Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tesla Versus the Martians

In January, 1901, Nikola Tesla announced that he had received radio signals which he believed came from Mars. A brief message, the numbers 1,2,3, came to him during his 1899 experiments in Colorado Springs at the foot of Pike's Peak. "I share the belief of other scientific men that the planet Mars is inhabited; that the inhabitants are intelligent and they are trying to communicate with the inhabitants of other planets including our earth.  . . . While investigating, the instrument I was using recorded certain feeble movements that could be barely noted at times. Their character showed unmistakably that they were not of solar origin. Neither were they produced by any causes known to me on the globe. After months of deep thought on this subject I have arrived at the conviction, amounting to almost knowledge, that these movements must be of planetary origin. . . . Inhabitants of Mars, I believe, are trying to signal the Earth." [Tesla And Mars. January 4, 1901  Daily People, New York, p. 2]

This announcement was copied in newspapers throughout America, provoking wonderment by those who believed it dawned a new age -- and ridicule from skeptics. Over time, the announcement was used to denigrate Tesla, to show that he was delusional enough to believe in little green men. But, as for believing in communication with Mars, he was hardly alone in his notions.

Some Context.

In 1894, Percival Lowell, one of the foremost astronomers of the day, directed the high-powered refractory telescope he had set-up at an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona toward Mars and announced that he detected canals, ergo, evidence of life. He published these findings in 1895 in a book called Mars.

Even more important in solidifying the public's impression of Martians was H.G. Wells' sensational, The War of the Worlds, serialized in 1897 and published in book form in 1898, in which malevolent Martians invade the earth.

Martian mania was fully underway. In the fanciful serial, Edison's Conquest of Mars, also 1898, the inventor collaborated with the greatest minds of the day to save Earth.

The salvation of Earth ". . .was due to a few dauntless men of science, conspicuous among whom were Lord Kelvin, the great English savant; Herr Roentgen, the discoverer of the famous X ray, and especially Thomas A. Edison, the American genius of science." Edison's Conquest of Mars, Garrett Putman Serviss.

Notably, Tesla was absent from the list.

Also, beginning in the mid-1890s for the first time in human history, mankind could communicate beyond visible and shouting distances without the use of wires. Tesla undertook experiments transmitting and detecting radio signals from site to site in Manhattan. In 1896, Marconi showed that radio could communicate across the Bristol Channel, approximately 14 kilometers, and in 1899, across the English Channel. These transmissions were in Morse code. Voice transmission would not take place until 1900.

The possibility of communicating with another planet seemed possible as Tesla noted in an 1896 interview. "I have had this scheme under consideration for five or six years . . . [noting that we have electrical disturbances from the sun shows that electrical waves are propagated through space.] It is wholly through the electricity waves, which are propagated through the atmosphere and the ether beyond that we may hope to obtain any results." [May Signal to Mars. March 25, 1896. New Haven Register, p. 7]

A later article suggests that it was terminology that prevented Tesla from equating "electric waves" with electromagnetic or radio waves. In referring to using electric waves to communicate with Mars, Tesla said: "The oscillator instantly transform this electric current, by a series of coils, into an electro-motive force, vibrating at the rate of 2,000,000 to 4,000,000 times a second. This starts electric waves through the air and earth, which vibrate almost as fast as the waves that produce light, and travel with the same speed. These waves, like X-rays, pass through any dense substance . . ." [May 21, 1899  Seattle Daily Times Page: 4]

Other stories combined Tesla's ideas with the recent advances in astronomical photography—and foreshadowed those who would suggest Tesla was crazy. "In reflecting on recent photographs of Mars taken from a telescope, the photographer Dr. Elmerdorf declared he would soon be able to pinpoint the cities on Mars." In defending this statement the newspaper went on to say, ". . . one can pardon the enthusiasm of an extremist by recalling that all great inventors were at one time "extremists," Edison was a "crazy man" for years; and Nicola Tesla, who spends a fraction of his time signalling to Mars is called "peculiar" by nine scientists out of ten." [Mars Looks Pleasant Caught by Camera, Springfield Sunday Journal, October 30, 1898]

Together, these set the scene for Tesla's announcement that he had received a communication with Mars.

After Tesla's 1901 Announcement.

Some, including the radio expert Guglielmo Marconi dismissed the idea. "In earlier experiments before my apparatus was perfected I often received signals apparently from nowhere. . . . I should attribute the alleged signals from Mars to local disturbances in the atmosphere. . ." [Possible Signals from Mars. Signor Marconi is Not Inclined to Believe in Them. January 5, 1901, Baltimore Sun p. 9]

Other skeptics weighed in, some with derision. A San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece accused Tesla of swindling. "Faker Tesla has evidently found a "good thing" in some one who is furnishing him with coin to carry on his alleged experiments to communicate with the planet Mars . . . Tesla seems to be as much of an adept in working the "graft" on the credulous with money as was the author of the Keeley motor." [January 22, 1901, San Francisco Chronicle, p. 6] (The Keeley motor was the standard for a con job for many years.)

Others took the announcement with bemusement:

And he [Tesla] promises the men (but this, of course, is just between us)
He will have a private line for them to whisper up to Venus.
Also one "For Women Only" he will put in very soon,
So the girls can all be talking to the man in the moon.
[June 11, 1901, Boston Herald, p. 11]

The Colorado Springs Gazette commented: "If there are people in Mars, they certainly showed most excellent taste in choosing Colorado Springs as the particular point on the earth's surface with which to open communications." [March 9, 1901, Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado) p. 4]

Tesla assured the skeptics that he would soon be able to send messages to Mars and open up a dialogue. The world waited. As a January 12th, 1901 headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer read: All of Europe Talking of Signalling to Mars.

Tesla received his own treatment as a hero in a fictional adventure. The New Golden Hours magazine, March 30, 1901.
Alas, Tesla failed to open up a line of communication with Mars. In contrast, on December 12, 1901, Marconi sent the first wireless transmission across the Atlantic.

A month later, Tesla did not attend a dinner honoring Marconi held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. As one editorial suggested, "Possibly he may have had engagements with the people of the planet Mars that forbade his going." [January 15, 1902, Worcester Daily Spy, p. 6]

Tesla did have his supporters. "Now comes Professor Hough, the venerable astronomer of the Northwestern University with the announcement that in his opinion Mars is inhabited by a race much superior to the race which now inhabits the earth. As the Martians had a long start of us--Professor Hough believes that under the law of evolution they should be much more advanced intellectually and morally than we are." [September 19, 1902, San Jose Evening News, p. 4]

In 1903, Lowell reignited the argument that Mars was inhabited by claiming he saw bright flashes emanating from the planet.

Marconi Versus the Martians.

Beginning in 1919, Marconi went through several rounds of reporting that he had observed signals that may well have come from another planet. Some of his pronouncements were appended with uncertainty as to whether Mars was inhabited, others declared more certainty. This could well have been the phrasing of the reporting, a phenomenon which could equally have affected Tesla.

"Marconi, inventor of practical wireless, announces that he has received strange signals that did not originate on the earth. Nikola Tesla believes they may be messages from Mars. . . . Are the stars inhabited? The soundest affirmative argument is that nature is always efficient and that stars without folks would be extremely, inefficient, useless." [January 30, 1919, Wilkes-Barre Times, p. 12]

Marconi suggested that a mathematical language could be formed for the primary communication. He recommended the first message be: 2 + 2 = 4, and wait for a confirmation.

In a 1920 article, the inventor suggested these signals could be from the sun -- or a planet. ""We occasionally get very queer sounds and indications, which come from somewhere outside the earth," said Signor Marconi. "We have had them both in England and America. The Morse signal letters occur with much greater frequency than others, but we have never yet picked up anything could be translated into a definite message."

In 1922, when a particularly close alignment of Mars and Earth could allow for signaling, it was reported that Marconi was at sea, arranging just such an experiment. He denied that this was the purpose for his voyage.

The question continued to hound him. In 1934, three years before his death, he is quoted as saying, "I am frequently asked if it is within the range of probability that we may one day talk to Mars by radio. Why not? If there are beings on Mars at least as intelligent as we are, there is no reason why we should not one day communicate with them." [Marconi Thinks Mars Obtainable In Line Of Radio Communication. August 13, 1934, Springfield Republican, p. 5]

Edison (and others) Versus The Martians

It is unfortunate and unfair that Tesla alone was tarred by his statements amount communicating with Mars. Here is a sampling of others of the great scientist and inventors of the day.

Thomas Edison had his round of publicity regarding communication with Mars. From an interview on his 73rd birthday in 1920: "Asked what he was working on now, the inventor said he was not prepared to make any definite announcement, but his latest investigations had to do with ether. He said he believed radio communication with Mars to be possible. ... "Existing machinery is sufficiently strong to send a signal to Mars. The question is, have the beings there receiving apparatus delicate enough to get our signals?" [Thomas A. Edison Warmly Greeted On 73d Birthday. February 12, 1920, Harrisburg Patriot, p. 8.]

On the occasion of his 74th birthday Edison announced working on an immortality machine and continuing to work on a radio to talk to Mars. "'. . . the life units which form a man do not die. They pass out of one important mechanism to seek another habitat. I believe that one hundred trillion entities go to make up a single man; twenty billion cells each consisting of a commune of 5000 entities. . . . The device is of the nature of a valve, and the slightest conceivable amount of energy exerted on it is multiplied many times. . . .' Next to the immortality machine in importance comes a radio invention by which Edison hopes to make possible communication with Mars." [Edison at 74, Works on Machine to Prove That He'll Live Forever. February 11, 1921, Cincinnati Post, p. 6] The immortality machine also mirrors some of Tesla's wilder pursuits in his later life.

Years before, in praise of Edison, Lord Kelvin said, ". . . Edison brought out his lamp here in New York, and the whole world was lit. New York is the only spot on earth that Mars sees. Mars is signalling only to New York." [Mars Signals New York. June 1, 1902 Macon Telegraph p.14]

Charles Steinmetz declared that building a radio tower to signal Mars was feasible but would cost one billion dollars. [September 8, 1921 Muskegon Chronicle, p. 4]


Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.


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