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  • Writer's pictureMichael Stewart

Nicola Tesla and the Tunguska Disaster

At 07:17 am on the 30th of June 1908, near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River (Stoney River), in Siberia, Russia, a gigantic explosion took place. The force of the blast flattened around 18 million trees and cleared an area of more than 2,100 square kilometers (800 square miles). The magnitude of the blast was thousands of times greater than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For many years after this devastating impact, the true cause of the blast remained entirely unknown.

The region of Siberia where the event took place was incredibly sparsely populated and only three people were officially recorded as killed. However, descendants of eyewitnesses claim that hundreds of people died because of the blast. The worst hit were the Tungus people, where seemingly whole clans were wiped out of existence because of the explosion. Unfortunately, eyewitnesses to the event were also few and far between and generally their stories were all quite similar. Many reported having seen a column of bluish light nearly as bright as the sun moving across the sky just before the event. Others noted a bright flash and a sound similar to artillery fire when the event occurred. Those closer to the explosion were knocked off their feet by a shockwave that broke windows and damaged buildings hundreds of kilometers away.

Eyewitness gave the following testimonies to a Russian meteorologist in the years after the event:

“I woke up to the sound of the earth crumbling beneath my feet. I could hear the trees outside my cabin being ripped from the ground and crashing down all around me. At first, I thought it was an earthquake, but the air was filled with the sound of explosions and gunfire. Something dark and terrible was happening outside”.

“The trees around me were torn from the ground, and I could hear the sound of splintering wood and snapping branches. The ground shook so violently that I thought it might open up and swallow me. I could feel the shockwave from the blast tearing through the forest. I saw trees being flattened in all directions, and I was pelted with debris from the explosion. The air was thick with dust and ash, and it was getting harder and harder to breathe”.

“When the dust cleared, the forest was a charred wasteland. The trees had been ripped from the ground, and there was nothing left but stumps and ash. The air was thick with the smell of burning wood. There were no sounds of birds, insects, or animals, just eerie silence. I never felt so alone in my entire life”.

Another eyewitness said:

"At breakfast time, I was sitting by the house at Vannavara trading post, facing north. I suddenly saw directly to the north over Onkoul's Tunguska Road, the sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the forest. The split in the sky grew larger, and the entire northern side was covered with fire. At that moment, I became so hot I couldn't bear it, as if my shirt was on fire. From the northern side where the fire came, I could feel the strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down, but then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few meters. I lost my senses for a moment, but then my wife ran out and led me to the house. After that, such noise came as if rocks were falling or cannons were firing. The earth shook, and when I was on the ground, I had pressed my head down fearing rocks would smash it. When the sky opened up, hot wind raced between the houses, as if from cannons which left traces in the ground like pathways, and it damaged some crops. Later we saw that many windows were shattered, and in the barn, a part of an iron lock had snapped."

This eyewitness was reputedly around 65 kilometers (40 miles) away from the explosion when it took place, but the effects were felt much further afield than that. Indeed, tremors from the explosion were recorded by seismic stations across Eurasia, and airwaves from the blast were detected in Germany, Denmark, Croatia, the United Kingdom, and even in Washington DC in America. In some places, the shockwave was equivalent to an earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter Scale. In the days following the explosion, the night skies over Asia and Europe glowed, in some cases almost as bright as day and newspapers were flooded with reports of night turning into day. One reporter said he was able to read a book in the middle of the night using nothing but the strange light in the sky.

As bizarre as this incident was, the utter remoteness of Siberia made it difficult to investigate. With only three casualties and a handful of eyewitnesses, the world had other priorities.

So, what caused this event? The answer to this question, even now, is far from settled. There have been many ‘expert’ theories over the preceding years ranging from a natural gas explosion, comets, meteorite strikes, and even UFOs, but one rather intriguing and enduring theory involves the legendary inventor, Nicola Tesla.

On that same day as the Tunguska event, on the other side of the world, Nikola Tesla was conducting a significant experiment. He was transmitting vast amounts of electricity through the atmosphere, and after firing up the generators in his Wardenclyff Tower laboratory for a final dramatic test, millions of volts of electricity were sent into the sky. When Tesla examined the readings on his equipment after the experiment was completed, he was reported to have uttered "uh-oh."

Nikola Tesla was a visionary inventor, recognised and celebrated in his own time in the last decades of the 19th Century, and known to us for his ground breaking ideas that have contributed significantly to our modern world of science and technology. However, one of his inventions, the ‘Tesla Gun’ or the ‘Tesla Death Ray’ remains shrouded in mystery and controversy.

The idea of a directed energy weapon had been around for a number of years before Nikola Tesla, however, if anyone could create it, it was him. The technology for the death ray was based upon Tesla's experiments with high-frequency electricity, in which he believed energy could be transmitted wirelessly over long distances to a specific target. Tesla had a deep understanding of particle physics and electromagnetic theory. His design included a large Tesla coil which consisted of a series of capacitors capable of storing vast amounts of electrical energy that accelerated particles - electrons, protons, or ions to extremely high speeds and focused them in a beam using powerful magnetic fields. The beam could then be directed at a specific target, causing massive damage. Tesla believed the weapon could be powered by a small, portable generator with enough power to destroy anything in its path, including entire armies, fleets of planes, fields of tanks, and even entire cities from a great distance.

Though no one officially ever saw it in use, Tesla claimed his prototype worked. He himself fuelled the speculation, writing several letters to the New York Times explaining the potential of his invention, stating that it could project wave energy to any particular region of the globe. "This can be done by my devices," he claimed. "The spot at which the desired threat is to be eliminated can be calculated very closely, assuming the accepted terrestrial measurements to be correct”.

"I have harnessed the cosmic rays and caused them to operate a moulded device. This new power for driving the world's machinery will be derived from the energy which operates the universe, the cosmic energy which is everywhere present in unlimited quantities," he once stated.

Tesla's reasons for inventing the death ray were bizarrely enough rooted in his strong belief in world peace. He hoped, perhaps somewhat naively, that the weapon would act as a deterrent to war and that if every nation possessed the ability to destroy each other, there'd be no point in waging war at all, and this ultimate weapon would usher in a new age of peace (where have we heard that line before).

However, by 1906, Tesla's chief financial backer, J.P. Morgan, was growing impatient with Tesla about the lack of financial return on his experiments with high-frequency electricity. Tesla knew if J.P. Morgan withdrew his funding, his future plans would be ruined. As the relationship between Morgan and Tesla began to sour, Nikola Tesla knew he needed to do something dramatic to secure his funding and finally be able to deliver his vision to the world.

Admiral Peary’s North Pole Expedition:

Back in 1904, Tesla had developed a new type of radio receiver that could detect signals from his energy beam, and this receiver had seemingly been used by renowned explorer Admiral Peary during his North Pole expedition that year. Tesla claimed that it had helped Admiral Peary navigate through the hazardous Arctic terrain.

On July 6, 1908, seven days after the Tunguska event, Admiral Robert Peary was due to depart New York City on his ship, the Roosevelt, to start his eighth Arctic expedition. He was heading for the remote Ellesmere Island where he planned to prepare for a final dramatic push to the pole, a feat that had never before been accomplished.

Despite facing many challenges, Admiral Peary was determined to reach the North Pole and make history. The journey would not be easy, the harsh Arctic environment made the expedition incredibly difficult and dangerous as the team faced extreme cold, blizzards, and unpredictable terrain. Despite these risks, Peary was determined to succeed, but he would need all the help he could muster to navigate through this desolate region.

Tesla knew the world was watching Admiral Peary's expedition and thought this was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the awesome power of his invention. His plan was to fire a bolt of energy toward Ellesmere Island and light up the skies, creating the greatest light show the world had ever seen. The story goes that Tesla sent Admiral Peary a cryptic message saying the extreme cold and isolation make the Arctic the perfect location for this type of experiment and to watch the skies above the tundra for a signal. Perry allegedly asked Tesla what kind of signal he should be looking for and Tesla told him that he'll know it when he sees it.

No one knows for sure if Tesla was actually in contact with Admiral Peary, what he had planned, and whether he was testing his death ray to see if he could in fact light up the skies over Ellesmere Island, but it is a fact that if you draw a line from Tesla's lab in New York to Ellesmere Island and continue that line, you end up in Siberia, very close to, if not the exact point of impact at Tunguska.

Wardenclyff Tower, Long Island, New York – 30th June 1908:

Back at Wardenclyff Tower on the North Shore of Long Island, New York, the moment of truth had arrived. Despite his financial difficulties, his collapsing relationship with J.P. Morgan, and significant interference from the U.S. Government and military who were worried about his invention (or more likely they were worried about it being in someone else’s hands rather than their own), Tesla had finally built his death ray, just months before the Tunguska event.

Tesla took a deep breath and activated the machine that would send the charged particles coursing through an intricate network of wires and coils. At first, the tower generated a low hum, but the sound grew louder and louder until it was a deafening roar. Once the machine was fully charged, a beam of light brighter than the sun shot out of Warden Cliff Tower and sliced through the air. For 10 or 15 seconds, vast amounts of energy poured into the atmosphere. Then it suddenly stopped. Darkness followed, and the only sound was a crackling of static from the residual electricity created by the machine.

Tesla felt an intense rush of exhilaration; the machine had worked. He knew his funding would be secure, and he could continue his work. But Tesla's excitement would last only a few moments. He looked at the readings on his death ray machine. It worked, but it worked too well. Rather than a dazzling light show, Tesla had created a massive wave of energy, a thousand times more powerful than an atomic bomb. Even Tesla didn't know how destructive his weapon really was.

Was Tesla Responsible for the Tunguska Destruction?

Had the immense power of Tesla’s energy wave caused the beam to overshoot its target, not lighting up the sky above Ellesmere island as intended, but instead making landfall in Russia, directly over Tunguska? Was the explosion the result of a Tesla experiment gone awry, like many people believe, or was it the result of a meteor airburst?

Many scientists have asked this very same question during the 115 years since the catastrophic event. The prevailing theory is that the explosion was caused by an air burst, a large meteor or comet fragment that exploded in the Earth's atmosphere. However, there are problems with this theory. Eyewitnesses reported seeing lights in the sky both before and for days after the event, not what you would expect from a meteorite or a comet. Witnesses also reported the ground shaking like an earthquake for a long time before the impact, again not an effect a meteorite would produce. A meteor air burst would appear as a streak of light or fire in the sky, followed by a flash and an explosion which would last only a few seconds. But reports say a wide beam of light was in the sky for much longer. Locals said the air got very cold at first, then the sky lit up brighter than the sun, and suddenly the air was very, very hot. The explosion happened at an altitude of four or five miles, which is much higher than most known meteor air bursts.

The meteorite theory is also undermined by the fact that no blast crater or trace of any meteorite has ever been found, despite exhaustive searches. If Tesla really could transmit a directed energy beam through the air, it would leave no traces or crater.

It would be helpful if we had modern evidence of a large meteor airburst to help us better understand Tunguska. And we do, it happened in 2013 and this time we have video, and it's terrifying. On February 15, 2013, a blinding flash of light tore through the sky over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, followed by a deafening explosion that shook the earth. Local residents were stunned, terrified, and confused. The event, which has since become known as the Chelyabinsk meteor, was one of the most dramatic and mysterious events in recent history and remains a testament to the scary power of the universe.

The meteor that caused the Chelyabinsk event was estimated to be around 60 feet in diameter and weighed over 10,000 tons. It entered the Earth's atmosphere at a speed of approximately 19 kilometers per second (12 miles per second or 43,000 miles per hour), almost 60 times the speed of sound. The fireball glowed 30 times brighter than the sun, so bright and so hot that people suffered burns on their skin and damage to their eyes. The resulting explosion was estimated to be equivalent to 5,500 kilotons of TNT, making it one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. The shockwave shattered windows, damaged over 1,000 buildings, and injured 1,500 people.

Unlike Tunguska, scientists were able to study the Chelyabinsk meteor in detail. They found that the meteor was likely a remnant of the early solar system and had been traveling through space for about four and a half billion years before colliding with Earth. The Chelyabinsk event also served as a wake-up call for the scientific community because nobody saw it coming. There was zero warning. These types of meteor air bursts and impacts happen every day. The Tunguska event was 10,000 times more powerful than the one at Chelyabinsk, enough to easily wipe out a large city.

What other evidence do we have that the Tunguska explosion might have been the result of Tesla’s experiment?

The idea of death rays were a popular concept in Tesla’s time. Several inventors, notably Harry Grindell Matthews in England, claimed to have invented such a weapon. In 1907, there was much speculation in the press that the explosion that destroyed the French battleship Iena in March was caused by some kind of wireless energy wave, with Tesla’s name even mentioned in connection with the disaster.

Tesla himself gave rise to much of the speculation by repeatedly claiming his electricity transmission device could be used as a directed energy weapon. Writing in Liberty magazine he explained,  

“My invention requires a large plant, but once it is established it will be possible to destroy anything, men or machines.”

Tesla also wrote several letters to the New York Times in which he expanded on the potential of his invention as a death ray.

“As to projecting wave energy to any particular region of the globe…this can be done by my devices…the spot at which the desired effect is to be produced can be calculated very closely, assuming the accepted terrestrial measurements to be correct. Once it is established it will be possible to destroy anything, men or machines, approaching within a radius of 200 miles.”

Just two months before Tunguska, he wrote, “this is not a dream. Even now wireless power plants could be constructed by which any region of the globe might be rendered uninhabitable without subjecting the population of other parts to serious danger or inconvenience.”

On several occasions Tesla specifically cited the ability of his Wardenclyffe Tower to light up the atmosphere, “I have planned many details of a plant which would be amply sufficient to illuminate the entire ocean so that such a disaster as that of the Titanic would not be repeated,” he once said.

Many of the Tunguska eyewitnesses also described the earth shaking, even before the explosion. Again, Tesla explained how his device could shake the ground, even boasting on one occasion that he could shake the Empire State building to its foundations, a feat he had previously almost achieved during an alarming experiment in a New York apartment building.

It has often been pointed out by the proponents of the Tesla death ray theory that a line drawn between Tesla’s Wardenclyff Tower and Tunguska passes through the location of the supposed target of his energy beam — Ellesmere Island. Whilst this correlation isn’t exact, it is an interesting coincidence. Did Tesla, intending to light up the ice over Ellesmere Island overshoot his target and accidently cause the devastation at Tunguska?

Did he, beset by financial problems and desperate for his Wardenclyffe plant to succeed, use it for precisely the purpose he described to the New York Times?

We do know that Tesla was a showman and an inveterate self-publicist, notorious for making exaggerated claims which he sometimes could not back up. He was also always desperate for an audience for his inventions, and surely would have widely advertised the technology if he had really perfected it as he claimed, or perhaps he was so devastated by the destruction he had wrought he decided never to admit what he had done.

Perhaps, or perhaps not, it’s unlikely we will ever really know.

What we do know however is Tesla passed away on 7th January 1943 alone in his hotel room. Sava Kosanovic, the inventor's nephew hurried to his uncle's room at the hotel New Yorker the morning following his passing, however Tesla's body had already been removed by the time he arrived and he had a sneaking suspicion that someone had already looked through his uncle's belongings. Technical documents and a black notebook that Tesla was supposed to have kept were both missing.

According to Assistant Director P Foxworth from the FBI’s New York Office, the Government was vitally interested in keeping Tesla's papers safe and indicated that representatives from the office of alien property entered Tesla's room at the New Yorker Hotel immediately after his passing and seized all of his belongings and papers, rather than run the risk of Tesla's technology ending up in the hands of America's enemies.

After World War II, copies of Tesla’s papers were delivered to Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio to test the viability of Tesla's ideas on energy beams, and a project code named ‘Project Nick’ was heavily funded and put under the direction of Brigadier General Elsie Craigie. The details of the project were never published.

Over the years the FBI faced a great deal of controversy regarding these papers and their seizure. The bureau finally declassified about 250 pages of Tesla related documents in 2016 after years of answering inquiries about potential cover-ups. They then released two more reports, the most recent of which was in March 2018. Many questions however have yet to be resolved despite the release of these documents and many of Tesla's files are still missing.

We may never know if the story of the Tunguska event and Tesla's death ray is fact or fiction, I’ll have to leave that to you to decide. What is fact however, is the subsequent efforts by the authorities to cover up Tesla’s experimentation and withhold his research papers over the past eighty years. That in itself raises many questions and may well indicate, as is often the case, not all is as it seems.

What became of the Wardenclyffe Tower?

Due to a financial crisis brought on by J.P. Morgan’s withdrawal of support, Tesla was forced to shelve his energy beam project, and during World War One the authorities allegedly became concerned that the Germans were using the tower for radio transmissions, and blew it up.

That’s not quite the end of the Wardenclyffe Tower’s story however. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors donated one million dollars to help fund the conversion of the tower's remnants into a Tesla Museum. The Tesla Science Centre is now open to the public on the Long Island site.

The area where the blast occurred is today shown on world map as Krasnoyarsk Krai, in Russia. Its administrative centre is the city of Krasnoyarsk, the third-largest city in Siberia which is known for its natural landscape, and has been judged to be the most beautiful city in Siberia.

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