Towards the end of his life, the man credited with inventing almost everything with a current became a sage, an éminence grise for the scientific and engineering communities. Every major media publication sought to interview Nikola Tesla with hopes of receiving a prognostication worthy of a banner headline. And many got exactly what they wanted. George Sylvester Viereck of Liberty Magazine was particularly fortunate. In 1937, he sat down for a wide-ranging interview with the 78-year-old. When he got up, he had enough raw material for a religious doctrine. Instead of going the spiritual route, he transcribed Tesla’s ideas into A Machine to End War, an article that blew minds.
The article is worth revisiting now not only because Tesla was prescient and several of his prophecies have come to pass, but also because several of his prophecies have not come to pass. Those ideas, the wrongheaded ones, are important to grapple with because they are resilient, capable of surviving even in the thin atmosphere of scientific progress. They are the wrong ideas of the past that will continue to be the wrong ideas of the future.
Tesla remains the ultimate American example of the limits and virtues of extrapolation.
Tesla wasn’t always a kind man. He was a “hardcore Eugenicist” who believed the only reason society let the “unfit” continue to breed was guilt and lack of will. The advanced, enlightened society of the future, he reasoned, would do some selection of its own in order to “purify” the gene pool.
“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, Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.”
The Machine To End War
Ironically, the invention the article was named after was perhaps the most inaccurate prediction of the bunch. “The Machine That Will End All Wars” was an invention of Tesla’s built as the ultimate defense mechanism:
“If it is adopted, it will revolutionize the relations between nations. It will make any country, large or small, impregnable against armies, airplanes, and other means for attack. My invention requires a large plant, but once it is established it will he possible to destroy anything, men or machines, approaching within a radius of 200 miles. It will, so to speak, provide a wall of power offering an insuperable obstacle against any effective aggression”
However, Tesla was quick to point out his weapon of mass destruction could do a lot more than just vaporize everything within its radius. Tesla’s towers of doom also made for perfect TV reception:
“My apparatus projects particles which may.be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind. Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist. This wonderful feature will make it possible, among other things, to achieve undreamed-of results in television, for there will be almost no limit to the intensity of illumination, the size of the picture, or distance of projection.”
Tesla was essentially imagining what might be possible with extremely powerful broadcasting equipment. Some of what he described points in the direct of optical cables, but other elements of this description seems like science fiction. This is scientifically wishful thinking.
Tesla was an early pioneer in robotics, patenting a remote controlled boat in the late 1800’s. Of course, in the 1930’s, automation had already begun replacing some physical tasks, but check out Tesla predicting computers capable of performing “thinking” tasks.
“Innumerable activities still performed by human hands today will be performed by automatons. At this very moment scientists working in the laboratories of American universities are attempting to create what has been described as a “thinking machine.” I anticipated this development. I actually constructed “robots.” Today the robot is an accepted fact, but the principle has not been pushed far enough. In the twenty-first century the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilization. There is no reason at all why most of this should not come to pass in less than a century, treeing mankind to pursue its higher aspirations.”
Tesla was not purely wrong about the dawn of robots, but he did somewhat misunderstand how complicated they would be and how soon. Though it’s possible decision making bots will take the place of many human laborers by century’s end, the reality right now is that task-oriented robots do labor fairly thoughtlessly. “Slave labor” was not, it’s worth reiterating, dumb labor. The value of slaves was that they were (and, unfortunately, are) intelligent workers capable of dynamic decision making as well as the application of force. This is true to some extent of today’s robots, but they have a long way to go before they start building pyramids.
The Environmental Protection Agency
Even back in the 1930’s Tesla saw that pollution was going to be a huge problem. He also warned against the danger of processed foods and chemical stimulants such as tobacco, coffee, and tea (though he called booze “a veritable elixir of life”). To combat pollution, keep food natural, and water clean, Tesla prophesied the creation of The Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture who would 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.”
While the Department of Defense holds a bit of an edge over the EPA on influence scale now, there is a chance the two entities might be one in the same by 2035. Scientists and military leaders alike are beginning to reach a consensus that environmental concerns like clean water, climate change, and food security may well become the country’s biggest threats to national security.
Mass Production of Nitrogen Fertilizer
“There will be enough wheat and wheat products to feed the entire world, including the teeming millions of China and India, now chronically on the verge of starvation. The earth is bountiful, and where her bounty fails, nitrogen drawn from the air will refertilize her womb. I developed a process for this purpose in 1900. It was perfected fourteen years later under the stress of war by German chemists.”
The Haber process (the process perfected by the German chemists) produces almost 450 million tons of fertilizer per year, which according to some estimates has quadrupled the productivity of agricultural land around the world. Subsequently, the access to high yield crops is partially responsible for population grow in China and India.
“Long before the next century dawns, systematic reforestation and the scientific management of natural resources will have made an end of all devastating droughts, forest fires, and floods. The universal utilization of water power and its long-distance transmission will supply every household with cheap power and will dispense with the necessity of burning fuel. The struggle for existence being lessened, there should be development along ideal rather than material lines.”
Not sure if it’s more accurate to say Tesla was a little bit ahead of the timeline, or we’re a little bit behind when it comes to renewable energy sources. Either way, alternative energy methods are becoming more and more prevalent. And though we are still using more burning fuel than we should, we have moved to a much more scientific framework when it comes to managing finite resources.