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   June 2013       


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Tesla Lab to Become Science Center

By Donald Christiansen

For a while it seemed that it might be a close call. But in May 2013 the only remaining research facility of Nikola Tesla was saved from the threat of the wrecking ball when it was acquired by the nonprofit Friends of Science East, known now as the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe.

The iconic Tesla Wardenclyffe tower failed to survive World War I, when to prevent its use as a landmark by German submarines, it was demolished in response to an order of the U.S. government.

The Wardenclyffe laboratory, a brownstone structure designed by architect Stanford White, sits on 16 acres in Shoreham, N.Y. The site includes a run-down expanse of abandoned structures that once housed the manufacturing facilities of Agfa-Gevaert. The plant was closed in 1987 when demand for photographic film diminished.

When Agfa put the site up for sale, the Friends of Science East began a fund-raising program with the intent of purchasing and restoring the property and making the laboratory building the centerpiece of a science learning center and museum. The museum would highlight the more significant inventions selected from among an estimated 300 patents of the eccentric genius.

In 2012 the fund-raising goal was exceeded when Matthew Inman, noted Seattle cartoonist and Tesla fan, began soliciting contributions through his website. Inman’s efforts raised $1.37 million from some 33,000 donors, and enabled the purchase of the property for $850,000. Among the donations was one for $33,333 from the producers of the film “Fragments from Olympus: The Vision of Nikola Tesla.” The state of New York has promised a matching grant of $850,000 that will go toward cleanup and restoration of the site.

The laboratory itself is now barren, long-emptied of its once active generators and transformers, machine shop, glass-blowing and X-ray equipment. It originally contained Tesla’s office, a library, and an instrument room. The widely-used Tesla coils were also fabricated there.

In its heyday, the laboratory was perhaps best known because of Tesla’s interest in his controversial concept of energy transmission via the earth and the ionosphere. The iconic 187-foot wooden tower constructed just outside the laboratory was intended to be used for experiments in both energy transmission and radio communications. Tesla had planned to power the tower’s transmitter using a 200-kilowatt Westinghouse a-c generator.

Those experiments never took place. It turned out that Tesla was a far better inventor than he was a businessman. Former friends and backers, among them George Westinghouse and J. P. Morgan, ceased providing funding when ongoing developments in radio apparently made Tesla’s intended experiments less attractive to them. Tesla’s debts mounted, too, as he spent on research and equipment as well as lavishly for personal expenses. In serious debt to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel where he had lived for several years, he deeded Wardenclyffe to the hotel in 1915. In 1917 the Waldorf demolished the Wardenclyffe tower for its scrap value. Evidently this was done on orders from the U.S. government, concerned that it could be used as a landmark for German U-boats.

Tesla spent his last ten years living in two rooms at the Hotel New Yorker, where, appropriately, the press conference announcing the acquisition of Wardenclyffe by the Tesla Science Center was held. A historian and archivist for the New Yorker noted that Tesla was well-known for feeding pigeons from the windows of his rooms, and almost daily spent time in Bryant Park in the company of his beloved birds. The southwest corner of Bryant Park at the intersection of West 40th Street and Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) has been designated Nikola Tesla Corner.

Marc Seifer, a biographer of Tesla, reminded the assemblage of Tesla’s ever-optimistic outlook, quoting from his acceptance speech upon receiving the Thomas Edison Medal in 1917. Coincidentally, Seifer noted, Tesla’s remarks were given at precisely the time that the Waldorf-Astoria was planning the demolition of the Wardenclyffe tower. Tesla concluded with “I have the hope and conviction that this is just a beginning, a forerunner of greater accomplishments. I am determined to continue developing plans and undertake new endeavors.”

Tesla’s remarks might well be echoed by the new caretakers of the Wardenclyffe laboratory. My most recent vision of the laboratory was through a barbed-wire-topped 6-foot-high chain-link fence. Its boarded windows and doors were difficult to see through the jungle-like growth. The auxiliary buildings were graffiti-covered.

Jane Alcorn, the president of the Tesla Science Center, estimated that at least another $10 million will be required to renovate and restore the property. Anyone who wishes to participate in the conservation effort may contact Ms. Alcorn at janewr120@gmail.com.

Resources

Carlson, W.B., Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press, 2013.

Martin, T. C., The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla, Second Edition, 1893, republished by Barnes and Noble, 1995.

Cheney, M., Tesla: Man Out of Time, Prentice Hall, 1987; Barnes and Noble, 1993.

Siefer, M., Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, Citadel Press, 1998.

Tesla, N., System of Transmission of Electrical Energy, Sep. 2, 1897, U.S. Patent No. 645576 Mar. 20, 1900.

Tesla, N., “The Transmission of Electrical Energy Without Wires,” Electrical World, March 5, 1904.

Tesla, N., Lectures, Patents, Articles, Nikola Tesla Museum, 1956, Health Research, 1973.

 

 

 

Comments may be emailed directly to the author at donchristiansen@ieee.org or submitted through our online form.

 

Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at donchristiansen@ieee.org.

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