one of the articles in the File:
“The inventor had designed a small, inexpensive, radio-controlled boat which, through its supposed ability to destroy the biggest battle-ships, would make great navies useless. Not many years later, he was talking of another super-weapon: a “death ray” which would annihilate whole armies”
There are a number of snippets of articles within the document and toward the end of Nikola's life cover two main and prominent ideas which he had to create defenses for America. The first was the Death Ray, which was a form of gun that concentrated a high voltage beam of a small diameter. The intention was to have a number of buildings across the coastline which housed this weapon of destruction to protect the airspace of America. The second was a form of impenetrable electromagnetic wall that could be created which reached from the ground to the thermosphere (or there abouts) and was supported by vertical aerial columns from which this electromagnetic wall emanated from.
It is perhaps with no wonder then, that the man who helped in bringing alternating current to the world would have his notes, documents and possessions under close scrutiny when he passed this mortal coil. It is said that Nikola had 80 trunks worth of transcripts and plans to do with his experiments, the majority of which were to prototyping stage if they had not been made already and this is along with the security safe and documentations he had in the hotel room with him. When Nikola passed, something had to be done with his possessions. Having been told about the 'Death Ray' then it was no wonder that everyone suspected the FBI to have hold of Nikolas documents in the interest of America.
Accounts suggest that the FBI were there on the inspection and opening of the hotel safe, plans for the Death Ray were actually in the hotel at the time but the FBI did not take any of the documentation; all possessions were taken and housed elsewhere by Alien Property Control. Perhaps though, the FBI wished they had taken it because for countless years after (according to the documentation) thanks to the writings in a biography it was claimed that they did in fact have the documentation and so started the standard letter reply of (paraphrased) "no, we don't have the information, alien property control do". However that didn't stop a first hand account being recorded of men in uniforms (read: U.S. Navy) visiting Alien Property Control and allegedly photographing all of the documentation and who could blame them? In amongst this FBI documentation was affirmation that J.E.Hoover would make sure that Nikola's ideas would get "due consideration" and in another article confirmed that he had designed a "revolutionary type of torpedo".
There is a temptation to discredit Nikola's later ideas as "very eccentric, if not mentally deranged during the past ten years" of his life, but I think part of what fuels such enthusiasm to support him and (controversially) Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company to support his residence until his passing is that these wild ideas that he had, particularly in his early years, have changed our lifestyle as we know it. The induction motor with a rotating magnetic field was considered madness, until it was demonstrated along with poly-phase alternating current and cemented in history when the paper was presented and discussed in front of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. This poly-phase concept was the first out of 17 previously failed proposals that paved the way to harness the power of Niagara Falls in 1893, just two years later in 1895 the first power station was built and then a subsequent two more in 1896. If you forgive the pun, this leap was revolutionary.
Another large installation was the 154 foot steel-ribbed tower that was topped by an enormous mushroom shaped copper dome, which I consider now to be an infamous icon representing that now typically represents his work (I blame Command and Conquer...) and while you can read all about the Wardenclyffe Tower and consider its $300,000 cost a failure what should perhaps be remembered is this quote: "Though he never succeeded in transmitting power without wires on a big scale, he did prove that a single wire is enough" and we can see evidence of this in all of the radio transmitter and receivers we use from Walkie Talkies to WiFi and radar.
Nikola's possessions were eventually shipped to his nephew, Sava Kosanović whom inherited what was left of his estate and used the documentation as the basis for the Nikola Tesla Museum which is also the location of Nikola's ashes. Unfortunately, not all of the items made the journey. It was discovered that the solid gold Edison medal which was awarded was not found amidst the possessions; the FBI files have a form of trace as to its whereabouts (as it documents the request for the files and possessions of Tesla in numerous repetition) and according to them it was only identifiable that the medal was in the hotel safe when it was inspected by the FBI but confirmed not taken, yet vanished by the time the possessions were shipped off to Sava. The only account between this time of anyone checking the possessions was the alleged photographing of documents while at the Alien Property Control. To my knowledge, the medal hasn't been recreated/recovered.
Reflecting, but for a moment, apparently this award winner was not one for staying still for his portrait to be taken in any form, though he made an exception for "Princess" Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, in this dark art studio he assisted Vilma to create a painting by setting up incandescent bulbs with a blue glass filter to simulate natural sunlight and sat, contemplatively captured in thought. It's this portrait, which had vanished when Vilma passed away and her belongings sold at auction and resurfaced in Time magazine, in 1931, July 20th that I feel you get an insight into what type of person he was. The person who is said to have been mainly recluse having taken no partner and in his later years took trips from the hotel to the nearby park to tend to the pigeons and nurture the sick ones to health back in his room.
Regardless of how Mr. Tesla's actions are to be interpreted, crazy, eccentric, innovative or imaginary as a scientist, an engineer, a maker, when you're using single board computers to create or prototype your electronics project, such as the with a and its GPIO to control a motor while connected to the mains supply, or your mobile phone. I would say that there's more than a small part of Nikola Tesla in what you're using and doing and it started with an idea that some may consider crazy or in fact wizardry, if anything, I don't think that he was crazy or eccentric, he just wanted to help.