Behind every great thinker… is an even weirder and more out-there great thinker whom we don’t learn about at school. Peel away Galileo Galilei and you find the brilliant and bizarre Giordano Bruno, whose ideas surpassed Galileo’s to a point that scared the pee out of the Holy See and the Spanish Inquisition had him burned at the stake in the middle of Rome. Every kid learns about Einstein—how many grow up knowing anything about Max Planck or Niels Bohr?
And American schoolchildren can probably rattle off several inventions attributed to “the Wizard of Menlo Park,” Thomas Edison. But ask them who Nikola Tesla was and they are likely to draw a disconcerting blank.
Tesla was a fascinating, prolific and somewhat mysterious figure not infrequently dubbed the “father of the 20th century.” Yet relatively little is taught about him. A Serbian-born American with a talent for electricity, Tesla’s contributions to technology included alternating current, wireless lighting, the remote control, X-ray machines, fluorescent light bulbs, lasers, wireless communication and (sorry, Marconi) radio.
Tesla might also have been in possession of the formula for a weapon of mass destruction known colloquially as the “death ray.” We’re not sure. What we know is that he was found dead in a hotel at the age of 83, and even though the official word was “natural causes,” there was a lot of weirdness around the situation and the FBI was called in. The Alien Property Custodian seized his personal effects (which in a stranger-than-fiction coincidence were examined by MIT professor John Trump, the man to whom the current occupant of the Oval Office attributes his “smart person genes.” (The professor was The Donald’s paternal uncle. Please look up the term “regression to the mean” for more info.)
Now, the Discovery Channel is conducting an investigation into the so-called “death ray.” What was it? Can it be replicated from the documents we have access to? And was Tesla murdered over it?
In Tesla’s Death Ray: A Murder Declassified, military investigator Jack Murphy and Tesla historian Cameron Prince globetrot in pursuit of information about Tesla’s innovations and the research that may have gone missing from his safe in that hotel room. From Tesla’s last-standing American laboratory in Shoreham, NY to his first, in Colorado, to Tesla’s homeland of Serbia, the team searches for missing documents and new data to understand Tesla’s “death ray.” Murphy and Prince interview a wide range of people, including Tesla’s closest living relative.
The team shares findings with engineer Aron Koscho, whose own team is trying to recreate the death ray. If Koscho can prove constructing and activating this fatal weapon is plausible, it would provide a motive for murder. The death ray could have swung the balance of power in World War II and the world’s superpowers would have been in a race to get the plans—or at least keep them out of the hands of their enemies.
Only the first episode was made available by press time, so let’s just say I don’t know what’s coming. But here’s the deal with the first hour.
Tesla knew a thing or two about formulas. Science is built on them. Sadly, so is television, even though theoretically it’s a heck of a lot more flexible than electromagnetics. And yeah, OK: Nikola Tesla was a freaky genius whose work we are still trying to understand decades later, so one’s under a certain obligation to make television that is accessible to an audience of people like me who are not superstar engineers, inventors, or folks well-versed in very complicated math.
So we might lean on a formula, for example one in which we manically switch back and forth between an ex-military dude, a historian and a techie who have come together in pursuit of a mystery. We don’t wanna give away the goods too quickly so no two-hour doc for us, no sir; we’re going to give this a whole season of looping, repetitive material designed to create suspense. We have not learned that what it actually creates is frustration, then boredom, then channel changing. Guys: Y’all managed to make Nikola Tesla boring. How the hell is that even possible? The man was a futurist with whom technology has not yet caught up. The FBI declassified a bunch of documents related to his potentially suspicious death and his clearly-rifled safe. Tesla was a card-carrying Mad Scientist who changed the course of history and might have designed a weapon of infinite power like a frickin’ Marvel Comics villain! He was like Magneto and Dr. Charles Xavier rolled into one. He commanded electricity like a demigod descended from almighty Zeus. And you made him annoying! I guarantee you that when Tesla himself found that a formula was not producing high-voltage results, he briskly took off in search of a new way of getting there.
Discovery Channel: Please explain to me why you are so reluctant to do this? We would be there for you, I swear it.
Because here’s the deal. I find this dude fascinating and under-studied and explosively important, and I am not sure I can deal with an entire season of commercial-break cliffhangers where we circle like vultures over whether there was or wasn’t a dang death ray, whether he was murdered or suffered a coronary thrombosis and just checked out, or whether the documents the FBI has released would give a typical engineer of today the tools needed to create an electrical weapon of mass destruction. And those are all important questions, especially, by the way, that last one. The show might be planning to get into that part in a later episode and I certainly hope so, but the pilot doesn’t utter a peep-a-roonie about the ethical implications of rooting around Tesla’s in buried papers, his possibly tunnel-riddled lab on Long Island, or his FBI files, in the event they did discover evidence that he had a viable weapon. If they have discovered this, it means now we potentially have a new WMD, does it not? And since it’s really hard to imagine Legal wouldn’t come down on you like a ton of bricks for putting the plans on the air, I’m kinda thinking this is going to end in a gigundo “inconclusive,” which if the producers of this show already know that, they’re being really unreasonable in asking us to rollercoaster it out for ten episodes asking “but diiiiiiiiiid he invent the weapon?”
If he did invent a “death ray,” it’s honestly not the most interesting thing Tesla ever did. If he failed to invent a death ray, framing the show around the search for it is manipulative as hell and really a bad artistic call. If he was murdered for the death ray technology, that’s worth knowing, but I expect if it’d been made clear by those declassified FBI documents it would have made news somewhere else. If it is the case that he did have the tech and he was killed for it and the FBI has now made that info available to the American public, we come back to my first questions: Why are some crazeballs genius scientists household names, while others who were much more actually influential remain in the shadows no matter how much wattage they produced? What is history or posterity’s duty to such people? And who’s going to take it on in a way that doesn’t make it seem lame? Also, if this technology can now be duplicated, what does that mean? These questions are much more vital than “Are there secret tunnels under the lab?”
A serious, penetrating documentary about an unsolved mystery with subplots of government intrigue, commercial corruption and the quest for limitless energy—I think people would watch that.
Instead, get ready for Finding Tesla’s Murder Machine, and be prepared to find pretty much nothing.
I deeply hope to be proved wrong.
Tesla’s Death Ray: A Murder Declassified premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Discovery Channel. The series will also air on Science Channel Monday nights beginning January 8, and all episodes will be available on Discovery Go.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.