We might complain that it's 2015, and we're still waiting on our hoverboards. But if Nikola Tesla were alive today, he'd probably wonder where the hell our fuel-free, super fast aeroplanes were. And who could blame him? Fuel-free planes aside, he actually predicted a lot of 21st century technologies quite accurately.
The 30 January 1926 issue of Collier's magazine included an interview with the legendary inventor. In it, Tesla relayed his amazing predictions for the future — a world of flying machines, wireless power and female superiority. Some of the predictions were spot on. Others, not so much.
Tesla on TV and portable phones
July 1922 cover of Science and Invention imagining broadcast TV
At the beginning of 1926, when this interview with Tesla was published, television was barely making its first baby steps. But Tesla was already looking into the distant world of videophones, broadcast TV, and worldwide mobile communication.
When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.
We shall be able to witness and hear events — the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle — just as though we were present.
When the wireless transmission of power is made commercial, transport and transmission will be revolutionised. Already motion pictures have been transmitted by wireless over a short distance. Later the distance will be illimitable, and by later I mean only a few years hence. Pictures are transmitted over wires — they were telegraphed successfully through the point system thirty years ago. When wireless transmission of power becomes general, these methods will be as crude as is the steam locomotive compared with the electric train.
Wireless transmission of power was of particular interest to Tesla, but it's his predictions around mobile phone technology that have proved most prescient here in the early 21st century.
Tesla on flying machines
1925 Postcard of Future New York
Tesla was incredibly optimistic about the future of flying machines from the perspective of 1926.
Perhaps the most valuable application of wireless energy will be the propulsion of flying machines, which will carry no fuel and will be free from any limitations of the present aeroplanes and dirigibles. We shall ride from New York to Europe in a few hours. International boundaries will be largely obliterated and a great step will be made toward the unification and harmonious existence of the various races inhabiting the globe. Wireless will not only make possible the supply of energy to region, however inaccessible, but it will be effective politically by harmonizing international interests; it will create understanding instead of differences.
The idea of zipping from New York to London in just a few hours would remain a fantasy until the jet age, but we're still waiting on aeroplanes that "carry no fuel," as he predicted.
Tesla on wireless power and printing newspapers in the home
April 1934 cover of Radio Craft magazine
Tesla was way ahead of his time in so many ways. And since he and Hugo Gernsback were friends, one can draw a direct line between some of the ideas that Tesla had and the fascinating predictions that would show up in Gernsback's many tech and sci-fi magazines. One perfect example is that of the wireless newspaper:
Present wireless receiving apparatus will be scrapped for much simpler machines; static and all forms of interference will be eliminated, so that innumerable transmitters and receivers may be operated without interference. It is more than probable that the household's daily newspaper will be printed 'wirelessly' in the home during the night. Domestic management — the problems of heat, light and household mechanics — will be freed from all labour through beneficent wireless power.
Tesla was predicting wireless newspapers in the 1920s, but the folks at companies like RCA would actually get test runs of wireless newspaper printing in the home by the 1930s. Aside from being incredibly noisy and slow, the things actually worked.
Tesla on female superiority, for better and worse
Four women on the beach at Southsea via Getty
Nikola Tesla proclaimed in the article that one day soon women would rise to be superior to men. But he didn't exactly mean that as a positive thing. In fact, within the context of his beliefs at the time, he was downright terrified that women would become "victims" of their own success.
It is clear to any trained observer and even to the sociologically untrained, that a new attitude toward sex discrimination has come over the world through the centuries, receiving an abrupt stimulus just before and after the World War.
This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior. The modern woman, who anticipates in merely superficial phenomena the advancement of her sex, is but a surface symptom of something deeper and more potent fermenting in the bosom of the race.
It is not in the shallow physical imitation of men that women will assert first their equality and later their superiority, but in the awakening of the intellect of women.
Through countless generations, from the very beginning, the social subservience of women resulted naturally in the partial atrophy or at least the hereditary suspension of mental qualities which we now know the female sex to be endowed with no less than men.
But the female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilisation with their progress.
The acquisition of new fields of endeavour by women, their gradual usurpation of leadership, will dull and finally dissipate feminine sensibilities, will choke the maternal instinct, so that marriage and motherhood may become abhorrent and human civilisation draw closer and closer to the perfect civilisation of the bee."
Nikola Tesla had a complicated relationship with women. By many accounts he didn't know how best to communicate with them. He even had one secretary fired because he believed she was too fat. He told her as much.
Tesla on eugenics and the perfection of humanity
Eugenics tree from 1921
At the end of the Collier's article we see hints of Tesla's ideas around eugenics that would pervade the later part of his life.
Imagination falters at the prospect of human analogy to this mysterious and superbly dedicated civilisation of the bee; but when we consider how the human instinct for race perpetuation dominates life in its normal and exaggerated and perverse manifestations, there is ironic justice in the possibility that this instinct, with the continuing intellectual advance of women, may be finally expressed after the manner of the bee, though it will take centuries to break down the habits and customs of peoples that bar the way to such a simply and scientifically ordered civilisation.
We have seen a beginning of this in the United States. In Wisconsin the sterilisation of confirmed criminals and pre-marriage examination of males is required by law, while the doctrine of eugenics is now boldly preached where a few decades ago its advocacy was a statutory offence.
Old men have dreamed dreams and young men have seen visions from the beginning of time. We of today can only sit and wonder when a scientist has his say.
Tesla's advocacy of forced sterilisation and government approval of marriage partners wasn't that bizarre in some circles, but they're certainly an aspect of Tesla's belief system that many people here in the 21st century would like to forget.
Tesla was a brilliant inventor and visionary thinker. He was a complex man with ideas about women and eugenics that may have been fashionable to some at the time, but cause modern thinkers to recoil. Same as it never was, I suppose.