Nikola Tesla is one of the most tragic figures in the history of science, a history that is practically filled to the brim with tragic figures. Francis Bacon, a 16th century philosopher and scientist, caught pneumonia and died because he was trying to stuff snow into a dead chicken. Marie Curie died as a result of her long-term exposure to radioactivity, and her papers from the 1890s are too radioactive to touch without protective gear to this day.
So saying that Nikola Tesla is one of the most tragic figures in the history of science is a pretty bold claim, though most will agree that he lived up to it. Tesla was responsible for a huge number of inventions ranging from alternating current to vertical take-off planes.
However, not all of his inventions were useful.
One of the most well-known projects he worked on was Wardenclyffe Tower, his experiment in providing wireless power to the masses. While the tower was never fully-functional and was taken down in 1917, conspiracy theories abound for why Tesla never succeeded. I've heard theories ranging from evil corporations stepping in to ensure that he couldn't provide "free" power to the people, to the American government shutting him down and stealing his secrets.
Few people understand the complexities that wireless power entails, and the real reasons why Tesla was doomed to fail. The best example of Wardenclyffe's fate comes to us by way of a recent article about the Hindenburg airship.
Scientists have just recently discovered that the definitive cause of the explosion of the Hindenburg was a discharge of static electricity. Apparently the airship had recently been through an electrical storm, and had become charged with static electricity. As a result, a spark ignited some leaking hydrogen, and boom! The rest is history.
It's pretty clear to see how this relates to Tesla's wireless power.
The way Tesla's wireless power worked was in many ways similar to an electrical storm. The air becomes charged with electricity, and because air is a conductor, it can cause arcs of electricity. This means that if Tesla had been successful at Wardenclyffe, his method would likely have caused airships to explode!
So in other words, Tesla's wireless power and the age of airships were mutually exclusive. Both couldn't have existed simultaneously.
There are plenty of other reasons why Tesla's wireless power never really took off, for example it's very lossy. You have to spray electricity out in the air, and whether that power is used or not, it eventually dissipates. Further, you're shooting it out in every direction, which is a waste. And finally, given the body's delicate electrical systems, I can't imagine that living in a continually charged atmosphere is healthy.
Tesla himself suffered from many mental problems; who knows whether his experiments were his own undoing, like Francis Bacon or Marie Curie before him?
Tesla was the sort of close-mouthed person who would likely have avoided saying anything if he suffered from constant electrical shocks. The understanding of electricity on our body still isn't very well understood!
However, one thing is certain: Tesla would never have lived it down if he'd caused the destruction of the Hindenburg!