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Remembering the weird and brilliant scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla

Written By | Jan 7, 2021

WASHINGTON. On this day in 1943, the brilliant scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla died at age 86. And the US Government was anxious to get to the New York City storage facility where Tesla kept the research ephemera he accumulated over decades.

A storage trunk belonging to inventor Nikola Tesla. History Channel screen capture.

Teutonic technology

America was then at war with Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and the US government wasn’t going to take any chances that plans for a Tesla-designed weapon might fall into enemy hands.

After all, it was the age of superweapons, with Nazi Germany leading the way.

Replica German V-1 rocket. Photo: Alan Wilson via Wikipedia,

The Third Reich produced the first pilotless V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 supersonic rocket with its 2,000 lbs. warhead. Hitler’s engineers also built the first practical jet fighter, constructed from synthetic materials that made the plane virtually invisible to radar.

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Before the outbreak of war, German physicists also split the uranium atom, discovering nuclear fission. Realizing this atomic chain reaction could be weaponized, physicist Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He warned of the frightening possibility that the same nation that industrialized mass murder could focus its diabolical efficiency toward the development of nuclear weapons.

A particle beam weapon?

In September 1940, Tesla captured the attention of the US government shortly before America’s entry into the Second World War. After interviewing Tesla, the New York Times reported…

“… he stands ready to divulge to the United States Government the secret of his ‘teleforce’ [death ray], with which he said airplane motors would be melted at a distance of 250 miles, so that an invisible Chinese Wall of Defense would be built around the country against any attempted attack by an enemy air force, no matter how large.”

While America played nuclear catch-up with Germany through its Manhattan Project, the scientific papers of the man who claimed to have invented a death ray were suddenly up for grabs.

Get me Professor Trump

MIT Professor John G. Trump. History Channel screen capture.

Upon hearing of Tesla’s passing, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents from the New York City field office to secure and evaluate the scientific significance of the documents and artifacts contained within Tesla’s 80 warehoused trunks. But Hoover’s G-Men were federal investigators, not scientists.

The FBI, therefore, tasked inventor, electrical engineer, physicist and MIT Professor John G. Trump to examine the trove of Tesla memorabilia for anything that might aid the war effort against the Axis Powers.

And, yes, Professor Trump is related to the nation’s 45th president, Donald J. Trump.

“My uncle used to tell me about nuclear before nuclear,” the president told The New Yorker magazine.
Deathray for sale

In 1935, Tesla used a supposed working model of his death ray to secure its sale to the Amtorg Trading Corporation, a commercial representative of Soviet Russia in the US.

Tesla received $25,000.

Governor Clinton Hotel, New York City. Photo: Museum of the City of New York.

The model was held in a storage facility in New York’s Governor Clinton Hotel. In a report detailing his scientific investigation, Professor Trump recalls how Tesla would warn hotel staff that the mysterious trunk in their care “was a secret weapon, and it would detonate if opened by an unauthorized person.

Upon entering the storage vault, Trump noticed “the hotel manager and employees promptly left the scene.”

When Trump opened the box containing the “secret weapon,” all he found was a 19th century Wheatstone bridge, a device used to measure electrical resistance.

Tesla had clearly hoodwinked the Russians.

In his report to the FBI, Trump insisted Tesla’s documents did not contain “workable principles or methods.”

Back in 1901, Tesla convinced savvy financier John Pierpont Morgan to invest $150,000 toward the development of wireless communications. Tesla promised that his massive Long Island broadcast tower would eventually send radio messages and pictures through the air and across the Atlantic.

Financier John Pierpont Morgan circa 1903. Photo by Edward Steichen.

But Morgan withdrew his financial support when that same year Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first radio telegraph message from England to Canada.

Nikola Tesla’s radio-controlled boat. Photo: US Patent Office.

Shortly thereafter, the man who invented the modern motor, alternating current, the generators used at the hydroelectric dam at Niagara Falls, fell into obscurity, mental instability and poverty.

Tesla’s Death

Ironically, a few months after Tesla’s death, the United States Supreme Court ruled Marconi’s radio patents null and void, declaring Nikola Tesla the true inventor of radio technology. The high court cited Tesla’s radio-controlled model boat, which the inventor demonstrated before an amazed crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden – in 1898.

Just in passing, 60 of Tesla’s artifact-fill containers eventually made their way to Belgrade, Serbia. Today, their contents form the bulk of the collection at the Nikola Tesla Museum. But twenty cases remain missing.  Many feel that they are somewhere in America.

So, if you happen to run across an old trunk with the initials “NT,” you’ve been warned. According to Tesla, the one containing the death ray will “detonate if opened by an unauthorized person.”


Top Image: Inventor Nikola Tesla shortly before his death in 1943. History Channel screen capture.

Steven M. Lopez

Originally from Los Angeles, Steven M. Lopez has been in the news business for more than thirty years. He made his way around the country: Arizona, the Bay Area and now resides in South Florida.