How Tesla’s Death Ray Killed a Bill

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in modern day Croatia. He was one of the most innovative people of his time; his efforts to spearhead the development of alternating current (AC) electricity is chief among his many achievements. But one thing he wasn’t so good with was money — he was near-broken when he died. In part, that’s because of something he called the “teleforce,” or what almost everyone else called Tesla’s death beam or death ray.

The teleforce, the New York Times reported (pdf) in 1934, was an energy weapon which could “bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles from a defending nation’s border.” Tesla, though, didn’t see this “death beam” as a tool for war. Rather, he saw it as a defensive weapon and a path to world peace — why bother attacking if your forces are going to be vaporized en route? Tesla surmised that all nations could have their own teleforce if they wanted; they just had to pay him to finish his research and build the actual device.

The problem: almost no one wanted to. The Soviets gave him $25,000 for a briefing about the project but it’s unclear what Tesla actually delivered, and in any event, they decided not to move forward. Tesla approached Jack Morgan, son of J.P. Morgan, to fund the project privately; he declined. The British, under the leadership of Neville Chamberlain, showed some initial interest, but Chamberlain took a different route to reach “peace in our time” which famously failed. The rest of the world’s nations weren’t convinced that Tesla’s theories held water, and, with Chamberlain’s his ouster, per PBS, “interest in Tesla’s anti-war weapon eventually collapsed.”

As the years ticked on by, the public’s awareness of Tesla’s greatness remained but the amount of money in his pocket dwindled. As the 1930s wound down, Tesla found himself as a de facto resident of what would later become the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York, a guest who couldn’t afford to pay his bills. So he made a deal with the hotel management — in lieu of paying his debts with cash, how about he give the hotel one of his new inventions? The hotel manager agreed.

Tesla handed over his death beam — well, a box containing the death beam, at least. According to Mental Floss, he informed hotel management that the invention wasn’t to be trifled with — it was extremely dangerous — and therefore, it came with very specific instructions: don’t open the box. Fearing the “death” part of “death beam,” no one did for years.

That changed in 1943. Tesla died on January 7th of that year, alone in a New Yorker Hotel room. Three days later, the U.S. government asked an MIT professor named John G. Trump to look through all the stuff Tesla left behind — a request, according to the book “The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla,” which included investigating what was inside death beam box.

Trump, per Mental Floss, “later wrote in his FBI report that he took time to reflect upon his life before he opened the container.” But there was no need. The box didn’t have a death beam inside — it just contained some “common electrical components.” Not very dangerous, but good enough — with Tesla’s reputation attached — to get the inventor some free hotel stays.

Bonus fact: If you want to know what else the government found among Tesla’s papers and belongings, you’re somewhat out of luck. As Nat Geo reports, while most of it was made public in various way, “some of Tesla’s papers are still classified by the U.S. government” to this day. (But no, there probably isn’t a death beam design in there — or, at least, not a viable one.)

From the Archives: Saving Lives, Many Bullets at the Time: The weapon designed in order to mitigate the casualties of war… except that, well, it didn’t.