Tesla's Battle with Einstein
"Too bad, Sir Isaac, they dimmed your renown
And turned your great science upside down.
Now a long-haired crank, Einstein by name,
Puts on your high teaching all the blame.
Says: matter and force are transmutable
And wrong the laws you thought immutable."
Fragments of Olympian Gossip
Nikola Tesla, poet, September 1934
Nikola Tesla was perhaps the greatest inventor in the golden age of
invention which took place at the end of the 19th century. Merely
considering two of his inventions, his seminal creations of the AC
generator and motor spawned a century of progress, the creation of the
modern city and commerce as we know it. Although at the cutting edge of
science through the 1890s, Tesla rejected many twentieth century
scientific discoveries including relativity.
In spite of the fact that Tesla was among the most important inventors
involved in the development of radio, Tesla dismissed the findings of
Heinrich Hertz, rejecting the idea of electromagnetic waves being
transmitted through the air or empty space. Tesla claimed light
transmission and electromagnetic waves were the same as sound
transmission: vibrations of a substance. Radio waves, he contended,
traveled through the earth. In line with many 19th century scientists
Tesla believed a gas called "ether" filled outer space.
In a 1929 interview he said, "I had maintained for many years before
that such a medium as supposed could not exist, and that we must rather
accept the view that all space is filled with a gaseous substance. On
repeating the Hertz experiments, with much improved and very powerful
apparatus, I satisfied myself that what he had observed was nothing
else but effects of longitudinal waves in a gaseous medium, that is to
say, waves, propagated by alternate compression and expansion. He had
observed waves in the ether much of the nature of sound waves in the air1."
According to Tesla, in space, someone could hear your screams—and they
traveled quite rapidly. Ether allowed sound to move as quickly as
light. "This means that the velocity of the sound waves propagated
through the ether is about 300,000 times greater than that of the sound
waves in air, which travel at approximately 1,085 feet a second.
Consequently the speed in ether is 900,000 x 1,085 feet, or 186,000
miles, and that is the speed of light2."
Tesla claimed to have propagated waves at speeds much faster than
light. "Stating that the Einstein theory is erroneous in many respects,
Dr. Tesla stated as early as 1900, in his patent 787,412, that the
current of his radio-power transmitter passed over the surface of the
earth with a speed of 292,830 miles a second3."
Albert Einstein (left)
Nikola Tesla (right)
Tesla took this even further. As reported in a 1935 New York Times article:
"He [Tesla] described relativity as "a beggar wrapped in purple whom ignorant people take for a king."
In support of his statement he cited a number of experiments he had
conducted, he said, as far back as 1896 on the cosmic ray. He has
measured cosmic ray velocities from Antarus, he said, which he found to
be fifty times greater than the speed of light, thus demolishing, he
contended, one of the basic pillars of the structure of relativity,
according to which there can be no speed greater than that of light4.
Tesla also disagreed with the Einstein's fundamental finding that
energy is matter (e = mc2). "I have disintegrated atoms in my
experiments with a high potential vacuum tube I brought out in 1896
which I consider one of my best inventions. ... But as to atomic
energy, my experimental observations have shown that the process of
disintegration is not accompanied by a liberation of such energy as
might be expected from the present theories5."
Tesla was recognized for his life achievements in a gala 75th birthday
celebration. This made the cover of Time Magazine along with a feature
article. In that article, Tesla explained he was working on "...an
explanation based upon pure mathematics of certain things which
Professor Einstein has also attempted to explain. My conclusions in
certain respects differ from and to that extent tend to disprove the
Einstein Theory. My explanations of natural phenomena are not so
involved as his. They are simpler, and when I am ready to make a full
announcement it will be seen that I have proved my conclusions6." As with many of Tesla's late-life promises, nothing was forthcoming.
In that interview, Tesla reiterated his dismissal of mass equaling
energy. "I shattered atoms again and again. But no appreciable energy
sending him letters of congratulations was Albert Einstein. In a terse
two sentence greeting which seemed to diminish Tesla's accomplishments,
he said, "Dear Mr. Tesla, I am delighted to hear of your 75th birthday
and the celebration of your work as a successful pioneer in the field
of high-frequency currents which allowed the wonderful development of
this field of technology. I congratulate you on the great successes of
your life's work. Albert Einstein8."
So what did Einstein think of Tesla's claims? Einstein was accustomed
to criticism. In response to a 1931 pamphlet titled "100 Authors
Against Einstein," he said, "If I were wrong, then one would have been
enough9." Nearly a century after the theory of general
relativity was put forward, there have been regular attacks against it,
followed by quick retreats.
In the early
twentieth century, long-held orthodoxies were overturned and the
universe was found to be much more complex than previously recognized.
In the realm of invention and engineering Tesla was nearly without
peer. Tesla failed in his battle with Einstein because he fought on
Einstein's turf: pure science. In twentieth century science, Tesla had
become a stranger lost in a new world10.
Nikola Tesla Tells of New Radio Theories. Does Not Believe in Hertz
Waves and Heaviside Layer, Interview Discloses. New York Herald Tribune
Sept. 22, 1929, pp. 1, 29.
3. No High-Speed Limit, Says Tesla. The Literary Digest Nov. 7, 1931.
Tesla, 79, Promises to Transmit Force. Scientist on Birthday Reveals
Scheme to Send Mechanical Energy All Over World Would Even Guide Ships.
Assails Theory of Relativity as Work of Metaphysicians and not
Scientific. New York Times. July 11, 1935, p. 23.
5. Radio Power will Revolutionize the World by Nikola Tesla as Told to Alfred Albelli. Modern Mechanix and Inventions. July 1934
6. Nikola Tesla at 75. Time Magazine, July 20, 1931.
8. A photo of the original letter in German is presented at the Nikola Tesla Society website.
9. As cited in: A Brief History of Time (10th ed.), Hawking, Stephen (1998). Bantam Books. page 193.
End note. There are those who still advocate the concept of ether. Some
have tried to modernize the theory, others cling to the archaic
principles. For some it has become a means of rationalizing modern
perpetual motion machines.
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