Nikola Tesla was both of his time and ahead of it (he has a car company named after him, after all). Besides his contributions to altnerating current electrical systems, the inventor predicted smartphones, television, and apparently drones, which he thought could cause humanity’s destruction.
In a patent that was granted on November 8, 1898, Tesla wrote that his invention required no wires or electrical conductors. Instead, he said he found a way to move the “vessels” by “producing waves, impulses, or radiations which are received through the earth, water, or atmosphere” and that can reach the object as long as it “remains within the active region or effective range.”
So yeah, radio waves, which were still relatively new at the time the patent was issued (they were first predicted in 1867 and began to be used in communications in the 1890s). He further described them as “electrical oscillations which do not follow any particular conducting-path, but propagate in straight lines through space.”
The patent, titled “Method Of And Apparatus For Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles” also details Tesla’s predictions on drone warfare, where he states that it will bring about peace among nations due to its “certain and unlimited destructiveness.”
The patent and Tesla’s claims were brought to the internet’s attention by technologist Matthew Schroyer this week, who posted excerpts and a scan of the patent on Twitter.
While this hasn’t happened to such a degree (yet), it’s worth noting that Tesla saw the potential in drone warfare over a century before unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) were being used in the so-called War on Terror. The US alone has killed thousands of people in drone strikes. The closest we’ve gotten to a technology that has cared people into peace was the atomic bomb, which caused the US and the Soviet Union to glare at each other for nearly half a century.
The first drone used in warfare—or more specifically, the first unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft—was invented for World War I. The Kettering Bug was a bomb-carrying biplane that could fly on a preset route to a target, although it wasn’t perfected until the war was over. It was also a very expensive and complicated process that entailed destroying a plane once it was used. It was also unable to change course after launch, so it probably wasn’t the best way to drop bombs.
Still, it’s always interesting to look back at Tesla’s patents to see what one of the most controversial scientific minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was focused on. It’s especially intriguing if you think that Tesla accidentally invented cloning, or secretly caused the Tunguska explosion because what else could he have been capable of?