Recently I attended the Tesla Memorial Conference held at the New Yorker Hotel in New York City. Click on these links to read about Day 1, Day 2, and a special presentation by 12-year-old Kyle Driebeek. One of the presentations on Day 2 was by Marko Popovic of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Popovic mentioned that Nikola Tesla developed a remote-controlled boat he called a telautomaton.
In “The Art of Telautomatics,” written as part of his My Inventions autobiography in 1919, Tesla reminds us that he first demonstrated his robotic boat way back in 1898.
In order to show how wireless technology could be used to command ships and missiles from a distance, Tesla had a large tank built in the center of Madison Square Garden and “in this places an iron-hulled boat a few feet long, shaped like an arc.” The audience, mostly attendees of the first annual Electrical Exhibition, was requested to ask questions and the automaton would answer them by signs, usually by turning left or right or reversing direction. “This was considered magic at the time,” writes Tesla in My Inventions, “but was extremely simple, for it was myself who gave the replies by means of the device.”
He repeated the exercise with a more advanced and larger telautomatic boat in 1919.
While Tesla acknowledged that these were “the first and rather crude steps in the evolution of the art of telautomatics,” it did signal the beginning of what today we call robotics. Consider Tesla’s designs then and the remote-controlled drones used in our more recent military and terrorist control efforts and you can see how far he was ahead of his time.
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.