Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is often mentioned in the same breath as such giants of science as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi and Alfred Nobel.
Here are just a few of his accomplishments: he produced the first motor that ran on alternating current (AC); his ‘Tesla coil’ laid the foundation for wireless technologies and is still used in radio technology today; he was a pioneer in the discovery of radar, X-ray technology and remote control; and he teamed with George Westinghouse to build the world’s first large-scale AC power plant.
Today the magnetic field strength of MRI scanners is measured in Teslas, and Tesla is the name of a leading maker of electric cars.
But did Tesla himself make an electric car?
Many claims have been made about the scope of his achievements. Some of the boldest claims were made by Tesla himself. As the respected Smithsonian magazine has noted: “He claimed that he had developed a motor that ran on cosmic rays; that he was working on a new non-Einsteinian physics that would supply a new form of energy; that he had discovered a new technique for photographing thoughts; and that he had developed a new ray, alternately labelled the death ray and the peace ray, with vastly greater military potential than Nobel’s munitions.”
The claims he invented an electric car are usually related to a story about a ‘black box’ powering the motor with free cosmic energy. Much of the related discussion takes the line that Tesla’s revolutionary discoveries were suppressed by companies to protect their own financial interests.
Most of the stories rest on the supposed account of one Peter Savo, Tesla’s nephew, who was reported as saying he participated in an experiment involving an automobile and ‘aetheric power’ – naturally occurring charged particles.
In 1931, so the story goes, Tesla took his nephew to a garage in Buffalo, New York, and showed him a modified Pierce-Arrow automobile. The car’s ‘cosmic energy power receiver’ – a black box with 12 vacuum tubes – was connected to a long antenna.
The car was said to have been driven for about 80 km at speeds of up to 140 km/h during an eight-day road test. Tesla allegedly said the device would power the car forever, and also supply the needs of a household “with power to spare”.
It is a fact that in 1898 Tesla filed a patent for a “method of and apparatus for controlling mechanism of moving vessels or vehicles”.
But four major problems with the story emerge.
First, no physical evidence of such a car as described by Savo has ever been produced. Second, Tesla did not have a nephew named Peter Savo. Third, Tesla’s grand-nephew William Terbo has said the electric car story is a fabrication. Fourth, despite eight decades of progress in physics, no evidence of this ‘aetheric power’ has ever been detected.
Related reading: Nikola Tesla: The AC/DC current wars make a comeback
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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