Nikola Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs, around 1899

Nikola Tesla is probably best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system, as well as being your traditional “mad scientist”. But did you know Tesla also worked on a “Death Ray” in the 1930’s?

Tesla actually drew inspiration from a “pop gun” he had as a child, which is an early form of air pistol whereby you pumped air into the barrel and it would fire off a cork from the end of the gun – but we’ll get to that later.

Early beginnings

It sounds like something out of Star Wars, but Tesla’s work on particle beam weapons can be traced right back to 1893 with his invention of the button lamp, and again in 1896 when he followed in the footsteps of William Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays.

But rather than taking close up X-rays like we are accustomed to now, Tesla was “shooting” his rays over some impressive distances, taking photographs of skeletons as far as 40 feet from where he was stood with the gun – not bad aim, eh!

Tesla was also involved in experiments with shooting cathode rays at targets, and this, alongside similar work from J.J. Thompson (a former colleague of Tesla’s) led to the discovery, by Thompson, of the electron.

Skip forward to 1918, and Tesla has managed to build himself a laser-like apparatus which he shot at the moon (Death Star anyone?!) which seems to have been built from all the components that made up the button lamp we mentioned above. So how can a lamp also be a laser gun?

The lamp was constructed so that a piece of matter, such as carbon or a diamond, was placed in the centre. This matter, of the “button” would then be bombarded with electrical energy, which would bounce onto the inside of the glass casing it was held in and then bounce back onto the button.

This led to a “pencil-thin” line of light created from the device, and it is believed that this same process was used by Tesla to send laser pulses to the moon.

Particle beam weapon

So, he had the laser, but Tesla realised that this ray would not have the energy required to be destructive, and then it would disperse somewhat over long distances. He came to the conclusion that, instead of shooting a ray of light, he would shoot microscopic pellets (inspired by the pop gun). The stream could not disperse because, theoretically, it would be one pellet thick.

After some further studying of the Van de Graaff generator, Tesla created a setup which had an ionized stream of air which would then repel the small pellets (made from tungsten) out of an open-ended vacuum tube which was shaped like a cannon. Lo and behold, your very own death ray – or as Tesla called it, Teleforce.

Tesla had some bold claims for his invention as well, when in 1934 he said it could “send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation's border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.”

What next?

After describing his invention as the superweapon that would put an end to all war, Tesla tried to pitch his design to many different parties, including the US War Department, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia.

The Soviet Union showed some interest in the device, partially testing it there in 1939, for which Tesla was paid $25,000. It was also around this time that he believed attempts were made to steal his design, claiming his room was entered and his papers were scattered.

However, the thieves left empty-handed, as the blueprint for the weapon was stored in the safest place possible – Tesla’s mind.

Was it ever built?

Questions still remain to this day as to whether the particle beam weapon was actually built. His weapon bears an uncanny resemblance to a charged-particle beam weapon developed by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but what about one from Tesla himself?

During a celebration meal in his honour, Tesla stated at the age of 81: "But it is not an experiment... I have built, demonstrated and used it. Only a little time will pass before I can give it to the world."

Its existence is still something which is heavily debated by experts, but if Tesla was telling the truth of his invention, what happened to it…?


Photo courtesy of Wellcome Library, London, under Creative Commons