Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tesla's Greatest Contribution to Steampunk

Were we to seize and to eliminate the results of Mr. Tesla's work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle.
            -B.A. Behrend, quoted in Liberty, February, 1937

I’ve been involved in a move from Florida to Illinois for the past week, and will go on dealing with it for a while to come, so forgive me if the postings become a bit less regular here for a while. But I left you hanging with my last column about Nikola Tesla and wanted to follow up. While recognizing Tesla’s enormous contributions to the modern world in the field of electrical engineering, as well as the thought-provoking personality quirks which made him something of an outcast in his later years, I said that his greatest gift to Steampunk story-tellers rested elsewhere. That gift lies in his unrealized visions.

Tesla was not the first person to dream big about the future, but he was the first one with such remarkable credentials to also advance such audacious technological predictions. Tesla envisioned electro propulsive flying machines “devoid of sustaining wings, propellers or gas bags.” He predicted, and tried to build, towers which would transmit electrical energy through the aether, or through the earth itself. He tried to interest the U.S. Army in a “teleforce” beam weapon shortly before and during World War II – essentially a particle accelerator weapon system – and conspiracy theorists delight in the fact that the Army seized his papers upon his death and classified them as top secret. (They were later released to his estate.)

That capacity to see enormous technological change, and envision a world profoundly altered by it, is in many respects the essence of Steampunk.

But personally, I think his greatest gift to Steampunk is his Dynamic Theory of Gravity.

First, let me say that gravity is very weird stuff. Einstein’s famous critique of quantum physics as requiring “spooky action at a distance,” applied to quantum entangled particles. Two entangled particles known to be “balanced” with respect to a characteristic, such as angle or rotation, must include one particle which rotates one way and one which rotates the other, but neither particle collapses into that state until actually measured. Measuring one particle not only forces it to collapse into one state, it also forces its entangled twin to collapse into the opposite state, no matter how much distance separates them, and does so instantaneously. This, Einstein observed, requires an exchange of information at greater than light speed, which he suspected was impossible, hence his expression “spooky action at a distance.”

In fact, experiments within the last decade have confirmed the behavior of quantum-entangled particles, but you didn’t need to ever go as far as quantum mechanics to observe spooky action at a distance – gravity provides a much more concrete and observable example.

The Earth is, on average, about 93 million miles from the sun, and it takes light an average of about 8 minutes and a few seconds to travel that distance. That means that when you look up at the sun, you aren’t seeing it where it is; you are seeing it where it was eight minutes ago. However, the earth responds gravitationally to where the sun is this instant, not where it appears to be based on the light speed delay. That means that whatever mechanism is at work with respect to gravity, its information exchange over distance takes place instantaneously, not at light speed.

Explaining gravity remains one of the unsolved riddles of the universe. We have big hopes that the Large Hadron Collider will answer some of these questions, but we’ll see. In the mean time, though, Tesla explained it over a century ago, in the 1890s, with his Dynamic Theory of Gravity, a theory which accounted for gravity’s interaction with electromagnetic fields as well as all the fundamental forces working on mater. It encompassed the aether, addressed issues such as “free energy,” (tapping the energy of the dynamic aether around us), explained electro-powered flight, and much, much more. Why was this such a boon to Steampunk story-tellers?

Because he never actually published the theory.

Tesla talked about the theory, explained what it would explain, what devices it would enable mankind to enjoy, but he never actually explained the theory itself, never articulated it in full detail. Late in his life he expressed his intention to do so, but died soon afterwards.

In other words, he never gave the world a theory concrete enough to refute.

Now that is a gift beyond any measure of value. What we have is the suggestion, from one of the most brilliant and visionary scientific minds of modern times, that such an explanation of the physical world exists.

And who are we to say that it is not at least possible?


  1. Tesla is awesome, and I enjoyed hearing about his supposed theory.

    So far as I know, though modern physicists *don't* believe that gravity acts faster than light. See these Wikipedia articles:

  2. Anon,
    Ooo, I think you may have me on that one. If gravity is a continuous state omnidirectional field extending to infinity, there is indeed no need for information to move fronm one body to another, since the fields themselves are already everywhere. I ahve heard the apparent position/actual position analogy before, but it's clearly more relevant to a "graviton exchange" model of gravity.

    Thanks for joining in.

  3. Modern physicists don't believe anything travels faster than light but that leaves a problem. If gravity is restricted to the speed of light, how does it get out of black holes?

  4. Shawn,
    Thanks for posting. Anon's point is well-taken on this. If gravity really is an omnipresent field, it doesn't need to get out of the black hole; it's already "out." At least that's what I understand to be the explanation.

    I'm not sure it's true that modern physicists necessarily believe nothing moves faster than light. Clearly entangled quantum particles exchange information instanteneously, since that's already been verified in lab experiments. It's what I mentioned Einstein had a hard time with, his "spooky action at a distance." But it's pretty clearly the case.