Tesla's Death Ray

Dear Cecil

I know you’ve discussed Tesla before (What’s up with “broadcast power”?, 04-May-1990), but I think the really interesting question is, did he fire a test of a death ray at the North Pole that accidently hit Russia?

I forgot to mention that the stories say that the resulting explosion in Russia is said to be the mysterious 1908 explosion in Tunguska Siberia.


No. :smack:

As popularized in Callahan’s Key, by Spider Robinson. AKA a work of fiction.

Amazaon says Calahan’s Key was published in July 5, 2000, is that right?


Haven’t read the book, have no idea what it has to do with Tunguska.

Without going into all the gory details, the “misunderstood genius-inventor” of the plot summary is Nicholas Tesla, whose death ray was the actual cause of the Tunguska incident.

At least, that’s part of the background behind Callahan’s Key, and the set-up for the book.

Ah, Spider Robinson didn’t make up the story–but he mentions the story in the novel?

sigh I’ll expand on my earlier remarks. This is from memory, as my copy of Callahan’s Key isn’t immediately available.

Spider Robinson has written a series of books which revolve around Callahan’s bar and Lady Sally’s Place. Among the characters which inhabit that particular universe is Nicholas Tesla, who did not die in 1943 as believed, but disappeared and became an immortal time-traveller. In previous books in the series he has been involved in several “save-the-world” plots.

In the opening of Callahan’s Key he announces that he has just discovered that the universe is going to be destroyed as a result of a test of his “death ray” device. I’m a little hazy on the details, but IIRC the premise is that the government has been secretly continuing research based on papers that had been seized after his “death” and is about to launch a satellite which is equipped with a missile destruction system based on this research. During the course of this explanation, it is mentioned that the 1908 Tunguska incident was actually caused by one of his own early experiments which led to his “death ray” research.

I’m assuming that Spider Robinson picked up the theory of Tesla’s power beam experiments being one of the proposed causes of the Tunguska Incident and used it as a plot hook for this story. If you’re at all familiar with his writings, he does this sort of thing a lot, and I wouldn’t necessarily take this as an endorsement of the theory. A Google search of “Tesla” and “Tunguska” resulted in several thousand cites, which I did not take the time to examine. I suspect that Ethilrist had read “Callahan’s Key” and, recognizing the reference to the topic of your post, decided to mention it.

The notion that the Tunguska explosion was caused by a beam of some sort, rather than the explosion in the atmosphere of a physical object is pretty whacky, but not without precedent. There was a suggestion in some Russian magazine back in the late 1960s that aliens near Cygnus 61 received radio waves from the eruption of Krakatoa, and responded with their own powerful beam, touching off the Tunguska explosion. An account of this actually got printed in Time magazine in the 60s.

Never heard the thing about Tesla, though. I suspect Robinson made that up himself, unless there are new whackos who came up with this.
For the record, there were eyewitnesses to the event. Although the first expeditions (in the 1920s) failed to find any solid chucks, one of the later expeditions before WWII may have. Certainly a lot of microscopic fragments were found in the expeditions from the late 1950s/early 1960s, confirming that something hit. Speculation about the nature of the object has roamed all over the map – cosmic dust balls, meteorites that skipped back into space, anti-matter, quantum black holes – but the best suggestion has been that this was a fragment of a comet. Although I understand that some folks have recently been saying that it was a garden-variety meteorite that very completely vaporized instead of hitting the ground.

Carbonaceous chondrites have exceedingly low survivability once they hit atmosphere. I could see it exploding to dust on or about impact time.

Atmospheric explosion above the surface, which is why the trees all fell outward, but there’s no crater.

I’m going to look into that Time magazine thing more later, but I did find some links that seem to pre-date the Robinson book:

Tesla’s Wireless Power Transmitter and the Tunguska Explosion of 1908, by Oliver Nichelson (1995?). That link says it was first published in a different form in 1990. Other links point to Nichelson as the one who originated the claim, based upon circumstantial evidence. Tesla’s Fuelless Generator and Wireless Method seems to consist of papers written between 1991 and 1993, by Nichelson. So maybe the whole story developed after Cecil wrote that article I linked to in the OP, where he says he is well acquainted with Tesla, and mentions other wild accounts of Tesla–but not this one.

This page, on monkeyshrine.com seems to say that Tesla himself speculated about Tunguska. But that page is hard to read. :slight_smile: G*sh, here’s a letter that Nichelson received from Arthur C. Clarke!

A quick study makes it quite clear that, whatever Tesla may or may not have been getting at, Nichelson is a plain-vanilla perpetual-motion crank, indistinguishable from every other perpetual-motion crank.

Aside from the fact that nobody seems to have a source for the Tunguska claim, there’s a possible problem with dates here. While the event in Siberia took place in 1908, it took a long time for an appreciation of what had happened to reach the West. Or even Moscow, since Kulik’s first expedition to the area of the impact wasn’t until after the Revolution. Even then, to judge from the early entries in this Tunguska bibliography, the earliest stories in English weren’t until 1930. Though it also shows that there was obviously a great deal of interest in the site in the scientific press through the 1930s. (It also lists a 1928 article in German and I think it’s ignoring the Russian literature entirely.)
Now Tesla had been promising “death rays” since WWI, but in all his talk these tended to be rather benign weapons, which were meant to somehow switch off airplane and ship engines, rendering them impotent rather than destroying them. If he were to have explicitly claimed to be responsible for Tunguska, then this would presumably be after 1930. But by then he was in his mid-70s and well past whatever peak you might ascribe to him. Even in a sympathetic (if credulous) portrait like Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: Man Out of Time (Delta, 1998), the picture of him by this stage is of a somewhat pathetic fantasist, spinning old dreams to any journalist (and pigeon) who’ll listen. Hardly promising.
Even if the claim was just that he’d tried to transmit some “message” to the North Pole, he’d presumably thought this had completely failed until news of Tunguska reached the US. So again, he’s unlikely to have mentioned this prior to 1930 or so.

Of course, it’s difficult to argue the negative. But without a better lead on a date and wording of any exact claim, it doesn’t look too convincing, even if Tesla did really claim it.

My favorite bit of Tesla trivia: he had an absolute phobia of pearls. He was very good friends with one of the daughters of financier J.P. Morgan, but her wearing of pearls bothered him so that some have hypothesized it changed history- had he used the relationship to acquire more funding from her father then he might have surpassed Edison, but the pearls kept him at bay like garlic.
My favorite photo of Mark Twain is of him standing behind a Tesla coil. I’d post a link but my computer is wacky- just google Twain Tesla and image search if you’re interested.
Nik finds his way into quite a few sci-fi stories. I suppose he’s the closest real life prototype to the mad scientist of so many movies.

Not Tesla’s "death-ray"

The claims about the Tunguska event are about Tesla’s experiments in broadcasting EM energy and experiments in electrical earth-resonance. The death ray was something entirely separate.

Tesla’s death ray was apparently very much like a modern water-jet cutter, but powered by the DC high voltage output of a huge VandeGraaff machine. He used tiny dense electrically charged dropets (liquid mercury or tungsten) which were ejected in a tightly controlled row, accelerated within a vacuum, and then guided out into the air through a tiny port equipped with a sort of aspirator pump. Today the same effect is harnessed for use in mass spectrometer equipment under the name “electrospray,” where microscopic water droplets transport single protein molecules into a vacuum chamber, where they’re treated as an ion beam. Rather than using Tesla’s “valvular conduit” to get the droplets into the vacuum chamber, today we just use a tiny capillary tube, then keep the chamber under vacuum using high capacity pumps.

This article below contains a diagram of the “death ray” tower. It’s a VandeGraaf generator which used high speed air as it’s charge transport belt. The “gun” was housed inside the spherical high voltage terminal.


That article also interviews several Tesla experts about the Tunguska blast.

Cecil now has a column on it

And there is another thread in Comments on Cecil’s Column


Correct, I hadn’t even heard of the “death-ray” before. This site postulates that Tesla intended to create an artificial Aurora Borealis to light the way for Admiral Perry’s expedition but miscalculated the required trajectory. Tesla’s misguided massive static electricity bolt is my favorite theory, however implausible it may be. At least it’s better than saying aliens did it. :slight_smile:

I have always been a big fan of this theory, although I’ve never belived it…