After Hours

Geek Trivia: 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.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the July 11 edition of Geek Trivia, "Date with (incan)destiny." TechRepublic members counter, Dave the IT Dude, and phalacee all dinged me for declaring the Queen's Birthday as Australia's premier fireworks festival, with the latter retorting as thus:

"As a geek residing in Australia, you can imagine my surprise when I saw the Queen's Birthday listed as the day we set off fireworks... never in the 17 years that I've lived here in Perth has there ever been a fireworks display on the Queen's Birthday... The biggest celebration involving fireworks here in Perth is always Australia Day — January 26. We have the Lotto Skyworks — probably the biggest Aussie Day event in the nation."

Once again, I confess my ignorance of the festive idiosyncrasies of the former British Empire and humbly beg forgiveness. Thanks for the correction, and keep those quibbles coming.

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Check out the Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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