Did Nikola Tesla Describe Mobile Phones in 1926?

On September 19 2019, an Imgur user shared the following quote meme, attributing commentary that seemed to predict cell phones to futurist and engineer Nikola Tesla (misspelled once as “Nikolai Tesla” in the post):

In a comment, the image’s submitter referenced an unsupported claim about Tesla “shocking himself” and “seeing” the “past, present, and future,” and alluded to a conspiracy theory about an alleged time viewer rumored to be called a “chronovisor”:

When Tesla accidentally got shocked by very high voltage he claimed to have seen the past, the present, and the future all at once. From this might he have experienced cronovision and then later invent the Cronovisor?

On the meme, text read:

Nikola Tesla Describing a Cell Phone in 1926

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles, and the instruments through which we shall be able to do all of this, will fit in our vest pockets.” Nikola Tesla, 1926

September 2019 did not mark the first appearance of the quote on Imgur or Reddit; in May 2015, it was submitted in text format to r/quotes:

Tesla did not, however, seem to predict that these wondrous and miraculous vest-pocket devices would also be almost instantly blamed for distracting the whole of humanity from staring at one another on train cars or looking out windows. (Tesla also didn’t appear to know that vests or waistcoats would fall to the wayside in favor of hoodies.)

Elements of Tesla’s purported prognostication were poetic and subjective, describing the interconnected future world as a “whole earth … converted into a huge brain” and “all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole.” That portion of the quote wouldn’t immediately be recognized by most readers as a prediction of cellular phones, but the preceding comments did sound reasonably well-guessed nearly a hundred years later.

By way of context, telephones had been around for nearly half a century in 1926, the year Tesla made his purported phone prediction:

In 1877-78, the first telephone line was constructed, the first switchboard was created and the first telephone exchange was in operation. Three years later, almost 49,000 telephones were in use. In 1880, Bell merged this company with others to form the American Bell Telephone Company and in 1885 American Telegraph and Telephone Company (AT&T) was formed; it dominated telephone communications for the next century. At one point in time, Bell System employees purposely denigrated the U.S. telephone system to drive down stock prices of all phone companies and thus make it easier for Bell to acquire smaller competitors.

By 1900 there were nearly 600,000 phones in Bell’s telephone system; that number shot up to 2.2 million phones by 1905, and 5.8 million by 1910. In 1915 the transcontinental telephone line began operating. By 1907, AT&T had a near monopoly on phone and telegraph service, thanks to its purchase of Western Union. Its president, Theodore Vail, urged at the time that a monopoly could most efficiently operate the nation’s far-flung communications network. At the urging of the public and AT&T competitors, the government began to investigate the company for anti-trust violations, thus forcing the 1913 Kingsbury Commitment, an agreement between AT&T vice president Nathan Kingsbury and the office of the U.S. Attorney General. Under this commitment, AT&T agreed to divest itself of Western Union and provide long-distance services to independent phone exchanges.

In 1891, thirty years prior, an AT&T wrote (albeit less lyrically):

A system of telephony without wires seems one of the interesting possibilities, and the distance on the earth through which it is possible to speak is theoretically limited only by the curvation of the earth.

In that context, not only had telephones been around for almost fifty years by then, but speculation they one day might lack wires took place three decades before, too. And in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first transatlantic wireless telegraph. In fact, Marconi and Tesla scuffled over who did what first:

In 1909 Marconi shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with the German physicist Karl F. Braun, the inventor of the cathode ray tube. Marconi’s accolades were not without controversy: many other men had claims (some dubious, some not) to the “Father of Radio” title. As early as 1895, the Russian physicist Alexander Popov was broadcasting between buildings, while in India Jagdish Chandra Bose was using radio waves to ring bells and trigger explosions. In 1901 the Serbian-American electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla said he had developed a wireless telegraph in 1893; in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated four Marconi radio patents, citing Tesla’s prior work.

Articles about the Tesla quote appeared in July and January 2015. The latter piece mentioned that Tesla further seemed to fret over the “awakening of the intellect of women,” and he surmised:

… Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.

The acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women, their gradual usurpation of leadership, will dull and finally dissipate feminine sensibilities, will choke the maternal instinct, so that marriage and motherhood may become abhorrent and human civilization draw closer and closer to the perfect civilization of the bee.

A citation for the original quote appeared in multiple places, including Tesla’s Wikiquote page. The quote appeared in the 1964 book Lightning in His Hand: The Life Story of Nikola Tesla, on pages 176 and 177.

The publication in which it appeared was Colliers, and the piece (“When Woman is Boss,” an interview with Nikola Tesla by John B. Kennedy) was dated January 30 1926. The relevant portion appeared relatively early on in the interview, and included additional commentary about wireless technology:

AT SIXTY-EIGHT years of age Nikola Tesla sits quietly in his study, reviewing the world that he has helped to change, foreseeing other changes that must come in the onward stride of the human race. He is a tall, thin, ascetic man who wears somber clothes and looks out at life with steady, deep-set eyes. In the midst of luxury he lives meagerly, selecting his diet with a precision almost extreme. He abstains from all beverages save water and milk and has never indulged in tobacco since early manhood.

He is an engineer, an inventor and, above these as well as basic to them, a philosopher. And, despite his obsession with the practical application of what a gifted mind may learn in books, he has never removed his gaze from the drama of life.

This world, amazed many times during the last throbbing century, will rub its eyes and stand breathless before greater wonders than even the past few generations have seen; and fifty years from now the world will differ more from the present-day than our world now differs from the world of fifty years ago.

Nikola Tesla came to America in early manhood, and his inventive genius found quick recognition. When fortune was his through his revolutionary power-transmission machines he established plants, first in New York, then Colorado, later on Long Island, where his innumerable experiments resulted in all manner of important and minor advances in electrical science. Lord Kelvin said of him (before he was forty) that he had contributed more than any other man to the study of electricity.

“From the inception of the wireless system,” he says, “I saw that this new art of applied electricity would be of greater benefit to the human race than any other scientific discovery, for it virtually eliminates distance. The majority of the ills from which humanity suffers are due to the immense extent of the terrestrial globe and the inability of individuals and nations to come into close contact.

“Wireless will achieve the closer contact through transmission of intelligence, transport of our bodies and materials and conveyance of energy.

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

“We shall be able to witness and hear events–the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle–just as though we were present.

“When the wireless transmission of power is made commercial, transport and transmission will be revolutionized. Already motion pictures have been transmitted by wireless over a short distance. Later the distance will be illimitable, and by later I mean only a few years hence. Pictures are transmitted over wires — they were telegraphed successfully through the point system thirty years ago. When wireless transmission of power becomes general, these methods will be as crude as is the steam locomotive compared with the electric train.”

A meme with a vivid description of cell phones credited to Nikola Tesla in 1926 is correctly attributed. Tesla made the remarks among several in a January 1926 Collier’s interview with John B. Kennedy. Tesla is historically remembered for, among other things, detailed prognostications about the future of technology. However, some wireless advances existed in 1926, and Tesla was not the only person predicting “telephony without wires” in general.