After Hours

Fighting fire with wireless

What early forerunner of guided missile technology was patented by a famous inventor in 1898?

We asked what early forerunner of guided missile technology was patented by a famous inventor in 1898, decades before the appearance of widely recognized guided missile weaponry.

The genius in question is none other than Nikola Tesla, radio pioneer and father of the alternating current motor, who received a U.S. patent (No. 613,809) for a radio-controlled naval torpedo in 1898. Called the "telautomaton," this ancestor of the modern guided missile was actually one of Tesla's more disappointing failures in a career otherwise marked by staggering successes.

Tesla filed a patent for his "Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles" in 1898, but patent examiners were so incredulous of the device described in the application that they refused to grant the patent until Tesla had demonstrated the telautomaton. At the 1898 Electrical Exhibition in New York City's Madison Square Garden, Tesla unveiled a four-foot-long steel tube that floated in water, self-powered by onboard batteries, which he could control remotely using his (also patent-pending) radio technology.

The design of the radio-controlled boat made allowances for an explosive warhead, underscoring Tesla's presumed military applications for his invention and foreshadowing the guided munitions of the 20th century. Yet, while patent examiners were sufficiently impressed to grant Tesla his telautomaton patent in 1898 (ironically, two years before granting Tesla's original radio patent), there was ultimately little military interest in his invention.

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