Lost Curiosities: The Disappearing Death Ray


Nikola Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs, circa 1900.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Nikola Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs, circa 1900. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nikola Tesla has been the subject of much discussion in recent years.  Among the most notable mentions was that of 2012 when the Oatmeal started a funding campaign for a Tesla Museum.  His feud with Edison and his love for pigeons are among the things that come up when discussing this quirky inventor but of most interest, perhaps, was his belief that he could build a “death ray.”

The Teleforce was a charged particle beam projector that Tesla was working on in the 1930s and 1940s.  Of it, he told the New York Times in September of 1940 “Airplane motors would be melted at a distance of 250 miles, so that an invisible ‘Chinese Wall of Defense’ would be built around the country against any enemy attack by an enemy air force, no matter how large.” He went on to claim that it “would operate through a beam one- hundred-millionth of a square centimeter in diameter, and could be generated from special plant that would cost no more then $2,000,000 and would take only about three months to construct. A dozen such plants, located at strategic points along the coast… would be enough to defend the country against all aerial attack. The beam would melt any engine, whether diesel or gasoline driven, and would also ignite the explosives aboard any bomber. No possible defense against it could be devised… as the beam would be all-penetrating.”

The inventor viewed the Teleforce less as the “death ray” that we know it as today than as a weapon of peace.  It was his belief that such a weapon could be used for protection and the fact of its existence might result in a permanent peace.  He attempted to obtain funding for the machine from a number of Allied nations but never managed to secure enough to complete the project.

But what happened to the plans for the Teleforce upon Tesla’s death?

One of the many pages in Tesla's FBI file.  Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
One of the many pages in Tesla’s FBI file. Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The United States government was believed to have taken a great interest in the ray and its potential for widespread destruction.  A myth exists that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided Tesla’s home after his death and took the plans for the ray.  In fact, no such thing occurred and the FBI has released a significant amount of documentation about the confusion.  (Portions of Tesla’s file are available online.)

The morning after Tesla’s death, his nephew Sava Kosanovic rushed to the apartment to search for his plans.  Tesla’s body had already been removed when he arrived and Kosanovic suspected that his uncle’s personal effects had been rifled through and certain items stolen.  Initially, they were seized by the Department of Justice Alien Property Custodian Office.  Copies of the plans for the projector were sent to Patterson Air Force Base just after World War II.  However, the copies disappeared and no one is certain what happened to them.  In 1952, Tesla’s remaining papers were released to his nephew and ended up in Yugoslavia in a museum dedicated to the famous inventor.  Access to those papers became extremely limited to Western researchers and scientists because of the nature of the political regime in power.

Where are Tesla’s missing papers today?  Did they end up in a different set of government hands?  Were they carelessly discarded by someone who did not know what they had?  Or did they find a different fate altogether?  We may never know what happened to the plans for the “death ray” but perhaps some things are better left to myth than history.

Find Out More

There are a number of websites devoted to Nikola Tesla.  For this particular topic, it is recommended that the reader go to the FBI website and take a look at the Vault to explore some of the information now available.  A good overview of Tesla’s life may also be found courtesy of the Public Broadcast System.

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    1. I do agree that I have a hard time thinking that they are completely gone. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are someday uncovered due to either a deliberate action or a bureaucratic mistake.

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