Readers in the first part of the nineteen thirties occasionally encountered some intriguing headlines in the course of everyday reading. Some of the articles had striking titles, stretching the limits of imagination:
- Cosmic Ray Motor May Transmit Power ‘Round Earth
- Tremendous New Power Soon to be Unleashed
- Harnesses Cosmic Energy
- Beam to Kill Army at 200 Miles
- New Death-Beam
- Invents Peace Ray
- A Machine to End War
- Predicts Ships Powered by Shore Beam
- Promises to Transmit Force
- Reveals New Power Device
These are exciting titles and worthy of many a tale found in a pulp magazine — Amazing Stories or Astounding for example. But those magazines were not the home of these incredible tales. Rather more august publications like the New York Times, Literary Digest, New York Herald Tribune, and the Kansas City Journal-Post were the medium for these banners. Fact, not fiction is what these articles were about.
Beginning in the early thirties a very famous scientist issued a series of sensational interviews. The man was Nikola Tesla and make no mistake about it — he was a celebrated scientist holding over six hundred patents in his name. Tesla was a flamboyant inventor given to theatrical exuberance when describing his new theories and ideas.
Each June 11th on his birthday, the colorful inventor invited the press to a luncheon and announced his latest discoveries. As you might notice from the earlier headlines, the subject matter was both novel and exhilarating. While some of the themes may seem exotic it should be noted that science and engineering were making huge advances every year. Yesterday’s science fiction frequently became today’s new science.
At one such interview, for example, Tesla announced he would develop an apparatus to destroy enemy air fleets hundreds of miles away from a country’s borders using concentrated energy beams. The weapon also possessed the ability to kill enemy troops instantaneously. But this is not to be a weapon of war; instead it is a tool for peace.
Tesla’s ideas were cutting edge. It was generally supposed that many of these things would become a reality within a few years. Concepts under examination here generally fall into five categories: energy beam weapons, cosmic energy, thought photography, new power sources, and wireless energy transmission.
The first primitive beam weapon appeared in Doc Savage with the March 1934 issue titled Meteor Menace. Primitive in the fact that the infernal ray was simply a meteor emitting strange radiation rather than that created by a man-made device.
Man-made beamed weapons appeared in Doc Savage with the December 1934 issue. The Crime Annihilist had perfected a unique weapon that killed people who were committing violent acts. The death-device is effective but Doc decides it serves no useful purpose and destroys it.
Next, in The Metal Master (March 1936) the reader encounters a device that transforms metals into liquids at normal room temperatures. The death-engine in The Annihilist operated more like a radio broadcast sending waves is all directions. This machine projects a true ray that can be focused on a specific point.
Cold Death (September 1936) introduces a ray weapon that unleashes powerful explosive forces.
The unknown power destroying navy ships in The Terror in the Navy (April 1937) turns out to be a hoax. Nonetheless, naval officials were more than ready to believe some mysterious force was propelling navy crews to their doom.
The May 1937 issue, Mad Eyes, has a multiplicity of rays. There are rays that stop plane motors, rays that explode fuel tanks, paralyzing rays, and finally cosmic rays. Like Mad Eyes, He Could Stop the World from July 1937 has more rays than a reader can reasonably count. There are rays that disintegrate people. Other rays propagate a form of mind-control. Climate control is achieved, and the snows of Mount Shasta are melting as tropical temperatures are imposed.
Readers were treated to The Motion Menace in May 1938. An international gang controls a powerful weapon that can stop planes in mid-air. Used on human beings, it becomes a death ray. The gang intends to use this powerful weapon to conquer Soviet Russia. A repeat of this type device again appears in The Spook of Grandpa Eben (December 1943).
Beam weapons become so commonplace by now that one is used for revenge in Fortress of Solitude (October 1938). Interestingly enough, it appears to be the same weapon we encountered in The Metal Master.
“Each set of apparatus sends out a controlled field of combination electromagnetic and sonic nature,” the man continued. “One of these fields will liquefy metal at close range, but at a distance it takes two. We focus the fields, and where they meet, any kind of metal will melt.”
Now read the description of the device John Sunlight used to exact his revenge on Serge Manoff.
“It had killed through the attic wall, for it was only where the magnetic and sonic beams met, their focal point, that the effect was obtained.”
It looks like Doc Savage has been a busy man. The Metal Master’s ray only worked on metal. Doc has experimented along these lines and found a ray that dissolves human flesh!
Beam weapons continue to appear in the series. A powerful beam weapon takes center stage in The Rustling Death (January 1942). A little over a year passes and yet another powerful weapon appears in Waves of Death (February 1943). The editor’s footnote in this story points directly at Tesla’s articles dealing with the same subject.
Tesla also had the idea of using an energy beam to excite molecules in the upper nighttime atmosphere creating a man-made aurora borealis over the world’s oceans. Increased visibility would allow ships to freely ply the seas without fear of collision with icebergs or other vessels.
In The South Pole Terror (October 1936), we come across a device that changes the stratosphere’s magnetic characteristics. Thurston H. Wardhouse, the inventor of this cosmic “heat” ray explains his purpose in creating such a device to see through fog. Tesla’s idea and that represented in the story are essentially the same. The descriptions differ but the basic purpose of both was to aid navigation by increasing visibility.
Cosmic energy again appears in Mad Eyes” Both the magni globes and the speed cars draw on cosmic energy.
The September 10, 1933 issue of the Kansas City Journal-Post printed some amazing statements attributable to Tesla. “I expect to photograph thoughts, . . .” Tesla proposed an idea that thoughts were transmitted to the eye’s retina and could consequently be captured. Something along the lines of thought photography crops up in one particular Doc adventure from August 1936, The Midas Man.
New Power Sources was another idea espoused by Tesla. Magnetism is cited as a power source in Murder Melody. Electric ore, the element comprising the earth’s core is the central theme in The Living Fire Menace (January 1938).
An atomic accumulator is introduced in World’s Fair Goblin (April 1939). It is described as a suitcase sized device. An earlier adventure, The Secret in the Sky (May 1935), raises some interesting questions concerning the astounding sky-craft’s abilities. Stunted removes a suitcase-size object something from one of the strange vessels. He explains that this is the machine’s key component and without it the vessels are useless. Stunted words were prophetic. As the story concludes, the operational power behind the mysterious ships remains unknown. Just exactly what was inside that box? Could it be an atomic accumulator?
Tesla made predictions about Wireless Energy Transmission. Regarding Doc Savage and Nikola Tesla, probably the single most interesting story is Haunted Ocean (June 1936). The July 11, 1934 New York Herald Tribune printed an interview with the famous inventor.
In peace times, he [Tesla] says, the beam will also be used to transmit immense voltages of power over distances limited only by the curvature of the earth.
Returning to Haunted Ocean we observe Doc Savage examining the power-receiving equipment on an airplane.
The mystery of the apparent uncanny daylight was unfolded to Doc Savage. He realized that a band of such light, with proper motive machinery, might someday operate every ship that sailed the seas, every vehicle of transportation in the world.
Personal philosophies are also in play here. In an October 1934 article in Every Week Magazine the reader learns that Dr. Tesla hates war. The article describes Tesla’s reaction to The Great War.
Dr. Nikola Tesla was in his laboratory trying hard to solve a problem of ages. Once in a while he raised his head to listen. Then he turned back to his experiments. He was going to end war.
Back in the Doc Savage universe this rule will not be imposed by individual nations. The Man of Peace is going to force it onto the world. The President of the United States shows Doc the following message.
“Yes. Another relayed radio. I’ll read it: ‘The United States must disarm. So must all other nations. You have five days to decide. The navy must be laid up. The army must be disbanded. All armament must be destroyed. The same order applies to all nations of the world. Peace will be applied at any price.’”
Later we actually meet the Man of Peace himself.
“Conquest, always conquest!” the man murmured. “I have but to move one finger and it will cease. In this way only, can war be ended. Only my own craft and my own air force shall have the secret of moving by the light of peace.”
Arne Dass, the Man of Peace is the alter ego of Nikola Tesla. Consider the similarities between the two. Tesla is a native of Yugoslavia. Arne Dass has a strong Norwegian connection. Both are world-class experts possessing esoteric knowledge in their respective fields – Dass on atomic energy and Tesla on high voltage electricity. Both men are aged. Tesla was seventy-eight in 1934.
Tesla wishes to present his plans to the disarmament conference at Geneva. Coincidentally in Haunted Ocean, Johnny Littlejohn is part of a war commission on its way to Europe before being hijacked by one of the “peace” submarines.
That wraps up the discussion on Tesla’s ideas but there is still one more item that should be examined. In The Pirate’s Ghost (April 1938), the reader encounters the eccentric inventor Meander Surett – scientist extraordinaire and inventor of the “spirit radio”.
The story said Meander Surett pioneered wireless; ranked almost with Marconi. Meander Surett formulated the most acceptable theory of cosmic rays. Meander Surett pioneered ultra-short-wave radio.
They could just as well be talking about Nikola Tesla. Perhaps the Kansas City Journal-Post explains it best:
Mr. Tesla is the father of the alternating system of power transmission and radio, the induction motor and Tesla coil.
Nikola Tesla was a brilliant creator of many inventions that are still currently used today, some sixty years after his death. But he was also a lively individual with a strikingly eccentric style. Many of his interviews read just as if they were taken from the pages of a Doc Savage adventure and to a certain degree it appears they were incorporated into the series.