This vision sounds ho-hum to us today, when smartphones are ubiquitous. But it’s impressively prescient when we consider that this visionary wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, but Nikola Tesla, speaking in 1926.
But Tesla, who created some of the most important technological innovations of his time, was unable to win financial backing for his vision, and he died in obscurity. Had Tesla’s ideas been properly funded, the transformative power of the Internet might have taken hold sooner and been developed for reasons of improving human connection rather than national defense — with significant ramifications.
Tesla’s effect on the 21st century is extensive. Without him, we would not have the radio, AC electricity, power grids, television, Tesla coils, neon lighting, fluorescent lighting, radio-controlled devices, robotics, X-rays, radar, microwaves and many other inventions applicable to our daily lives.
Born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia (then part of the Austrian Empire), Tesla emigrated to New York in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison. After a year of impressive work and accomplishments, the two had a major falling out. Edison failed to pay Tesla $50,000 he had promised for an improved design for his DC dynamos, generators that used a commutator to produce direct current instead of alternating current. His refusal to pay Tesla seemingly had more to do with personality clashes than Tesla’s work on the dynamos; Edison reportedly told Tesla that he “didn’t understand American humor.”
After initially failing to launch his own independent company, Tesla found a backer, George Westinghouse, for his alternating-current motor, which he envisioned directly competing with the Edison-championed direct-current system.
Tesla benefited from how, as industrialization spread throughout the United States in the late 19th century, wealth became concentrated in the hands of the few. This new group of wealthy men, including Westinghouse, often financed innovations and inventions in pursuit of profit — and many of Tesla’s inventions, including the AC motor, appeared to have obvious applications in industry.
Tesla invented his motor in 1887 and licensed it to the Westinghouse Co. in 1888. Compared with other systems, Tesla’s motor was more durable, more efficient and cheaper to maintain. Tesla’s AC system spread quickly as its popularity soared.
In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Tesla and Westinghouse underbid a contract by Edison and General Electric to power the expo using generators employing Tesla’s alternating-current system. As the exposition opened, thousands of bright lamps flashed on, startling fairgoers. The demonstration dispelled public fears of alternating-current systems, and AC became the standard for power systems.
Tesla’s triumph at the World’s Fair was followed by a personal setback when, in 1895, his New York lab burned down, along with thousands of notes, designs and plans, including countless patents and inventions. According to historian W. Bernard Carlson, the event traumatized Tesla, who retreated to Colorado Springs for two years before returning to New York in 1900.
But it was in Colorado Springs that Tesla first imagined a world wireless network. Believing it was possible to send power around the world without using wires, he secured funding in 1902 from wealthy financier J.P. Morgan to build a laboratory at Wardenclyffe, Long Island. He sought to experiment by sending wireless electricity and messages across distances, including, he hoped, across the Atlantic.
Annoyed that rival inventor Guglielmo Marconi had in 1901 transmitted Morse code from England to Newfoundland, Canada, Tesla thought that Marconi had stolen his designs. Six months after Tesla’s death in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all of Marconi’s radio patents were invalid and awarded the patents for radio to Tesla, vindicating his anger posthumously. But Marconi’s success at the time still meant Tesla needed another angle to present to Morgan.
So, in 1902, Tesla proposed a “World Telegraphy System,” in which transmitting stations would collect news stories and broadcast them to customers through individual receivers. His vision was even broader, though, as he described in a letter to Morgan: “The whole earth is like a brain, as it were, and the capacity of this system is infinite, for the energy received on every few square feet of ground is sufficient to operate an instrument, and the number of devices which can be so actuated is … infinite.” Tesla also envisioned small individual receivers that would be able to receive and transmit information instantaneously.
But according to the author Richard Munson, despite Tesla’s grandiose vision, Morgan simply wasn’t convinced and pulled his funding from the Wardenclyffe lab. With investors on Wall Street pouring their money into Marconi’s system, Tesla began to run out of funding. Despite sending more than 50 letters to Morgan pleading his case, Morgan was unconvinced that Tesla’s system was feasible or profitable.
Disheartened, Tesla lived his last decades in a New York hotel, working on new inventions despite failing physical and mental health. He died penniless on Jan. 7, 1943, without a financial backer to bring his ideas to life.
Tesla was brilliant, but his asocial nature and his inability to harness crucial alliances, especially with captains of industry, cost him the ability to materialize his ideas. Tesla’s legacy was secured by his breakthrough inventions, especially the AC motor. But his less-known, never-fulfilled vision about mass communication and the transmission of instantaneous information is also important.
That’s because his idea, an early predecessor of the Internet, would have expanded human communication and connection. As Tesla put it, “We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.” Seeing the world as interconnected, as akin to a “huge brain,” was a wondrous idea as Tesla envisioned it. Yet the funding flowed to other inventions, ones on which investors could secure a quick return on investment. While those inventions fueled industry and eventually shaped consumers’ lives, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the United States invested in networked communications through the Defense Department.
Perhaps if Tesla’s vision of a permanently connected world had guided the development of the Internet as we know it, our Internet would be more concerned with human connection rather than nationalism and commercial profit. The early structure of the Internet was supported by decades of public investment. In the 1990s, new commercial Internet service providers broadened access to new users — while ushering in an era of spam, clickbait and data mining. The digital world has quickly evolved into a monumental commercial project, rife with advertising and private ventures. Today, some users believe Internet services should be treated as a public utility to facilitate human connection over profit-driven corporate interests.
But as in Tesla’s time, money still guides much of the innovation we see in the world. Financialization has led corporations to focus on boosting stock prices rather than innovation, productivity and job growth. Rather than advance the cause of humanity as a public good, financial interests trump other elements of technological progress, leaving us poorer for it.