Nikola Tesla is a hero to geeks everywhere, who will be celebrating his birthday this week. World-famous in his lifetime, the prodigiously gifted inventor fell into semi-obscurity after his death in 1943, even though his inventions helped create the world we live in now.
Tesla’s fans know about his groundbreaking work in many fields: his invention of radio (sorry, Marconi), his creation of the alternating-current motor, his singlehanded development of remote-control robotics, to name a few—all before 1900. Like some virtuoso of invention, Tesla worked solo, perfecting most of his inventions in his head. Eventually, he held several hundred patents.
But there is one development for which he hasn’t gotten credit, even as a collaborator. And if you’re thinking it may be the electric car—that’s not it. We should also give Tesla his due for contributing to the birth of modern science fiction.
Tesla’s imagination never turned off, and he continued to churn out ideas with world-changing implications—if they had been realized. His World Broadcasting System, anticipating the Internet by decades, ended as a half-built ruin on Long Island. He thought up “death rays” made of charged-particle beams, experimented with using principles of resonance to cause earthquakes, and even proposed pulling electricity down from the ionosphere, to provide virtually free energy around the globe.
These and other huge-scaled projects didn’t come to be, but they inspired others who were part of Tesla’s circle. One of them was Hugo Gernsback, a young writer, inventor and publisher of popular science and science fiction—a term that he coined. (The Hugo award, one of science fiction’s highest honors, is his namesake.) Tesla’s inventions and ideas resonated intensely with Gernsback: articles about Tesla ran regularly in his early magazine, The Electrical Experimenter, and Tesla’s autobiography, My Inventions, appeared in its pages. The young author inserted Tesla into a sci-fi story of his own, The Magnetic Storm, in 1918. A few years later, Gersnback founded the legendary Amazing Stories—the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction.
Tesla’s work can be seen as a kind of template for early science fiction: they both share a worldwide focus, speculation on war and peace, and a general hope in the possibilities of human progress. The way I see it, it was as if some of the visions Tesla was offering couldn’t be encompassed by society in his time, and had to spill over into the arena of imagination. There they fed the blossoming of a new art form—the first in human history to focus on the future.
Science fiction has become an immersive background to our lives, via Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, the Matrix and many other imagined future worlds that owe their existence to the genre of popular science fiction. It’s almost second nature for us now to slip into these virtual environments, trying on possibilities and working through ominous scenarios, using the future as a canvas to help us figure out what’s happening now, and where we want to go. We take this time-shifting between present and future for granted—as much as we take for granted the electrical power that surrounds us, thanks to Tesla’s worldwide electrical grid.
Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla, and thank you for helping to introduce us to the future.