He Saw the Potential

Ahead of His Time: Military Meddling

Before America's involvement in World War I, Tesla outlined a means of detecting enemy ships and submarines using electromagnetic induction. Induction is the process by which a changing magnetic field instills an electric current in a metallic object located within it. The reverse is also true, so currents inducted in the skin of a nearby submarine, for example, would create their own magnetic fields, which would "push back" against, or dampen, the original field, theoretically rendering the sub detectable.

The inventor also warned against wingless, remote-controlled craft that might deliver explosive ordnance [sources: PBS]. Late in life, he designed and patented a design for a V/STOL (vertical or short takeoff and landing) aircraft [sources: Cheney; PBS].

In an era when the dollar was king, in which scientists and engineers built business empires on the backs of one or two breakthroughs, Tesla's focus never strayed from his work. Consequently, he was both prolific and, at times, poor.

While his competitors in the War of the Currents -- the struggle between Tesla's and Edison's camps over whose electrical technology would reign supreme -- fought tooth-and-nail to secure electrical monopolies, his desire to acquire funding for his next big project repeatedly trumped his interest in protecting his patents and inventions [sources: Cheney; Jonnes].

Tesla's focus and farsightedness worked to the inventor's detriment almost as much as they benefited society. Unlike Edison, he did not actively cultivate a reputation with the public, wield the press for publicity (or to launch attacks) or possess a strong business standing. More to the point, his work delved into realms beyond the grasp of many of his contemporaries. Consequently, Tesla struggled to gain funding to support his research [sources: Jonnes; PBS; Secor]. For example, Tesla suggested bouncing high-frequency electrical waves off the hulls of ships and subs made of nonferrous and nonconducting materials. The Navy passed on funding his research [sources: PBS; Secor].