He shows up often in popular culture these days: Nikola Tesla inspired the name of a late-\u201980s rock band and a role for David Bowie on the big screen (in 2006\u2019s The Prestige ), and he\u2019ll forever be associated with Elon Musk\u2019s electric cars. But around the turn of the 20th century, Tesla was famous as a passionate, eccentric scientist and thought leader. He pioneered the induction motor, advocated for alternating current (opposing his bitter rival, Thomas Edison, who championed direct current), and filed hundreds of patents. \ud83d\udd2c You like badass scientists. We like badass scientists. Let's nerd out over them together. This month, a new biopic starring Ethan Hawke, Tesla , will add to the inventor\u2019s mythos. Tesla was far ahead of his time and made numerous mind-blowing, tangible contributions to modern society. And where he didn\u2019t have the means to realize his ambitions, he brought plenty of swaggering, fantastical talk\u2014much of which inspired future generations to turn his visions into reality. 1. He invented a precursor to the drone. In 1898, more than a decade before World War I, Tesla devised the first-ever remote-controlled boat and unveiled it to the public in New York City. The tiny ship, which relied on radio waves traveling between its onboard antennas and a primitive command post, came equipped with a wireless \u201ccoherer\u201d\u2014a form of radio signal detector\u2014that transformed the radio signals into mechanical movements. The presentation captured the public\u2019s imagination: Dr. Ljubo Vujovic, president of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, would later declare the event \u201cthe birthplace of robotics.\u201d Tesla ironically believed that remote-controlled boats could be a force for peace in the world. In his mind, RC boats stationed at international ports would discourage naval forces from attacking other countries. \u201cWar will cease to be possible when all the world knows tomorrow that the most feeble of nations can supply itself immediately with a weapon which will render its coast secure and its ports impregnable to the assaults of united armadas of the world,\u201d Tesla argued in the New York Herald . \u201cI prefer to be remembered as the inventor who succeeded in abolishing war.\u201d Despite his best efforts, Tesla\u2019s dream was never realized; in fact, remote-controlled craft are now common in war. Still, his innovations have seen peaceable applications. For one, personal drones have become ubiquitous in everyday life, and they\u2019re also helping governments identify buried warheads . So in a sense, Tesla\u2019s hope of pioneering a safer world is coming true. 2. He theorized a thought camera. Kodak cameras became available to the public in 1888, but Tesla was obsessed with pioneering photography that could capture a person\u2019s mind. In the early 1930s, he proclaimed , \u201cI expect to photograph thoughts.\u2026In 1893...I became convinced that a definite image formed in thought, must by reflex action, produce a corresponding image on the retina which might be read by a certain apparatus.\u201d Tesla conceived of something he called an \u201cartificial retina\u201d that could receive the image of a person\u2019s thoughts\u2014literally the picture in your mind\u2019s eye\u2014and reproduce that image in the physical world. Widespread use of radio waves in the late 19th century (X-rays were discovered in 1895) inspired Tesla\u2019s ambition for a thought camera. \u201c s sound waves of the human voice are transmitted miles and miles by the present telephone after their impression is made on the telephone transmitter,\u201d Tesla enthused in 1899 , \u201cjust so my experiments have demonstrated that the light waves of the human body can be transmitted by a different sort of telephone miles and miles away. All we need is a new transmitter.\u201d Tesla was ultimately proven right, but not in the way he foresaw. We can\u2019t photograph thoughts, but Tesla\u2019s \u201cdifferent sort of telephone\u201d appeared in 1927, when Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented the television. 3. He gave the world a death ray. On his 78th birthday, Tesla revealed his idea for a powerful weapon he would later call Teleforce. In a 1934 interview with The New York Times , Tesla imagined that this silent weapon would have a range \u201cas far as a telescope could see an object on the ground and as far as the curvature of the earth would permit it,\u201d with the potential to kill a million people instantly. It was a terrifying notion, but Tesla was less forthcoming about how Teleforce would actually work, only saying it involved \u201ca new method for producing a tremendous electrical repelling force\u201d with an impact of 50,000,000 volts. ( Being struck by lightning is about 300,000 volts .) The idea came to him while he was working on cathode tubes. As reported in the New York Herald Tribune , a stray particle would sometimes break from the cathode and hit Tesla. \u201cHe said he could feel a sharp, stinging pain where it entered his body, and again at the place where it passed out.\u201d Tesla wondered if these particles could be used like bullets. Teleforce never evolved beyond conjecture, but Tesla still had to ask people to stop referring to it as a death ray, a popular phrase at the time (inspired, in part, by the deadly alien blasts in H.G. Wells\u2019s seminal The War of the Worlds ). But it wasn\u2019t the \u201cdeath\u201d part that bothered Tesla. Rather, he nerdishly insisted that his invention didn\u2019t use rays, saying , \u201cRays are not applicable because they cannot be produced in requisite quantities and diminish rapidly in intensity with distance.\u201d Tesla hoped that Teleforce, like his remote-controlled boat, would deter nations from global warfare, almost like the Great Wall of China. Even in theory, it didn\u2019t quite work out that way. In May 2020, the U.S. Navy tested a Solid State Laser Weapons System Demonstrator , which operates on some of Teleforce\u2019s principles. Lt. Cale Hughes told CNN that the weapons system throws \u201cmassive amounts of photons at an incoming object\u201d without concern for wind or range. \u201cWe\u2019re able to engage the targets at the speed of light,\u201d Hughes said. Clearly, Tesla underestimated the appeal of pooh-poohing military foes. 4. He made an earthquake machine...maybe. In 1893, Tesla came up with \u201cthe mechanical oscillator,\u201d a steam- or gas-powered generator that could produce electrical energy via vibrations. In less mechanical terms, he made an earthquake machine. And it could allegedly fit in his pocket. Tesla never demonstrated his oscillator in public; he only said that he did. In 1912, he told The World To-Day magazine that years earlier, he had ventured to Wall Street with the device and attached it to a beam on an unfinished building. \u201cIn a few minutes,\u201d Tesla said , \u201cI could feel the beam trembling. Gradually, the trembling increased in intensity and extended throughout the whole great mass of steel.\u201d Tesla claimed the structure began to creak and that panicked steelworkers came rushing out for fear of a deadly earthquake. He predicted, based on those \u201cfindings,\u201d that he could \u201cdrop Brooklyn Bridge into the East River in less than an hour.\u201d The tall tales didn\u2019t end there. Tesla speculated that his device could split the entire planet in two. If he synced the oscillator with the \u201ccontracting and expanding\u201d of the planet, the earth\u2019s crust \u201cwould rise and fall hundreds of feet, throwing rivers out of their beds, wrecking buildings, and practically destroying civilization.\u201d Tesla was right about the vibrations\u2014our planet is constantly vibrating between 2.9 millihertz and 4.5 millihertz (although we still don\u2019t know why ). But since he never proved the existence of his mechanical oscillator, our ancestors were spared any catastrophic public experiments. 5. His Tesla coil still shapes modern innovation. The Tesla coil does more than just add drama to sci-fi movies. Tesla used it to conduct experiments on energy transfer between objects, and these demonstrations wowed his contemporaries. He unveiled wireless electric lamps, motors that ran on only one wire, and something historians refer to as \u201celectrical sheets of flame.\u201d These were early examples of resonant coupling, in which a magnetic field between antennas transmits energy from one antenna to the other. We see it most in wireless phone charging, but it\u2019s pivotal to other expanding technologies. The wireless power company WiTricity is using resonant coupling to expand \u201cunplugged\u201d electric-vehicle charging , and implement \u201cdirect wireless charging for implantable medical devices ,\u201d such as pacemakers. These applications are improving on Tesla\u2019s brilliant design; they\u2019re just absent the nifty sparks. 6. He dreamed of a World Wide Web. Make all the Al Gore jokes you want, but Nikola Tesla had a firm grasp on the concept of an internet decades before it materialized. In 1900, he produced a brochure that promised \u201cthe instantaneous and precise wireless transmission of any kind of signals, messages or characters, to all parts of the world.\u201d Soon after, Tesla set out to build what he called a \u201cworld system of wireless,\u201d which would use the earth itself to transmit information. His efforts, of course, came to naught. But wireless transmission continued to fascinate Tesla. In a 1926 interview , he said: \u201cWhen wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain...We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.\u201d These aspirations sound almost exactly like the internet, which allows us to do now what Tesla predicted nearly a century ago. (And in that same interview, Tesla envisioned a future when \u201cman will be able to carry in his vest pocket.\u201d Right again.) 7. He believed he was picking up signals from Mars. In 1899, Tesla journeyed to Colorado Springs to experiment with wireless power transmission and study electrical storms (as chronicled in Christopher Nolan\u2019s The Prestige ). Using a series of transmitters and receivers, Tessla charted VLF (very low frequency) radio waves emanating from the storms, hoping to prove that both energy and communication could be transmitted worldwide through the air. But there was a side effect to these experiments. In Colorado, Tesla became convinced that he was picking up signals from Mars, and he made these claims for decades afterward. In 1922 , he said: \u201cI obtained extraordinary experimental evidence of the existence of life on Mars...A wireless receiver of extraordinary sensitiveness, far beyond anything known\u2026I caught signals which I interpreted as meaning 1-2-3-4. I believe the Martians used numbers for communication because numbers are universal.\u201d Tesla\u2019s proclamations were met with skepticism, but he was never afraid to be bold in his theorizing. \u201cThat we can send a message to a planet is certain,\u201d he wrote in his autobiography , \u201cThat we can get an answer is probable: Man is not the only being in the Infinite gifted with a mind.\u201d Lord knows he loved showing off his own.