In summer 1908 there was a massive explosion in a remote region of Siberia, called Tunguska. The explosion emitted between 5 and 30 megatons, many hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and caused a shock wave estimated at around 5.0 on the Richter scale.
The impact of the explosion was enormous – trees across the massive 8km blast zone were flattened, and windows were shattered many miles away. An investigation later calculated that 2,150 square kilometres of forest were destroyed by the explosion.
The event is usually attributed to a massive meteorite strike – there is no impact crater because the meteorite exploded just before impact. However, because the region is so remote, and no-one actually saw what happened, the Tunguska Event, as it is known, has given rise to some interesting alternative theories, from the presence of a black hole to the crash of a UFO at Tunguska.
One of the most popular, and probably also most fanciful is that Nikola Tesla, a major figure in the development of electricity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, caused the explosion while testing what is commonly known as his ‘Death Ray’.
The Death Ray, as it was popularly dubbed by the press at the time, was actually an attempt to transmit radio across the Atlantic, and also to transmit power wirelessly.
Tesla attempted to test his Death Ray (actually, with his strongly anti-war beliefs, Tesla viewed it as a Peace Ray) in 1908. His friend Robert Perry was making an expedition to the North Pole and it was agreed that he would fire the ray in such a way that they would be able to observe it and later report back to Tesla. The Arctic region was chosen specifically because it was unpopulated, and there was no risk of civilian casualties should the test go wrong.
Tesla allegedly fired up his device on June 30th 1908, and aimed at a spot West of where Perry and his group were expected to be. Despite reports that the beam had disintegrated an owl that had been unfortunate enough to fly into the beam near the tower, Perry and his team did not see anything of the ray in the Arctic. Tesla had concluded that his experiment had failed, before news arrived of a strange explosion in Tunguska. He naturally concluded that his ray had missed its intended target, and actually struck land in central Siberia, causing the Tunguska Explosion.
Critics of this theory – and there are many – point out that the Wardenclyffe Tower was actually reportedly inactive around the time of the explosion (it was never actually properly completed), and that if the explosion had been caused by a ray, why were meteoroid fragments scattered around the area of the explosion. Others, citing the laws of thermodynamics have wondered how Tesla managed to cause a 30 megaton explosion in remote Siberia, when his tower was incapable of producing that much energy in Long Island.
Conspiracy theorists might also wonder why, if Tesla had invented such a powerful weapon, nothing was ever heard of the idea afterwards (Star Wars excepting). Still, the nickname ‘Tunguska Tesla’ is a pretty good one in my book, worth the story.