Nikola Tesla is a science-thriller author’s best friend.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. A lot has happened in the world since Tesla gave us alternating current (and Tom Edison in what may be the ultimate display of passive-aggression, used it to invent the electric chair). But even in a world of quantum physics and genetic engineering, there’s still room to explore the myth, mystery and madness that is Tesla.
If you’re not already a Tesla enthusiast, then here’s what you need to know. Nikola Tesla was a Serbian immigrant who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a prolific inventor, and by all accounts a genius—he registered nearly three hundred patents during his lifetime. His investigations into electrical currents, wireless communications, X-rays, and other diverse topics paved the way for many technologies that we take for granted today (and he created the machine responsible for those cool lightning effects in Frankenstein movies). He also believed that it would be possible to pull free electricity out the air, shake a building to the ground using a device that would fit in a pocket, and even drew up plans for a “death ray” that would put an end to all wars forever.
The problem with those latter claims, is not that they are demonstrably crazy, but rather that they are deliciously plausible—on paper at least. Further adding to the mystique is the fact that some of Tesla’s boldest ventures were thwarted by conspiratorial forces. That’s not just the paranoid assertion of a mad scientist, it’s historical fact! (Okay, he also ran out of money, but that’s not as sexy). In any case, Tesla dreamed bigger than he could accomplish, and when you take into account how much he actually did accomplish, it’s reasonable to believe that at least some of his crazier ideas might actually work. One of my favorite sources of inspiration, Adventures Unlimited Press, has a whole section of their catalog devoted to Tesla Technology—it’s at least as popular a topic as Aliens and Atlantis!
Tesla inspired themes can work in a contemporary setting—one example that immediately comes to mind is Craig Dirgo’s The Tesla Documents (the second in Dirgo's very Cussler-esque John Taft series, this book was originally released as Tremor) in which Tesla’s experiments with electricity are the first step toward building a devastating new weapon—but by and large the best Tesla-inspired adventure stories are those with a historical flair. Remember how David Bowie built that crazy human-Xeroxing machine for Hugh Jackman in The Prestige—yeah, that was Tesla. Tesla works better in science-fiction with a historical setting (e.g. Steampunk) for the simple reason that even some of his craziest ideas don’t sound all that exciting compared to the things we’ve done and discovered in recent decades.
I dropped Tesla’s name in the first book of my pulp-inspired historical sci-fi series, The Adventures of Dodge Dalton. In that story, the bad guys have these nifty contraptions that allow them to fly through the air, protected by an electrical shield, all the while shooting lightning bolts with reckless indifference. When asked to explain this marvelous technology to the heroes, one scientist character makes mention of Tesla’s theories about electricity and magnetism but goes on to say that the technology the villains have is far beyond anything Tesla developed (the stories are set in the late 1930’s, in Tesla’s twilight years).
I dipped my bucket in the Tesla well in a much bigger way for the third Dodge Dalton story On the High Road to Oblivion, and this time I was inspired by what I think is the strangest—and scariest—bit of Tesla lore: the earthquake machine.
One area of interest that Tesla studied was resonance waves. Tesla observed that all substances have a certain resonant frequency, and that if you can cause an object to vibrate at or near that frequency, you might be able to shatter it. This is the principle by which an opera singer can shatter a crystal wine-glass with her song. Tesla claimed to have built a small steam-powered oscillator that could produce controlled resonant vibrations. In an interview, published in 1912, Tesla described how his first experiments broke a steel rod.
“Sledge hammers could not have done it; crowbars could not have done it, but a fusillade of taps, no one of which would have harmed a baby, did it.”
Tesla then tried his device on an unfinished ten-story steel building.
“In a few minutes, I could feel the beam trembling. Gradually, the trembling increased in intensity and extended throughout the whole great mass of steel. Finally, the structure began to creak and weave, and the steel-workers came to the ground panic-stricken, believing that there had been an earthquake. Rumors spread that the building was about to fall, and the police reserves were called out. Before anything serious happened, I took off the vibrator, put it in my pocket and went away. But if I had kept on ten minutes more, I could have laid that building flat in the street. And, with the same vibrator, I could drop Brooklyn Bridge into the East River in less than an hour.”
It is difficult to say if Tesla was telling the whole truth. In 2006, the Mythbusters built and tested a device that was supposed to do what Tesla claimed, and while they produced a measurable effect, the vibrations did not cause anything remotely resembling an earthquake. But even if Tesla’s specific claims were exaggerated, perhaps, in a bid to raise some money for one of his projects, the underlying principles of the machine are rooted in real science. Seismologists and geologists are able to map the interior of the earth by measuring the way that resonance waves—such as those created by earthquakes and large explosions—move through the planet.
Knowing that, I have to wonder then about something else Tesla claimed:
“The vibrations of the earth have a periodicity of approximately one hour and forty-nine minutes. That is to say, if I strike the earth this instant, a wave of contraction goes through it that will come back in one hour and forty-nine minutes in the form of expansion. As a matter of fact, the earth, like everything else, is in a constant state of vibration. It is constantly contracting and expanding.
“Now, suppose that at the precise moment when it begins to contract, I explode a ton of dynamite. That accelerates the contraction and, in one hour and forty-nine minutes, there comes an equally accelerated wave of expansion. When the wave of expansion ebbs, suppose I explode another ton of dynamite, thus further increasing the wave of contraction. And, suppose this performance be repeated, time after time. Is there any doubt as to what would happen? There is no doubt in my mind. The earth would be split in two… as a boy would split an apple.
“I could set the earth’s crust into such a state of vibration that it would rise and fall hundreds of feet, throwing rivers out of their beds, wrecking buildings, and practically destroying civilization.
Wow! When I first read that years ago, I knew that one day, one of my villains would try to destroy the earth using resonance waves.
Fortunately, even Tesla admitted that it would probably take months of sustained detonations to begin producing the desired(?) results. One ton of TNT every two hours…about 400 explosions every month…I think someone would probably catch on long before the earth’s crust started rippling like the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge. As dastardly geological modification plots go, Lex Luthor’s plan to create new waterfront property in Arizona probably had a better chance of success.
But even so…wow! If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from Tesla, it’s that sometimes the final application doesn’t look anything like the original intention.
For more on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster, and other destructive forces, check out this video explanation: