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I, Robot: Nikola Tesla's Telautomaton


In 1898 at the Electrical Exposition in Madison Square Gardens, Nikola Tesla presented his most recent invention, the telautomaton. The device, a radio remote controlled boat, was roughly three feet in length with blinking antennae and was propelled by a small motor and rudder. At the Exposition, Tesla directed audience members to ask the device mathematical questions, and it would respond by blinking the lights on its antennae an appropriate number of times. Tesla’s display gave the illusion of an automaton; moving independently and mysteriously responding to mathematical questions with no apparent operator. Tesla and his telautomaton were at the intersection of major developments of nineteenth and early twentieth century physiology and physics. Thomas Henry Huxley, a physiologist, stimulated a debate among scientists about the extent human automatism. These debates centered on developments in physiology that suggested that there was no place for the soul in the brain; no energy was lost, and even with brain damage humans were able to function. The absence of energy loss created a problem in conservation of energy in physics. Some physicists were involved in this debate, attempting to determine whether any energy was lost or added as a result of free will. Yet, all physicists were involved in a debate about the form of the ether, a medium that theoretically permeated everything. Electromagnetic waves, including the radio waves that controlled the movement of Tesla’s telautomaton, were predicted to pass through the ether, a medium that permeated everything. The theories of some of these physicists attempted to combine ideas on the ether on communication between body and mind. Tesla attempted to synthesize several theories on the ether and eventually developed his own. His involvement with electrical healing experiments paralleled experiments in electrical mesmerism carried out by some British physicists that took an interest in psychical research. Tesla’s telautomaton highlights the research in communication carried out at the turn of the century; communication between mind and body, through telegraphs and through spiritual mediums.

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