May
22
2009

Monument to a nearly forgotten genius sought

Wardenclyffe tower and building c. 1903
Wardenclyffe tower and building c. 1903Courtesy Public domain
In 1901, inventor and electrical visionary Nikola Tesla began building a laboratory near New York’s Long Island Sound complete with a gigantic 18-story radio tower that he hoped would not only broadcast wireless communications to the world but also supply free electricity for everyone. His grand schemes, however, never really got off the ground. Before the year was out Guglielmo Marconi (using seventeen of Tesla’s patents) would claim to send the first radio signal across the Atlantic, and soon after, Tesla’s investors - including steel magnate J. P. Morgan - began to lose faith in the project and withheld further funding. Eventually mounting debts, lawsuits and loss of patent income began to take their toll on Tesla and his visionary plans.

Known as Wardenclyffe, the site was designed by noted architect Stanford White. It operated for a few years in the early 1900s, even serving as the inventor’s main laboratory for a time. But by mid-decade Tesla himself abandoned the site, and for years it sat unoccupied falling to ruin. Inner machinery and equipment were salvaged and sold to satisfy monetary obligations, and the massive tower was dismantled for scrap during World War I leaving only its foundation. But the main building still stands today and, despite its dilapidated state, has the distinction of being the only remaining worksite of the brilliant Gilded Age inventor.

Now a group of Tesla devotees are pushing for the site to be preserved and designated as a historical site and memorial to a man they say is worthy of a monument.

Nikola Tesla
Nikola TeslaCourtesy Wikipedia
Tesla contributions were certainly monumental. The Serbian-born inventor held over 700 patents and introduced to the world such things as fluorescent lighting, the first remote controlled robot, x-ray photographs, and wireless communications. One invention, the Tesla coil, is still used in today’s radios and television sets and other electrical devices. One of his greatest contributions, the development of alternating electrical current (AC) technology, went against his former employer Thomas Edison's big push for direct current (DC). The threatened Edison went so far as to hire a man to electrocute dogs, old horses, and even a rogue elephant(!) to show the public the dangers of AC current. But AC’s superior technology proved more efficient and cheaper, and near the end of his life, Edison admitted Tesla had been right.

Tesla in his element: Typical promotional photo of the inventor
Tesla in his element: Typical promotional photo of the inventorCourtesy Public domain
Tesla was a bit of a showman when it came to promoting his inventions and theories, often portraying himself in composite photographs sitting peacefully in a display of electric current. During the height of his career he was a wealthy and dapper household name who hobnobbed with the scientific, artistic, and political elite of his day, and had several laboratories in the New York area. In the late 1890s he set up a lab in Colorado Springs to supposedly “transmit a radio signal from Pikes Peak to Paris”. With funding from Colonel John Jacob Astor (who later went down with the Titanic), Tesla built an 80-foot tower on the prairie for that very purpose. Whether or not he achieved his objective remains a mystery, but he and his assistant did manage to put on quite a lightshow for Colorado Springs residents. Reportedly, the tower discharged a high-voltage flurry of 145-foot sparks in every direction that subsequently blew out the power for the entire town. After nine months of experiments, he abandoned the lab and returned to New York to continue his experiments at Wardenclyffe. The Colorado Springs facility was eventually torn down and sold for scrap and no sign of it remains today,

A consortium of science enthusiasts, preservationists, and plain old fans of Tesla’s genius want the Wardenclyffe facilities preserved as a national monument and museum. The group includes Tesla biographer Marc Siefer who helped pen a letter to President Obama asking for the necessary funds to purchase the 10,000-square foot brownstone structure and surrounding acres from the Belgium-based Agfa Corp, which is eager to sell the property to soften the effects of the present economy.

But Siefer and his colleagues think Tesla’s many accomplishments warrant its preservations. For one thing the group contends it was Tesla - not Marconi - who was the true inventor of wireless radio. The issue of who owned the patents for radio broadcast has gone back and forth since the early 20th Century. In 1904 the US Patent Office ruled in favor of Marconi for the patents even though it had ruled in Tesla’s favor in the prior year. Marconi’s many powerful investors may have been the reason for this. After Marconi won the Nobel Prize in 1909 the furious Tesla sued him for infringement and lost again. But in 1943, the US Supreme court proclaimed Tesla was the inventor (probably because the Marconi Company was suing the US government for infringement of the same patents). Unfortunately, for Tesla, this final designation came two months after his death.

Even today, Tesla still seems to elude proper recognition, but Marc Seifer and his colleagues hope to change that by acquiring and preserving Wardenclyffe, a site they say has great historic significance as the last remaining trace of the eccentric inventor’s once grand vision.

“It’s hugely important to protect this site,” Seifer said. “He’s an icon. He stands for what humans are supposed to do — honor nature while using high technology to harness its powers.”

Watch a YouTube video detailing Tesla's life and accomplishments.

LINKS
Tesla Memorial Society of New York website
NY Times Wardenclyffe story
PBS Tesla site
War of the Currents
1899 Tesla interview
Belgrade Tesla museum

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Gene's picture
Gene says:

Tesla also used to appear on Yugoslavian money.

posted on Fri, 05/22/2009 - 6:22pm
esheroux's picture
esheroux says:

Although not entirely true to science, Hollywood took an interest in Tesla and included the Colorado lab and some of his ideas in the movie The Prestige.

posted on Mon, 05/25/2009 - 10:47am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Yeah, it was... um um um... Bowie! Right? I have to say, even thought the real Tesla was overflowing with interesting neurosis (along with genius ideas), the Hollywood David Bowie version was kind of rad too.

posted on Mon, 05/25/2009 - 11:51am

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