Tesla's Views on Electricity and the War
By H. Winfield Secor
Exclusive Interview to THE ELECTRICAL
NIKOLA TESLA, one of the greatest of living electrical engineers
and recipient of the seventh "Edison" medal, has evolved several
unique and far-reaching ideas which if developed and practically
applied should help to partially, if not totally, solve the much
discust submarine menace and to provide a means whereby the enemy's
powder and shell magazines may be exploded at a distance of several
There have been numerous stories bruited about by more or less
irresponsible self-styled experts that certain American inventors,
including Dr. Tesla, had invented among other things an electric
ray to destroy or detect a submarine under water at a considerable
distance. Mr. Tesla very courteously granted the writer an
interview and some of his ideas on electricity's possible role in
helping to end the great world-war are herein given:
The all-absorbing topic of daily conversation at the present time
is of course the "U-boat." Therefore, I made that subject my
"Well," said Dr. Tesla, "I have several distinct ideas regarding
the subjugation of the submarine. But lest we forget, let us not
underestimate the efficiency of the means available for carrying on
submarine warfare. We may use microphones to detect the submarine,
but on the other hand the submarine commander may employ
microphones to locate a ship and even torpedo it by the range thus
found, without ever showing his periscope above water.
"Many years ago while serving in the capacity of chief electrician
for an electric plant situated on the river Seine, in France, I had
occasion to require for certain testing purposes an extremely
sensitive galvanometer. In those days the quartz fiber was an
unknown quantity - and I, by becoming specially adept, managed to
produce an extremely fine cocoon fiber for the galvanometer
suspension. Further, the galvanometer proved very sensitive for the
location in which it was to be used ; so a special cement base was
sunk in the ground and by using a lead sub-base suspended on
springs all mechanical shock and vibration effects were finally
gotten rid of.
"As a matter of actual personal experience," said Dr. Tesla, "it
became a fact that the small iron-hull steam mail-packets (ships)
plying up and down the river Seine at a distance of 3 miles would
distinctly affect the galvanometer!"
"How could this be applied to the submarine problem?" I asked.
"Well, for one thing," the scientist replied, "I believe this
magnetic method of locating or indicating the presence of an iron
or steel mass might prove very practical in locating a hidden
submarine. And it is of course of paramount importance that we do
find a means of accurately locating the sub-sea fighters when they
are submerged, so that we can, with this information, be ready to
close in on them when they attempt to come to the surface.
Especially is this important when several vessels are traveling in
fleet formation; the location and presence of the enemy submarine
can be radiographed to the other vessels by the one doing the
magnetic surteying and, by means of nets in some cases, or gun-fire
and the use of hydro-aeroplanes sent aloft from the ships, the
enemy under water stands a mighty good chance of being either
'bombed,' shelled or netted.
"However, a means would soon be found of nullifying this magnetic
detector of the submerged undersea war-craft. They might make the
'U-boat' hulls of some non-magnetic metal, such as copper, brass,
or aluminum. It is a good rule to always keep in mind that for
practically every good invention of such a kind as this, there has
always been invented an opposite, and equally efficient
counteracting invention." "How about this new electric ray method
of locating submarines?" I ventured to ask.
"Yes, yes. I am coming to that," the master electrician parried.
"Now suppose that we erect on a vessel, a large rectangular helice
or inductance coil of insulated wire. Actual experiments in my
laoratory at Houston Street (New York City), have proven that the
presence of a local iron mass, such as the ship's hull, would not
interfere with the action of this device. To this coil of wire,
measuring perhaps 400 feet in length by 70 feet in width (the
length and breadth of the ship) we connect a source of extremely
high frequency and very powerful oscillating current.
By this means there are radiated powerful oscillating
electro-static currents, which as I have found by actual experiment
in my Colorado tests some years ago, will first affect a metallic
body (such as a submarine hull, even tho made of brass or any other
metal), and in turn cause that mass to react inductively on the
exciting coil on the ship. To locate an iron mass it is not
necessary to excite the coil with a high frequency current ; the
critical balance of the coil will be affected simply by the
presence of the magnetic body. To be able to accurately determine
the direction and range of the enemy submarine four exciting
inductances should be used. With a single inductance, however, it
would be possible to determine the location of a submarine by
running the ship first in one direction and then in another, and
noting whether the reactive effect caused by the presence of the
submarine hull increased or decreased. The radiating inductance
must be very sharply attuned to the measuring apparatus installed
on the ship, when no trouble will be found in detecting the
presence of such a large metallic mass as a submarine, even at a
distance of 5 to 6 miles; of this I feel confident from my past
experiments in the realm of ultrahigh frequency currents and
"What particular experiments do you have in mind. Dr. Tesla?" I
"The Colorado tests of 1898-1900. Wonderful were the results there
obtained, both those anticipated as well as those unexpected.
As an example of what has been done with several hundred kilowatts
of high frequency energy liberated, it was found that the dynamos
in a power house six miles away were repeatedly burned out, due to
the powerful high frequency currents set up in them, and which
caused heavy sparks to jump thru the windings and destroy the
insulation! The lightning arresters in the power house showed a
stream of blue-white sparks passing between the metal plates to the
earth connection. I could walk on the sand (ordinarily considered a
very good insulator) several hundred feet from my large high
frequency oscillator, and sparks jumped from my shoes! At such
distances all incandescent lamps glowed by wireless power, and
banks of lamp, connected to a few turns of wire arranged in a coil
on the ground, were lighted to full brilliancy. The effect on
metallic objects at considerable distances was really remarkable."
I asked him about the "Ulivi ray," which was accorded considerable
newspaper publicity- some time ago.
"The 'Ulivi ray' really was transplated from this country to
Italy," asserted Dr. Tesla. "It was simply an adaptation of my
ultra-powerful high-frequency phenomena as carried out in Colorado
and cited previously. With a powerful oscillator developing
thousands of horsepower it would become readily possible to
detonate powder and munition magazines by means of the high
frequency currents induced in every bit of metal, even when located
five to six miles away and more. Even a powder can would have a
potential of 6,000 to 7,000 volts induced in it at that distance.
"At the time of those tests I succeeded in producing the most
powerful X-rays ever seen. I could stand at a distance of 100 feet
from the X-ray apparatus and see the bones of the hand clearly with
the aid of a fluoroscope screen; and 1 could have easily seen them
at a distance several times this by utilizing suitable power. In
fact, I could not then procure X-ray generators to handle even a
small fraction of the power I had available. But I now have
apparatus designed whereby this tremendous energy of hundreds of
kilowatts can be successfully transformed into X-rays."
"Could these ultra-powerful and unusually penetrating X-rays be
used to locate or destroy a submarine with?" I interjected.
"Now we are coming to the method of locating such hidden metal
masses as submarines by an electric ray," replied the electrical
wizard. "That is the thing which seems to hold great promises. If
we can shoot out a concentrated ray comprising a stream of minute
electric charges vibrating electrically at tremendous frequency,
say millions of cycles per second, and then intercept this ray,
after it has been reflected by a submarine hull for example, and
cause this intercepted ray to illuminate a fluorescent screen
(similar to the X-ray method) on the same or another ship, then our
problem of locating the hidden submarine will have been solved.
"This electric ray would necessarily have to have an oscillation
wave length extremely short and here is where the great problem
presents itself: i.e., to be able to develop a sufficiently short
wave length and a large amount of power, say several hundred
thousand or even several thousand horse-power. I have produced
oscillators having a wave length of but a few millimeters.
"Suppose, for example, that a vessel is fitted with such an
electric ray projector. The average ship has available from say
10,000 to 15,000 H.P. The exploring ray could be flashed out
intermittently and thus it would be possible to hurl forth a very
formidable beam of pulsating electric energy, involving a discharge
of hundreds of thousands of horse-power. The electric energy would
be taken from the ship's plant for a fraction of a minute only,
being absorbed at a tremendous rate by suitable condensers and
other apparatus, from which it could be liberated at any rate
"Imagine that the ray has been shot out and that in sweeping thru
the water it encounters the hull of a submarine. What happens? Just
this: The ray would be reflected, and by an appropriate device we
would intercept and translate this reflected ray, as for instance
by allowing the ray to impinge on a phosphorescent screen, acting
in a similar way to the X-ray screen. The ray would be invisible to
the unaided eye.
The reflected ray could be firstly, intercepted by the one or more
ships in the fleet; or secondly, it would be possible for the ship
originating the ray to intercept the refracted portion by sending
out the ray intermittently and also by taking advantage of what is
known as the after-glow effect, which means that the ray would
affect the registering screen an appreciable time after its
origination. This would be necessary to allow the ship to move
forward sufficiently to get within range of the reflected ray from
the submarine, as the reflection would not be in the same direction
as the originating ray.
"To make this clearer, consider that a concentrated ray from a
searchlight is thrown on a balloon at night. When the spot of light
strikes the balloon, the latter at once becomes visible from many
different angles. The same effect would be created with the
electric ray if properly applied. When the ray struck the rough
hull of a submarine it would be reflected, but not in a centrated
beam - it would spread out; which is just what we want. Suppose
several vessels are steaming along in company; it thus becomes
evident that several of them will intercept the reflected ray and
accordingly be warned of the presence of the submarine or
submarines. The vessels would at once lower their nets, if so
equipt, order their gun crews to quarters and double the look-out
watch. The important thing to know is that submarines are present.
Forewarned is forearmed!
"The Teutons are clever, you know; very, very clever, but we shall
beat them," said Dr. Tesla confidently.
[It may be of interest to our readers to know that several
important electrical war schemes will shortly be laid before the
War and Navy Departments by Dr. Tesla, the details of which we
naturally cannot now publish.]
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