You May Live To See Man-Made Horrors Beyond Your Comprehension

Nikola Tesla? Apocryphal?

tesla08Dear Quote Investigator: Nikola Tesla was a brilliant inventor and showman with a science fictional mystique. The following ominous quotation is attributed to him:

You may live to see man-made horrors beyond your comprehension.

Would you please help to find a solid citation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1947 “Esquire” magazine profile of Nikola Tesla titled “Ahead of His Time” by Dick Holdsworth. The quotation was spoken by the inventor during a demonstration held in New York: 1

At the first Electrical Exhibition held in the old Madison Square Garden in 1898 the inventor astonished spectators as he controlled by radio remote control an iron rowboat, which floated in a large tank of water in the center of the arena.

Tesla successfully operated a propeller attached to an electric motor, and he guided the small boat through intricate movements with a rudder. The observer’s reactions to the remarkable display were influenced by a mysterious event that occurred in February 1898. An explosion ripped through the warship USS Maine while it was docked in Havana Harbor and it quickly sank. Unsurprisingly, an unnamed military man observing Tesla’s demonstration envisioned the watercraft as a potential weapon, Emphasis added by QI: 2

“Why, with your radio boat—loaded with dynamite—we would have any enemy navy in the world at the bottom in no time,” exclaimed an admiral who saw the demonstration.

“With this principle,” replied Nikola Tesla more prophetically than he knew, “you may live to see man-made horrors beyond your comprehension.”

Tesla’s words were reportedly spoken forty-nine years before the “Esquire” article appeared in 1947, and Tesla himself died four years before publication in 1943. Thus, the credibility of this ascriptional evidence is reduced. Perhaps future researchers will be able to build on this lead.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In November 1898 several newspapers published an article about Tesla’s remotely controlled boat which he demonstrated in his laboratory. The model was not placed in water instead it was displayed on a table so that the movements of the propeller and rudder were visible to visitors.

The article title and subtitle in a Washington D.C. newspaper were: “Tesla Will Abolish War” and “Peace Among Men Assured by an Electric Spark”. Indeed, Tesla noted that his device could be used to sink ships, but he preferred to emphasize a peaceful positive vision of the future: 3 4

“But I have no desire that my fame should rest on the invention of a merely destructive device, no matter how terrible. I prefer to be remembered as the inventor who succeeded in abolishing war. That will be my highest pride. But there are many peaceful uses to which my invention can be put, conspicuously that of rescuing the shipwrecked.

“It will be perfectly feasible to equip our life saving stations with life cars, or life boats, directed and controlled from the shore which will approach stranded vessels and bring off the passengers and crews without risking the lives of the brave fellows who are now forced to fight their way to the rescue through the raging surf.

Skipping forward to 1999, the “New York Daily News” published an article titled “Nikola Tesla Thundermaker” with the following epigraph: 5

“You may live to see man-made horrors beyond your comprehension.”
— Nikola Tesla, 1898

In conclusion, there is some support for the assertion that Nikola Tesla spoke the quotation under investigation during an Electrical Exhibition held in New York in 1898. The topic of the warning was remote-controlled devices. Yet, the evidence consists of a newspaper report that appeared decades later in 1947. Thus, the current documentation is weak.

Image Notes: Tesla coil with steamer discharges from Hans at Pixabay. Portrait of Nikola Tesla circa 1890 by Napoleon Sarony (color version) accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Lorelei Black whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Black told QI about the 1999 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1947 October, Esquire, Volume 28, Number 4, Ahead of His Time by Dick Holdsworth, Start Page 124, Quote Page 125, Column 1, Esquire Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1947 October, Esquire, Volume 28, Number 4, Ahead of His Time by Dick Holdsworth, Start Page 124, Quote Page 125, Column 1, Esquire Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  3. 1898 November 8, The Evening Times, Tesla Will Abolish War: Peace Among Men Assured by an Electric Spark, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1898 November 11, The Topeka State Journal, Electric Marvel: Tesla Claims an Invention That Makes War Impossible, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Topeka, Kansas. (Chronicling America)
  5. 1999 April 19, New York Daily News, Nikola Tesla Thundermaker by Jonathan Lewin and Jay Maeder, (Epigraph to article), New York. (Online archive nydailynews.com; accessed August 21, 2016) link