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Tesla’s Last Stand on Long Island

The visionary scientist’s Shoreham lab is for sale–and his priceless legacy soon could be lost

“It must have been awe-inspiring to look at this and see this tower looming over the landscape,” says Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, a local non-profit group hoping to restore the property to preserve Tesla’s legacy.


Thanks to the research of Rocky Point historian Natalie Aurucci Stiefel, we know what the farmers thought of it back then, as reported by The New York Times in 1904: “Some of the farmers who come to Wardenclyffe to send their products to the city look at Mr. Tesla’s tower, which is situated directly opposite the railroad station, and shake their heads sadly. They are inclined to take a skeptical view regarding the feasibility of the wireless, world telegraphy idea, but yet Tesla’ transmitting tower as it stands in lonely grandeur and boldly silhouetted against the sky on a wide clearing…is a source of great satisfaction and of some mystification to them all. “It is a mighty fine tower,” said one food farmer to a visitor… “The breeze up there is something grand of a summer evening, and you can see the Sound and all the steamers that go by. We are tired, though, trying to figure out why he put it here instead of at Coney Island.”

From the photographs taken at the time, the tower does resemble a ride more suitable for an amusement park than a cutting-edge scientific facility. Judging from available drawings, once the wooden armature was enclosed, and the top dome sheathed in steel, the edifice would have looked like a Dutch windmill topped with an upside-down champagne cork. Stanford White had nothing to do with it; his design can still be seen on the laboratory’s roof, a cast-iron wellhead done in an Italian style.

Power To The People

Tesla didn’t know it but his time was running out and soon so would his money. One of his rivals, Guglielmo Marconi, startled the world in December, 1901, by transmitting the letter “S” wirelessly from Newfoundland to Cornwall, England. Tesla wasn’t perturbed because he noted that the Marconi had used 17 of his patents. But Morgan wanted to pull the plug on Wardenclyffe and Tesla countered that he could transmit more than information with Wardenclyffe Tower. Once his system was complete, with five matching complexes to be erected elsewhere around the globe, he’d be able to send energy.

“Free power to the whole world?” Morgan reportedly replied. “But where do we put the meter?”

So, the financier put his money in Marconi’s cheaper, and proven, technology, which eventually made the Italian a millionaire, a household name as “the father of radio” and the winner of the Nobel Prize in 1909. Tesla had already been scorched by another great inventor, his former employer Thomas Alva Edison. He had hired Tesla, “one of the world’s true eccentric geniuses,” wrote Time magazine in a glowing, lop-sided tribute to the wizard of Menlo Park in its special history issue this summer, to fix his company’s problems with direct-current (DC) electricity, which was expensive and impractical to transmit.

Tesla had wanted Edison’s help in developing his own ideas of alternating current (AC), but Edison refused to budge. Tesla agreed to help Edison in a deal worth $50,000, but when he made the improvements to Edison’s direct-current dynamos, Edison told him he’d only been joking about the money. His pride wounded, Tesla quit and wound up digging ditches to bury cable for Edison’s electric lines in lower Manhattan.

But then he got lucky when George Westinghouse tracked him down and ended up buying his patents for the AC motor. Edison was especially outraged when the two men won the bid to electrify the 1893 Columbia Exhibition in Chicago, and sued to block their use of his patented incandescent light bulbs. Tesla came up with a new design in time for the fair’s opening, which so dazzled one of the young spectators that he later worked it into his book, and thus we know the origin of Frank Baum’s Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. But the cost to Tesla of his contribution to Westinghouse’s success proved dear. Edison would have put the man out of business had not Tesla torn up his contracts and agreed to carry on for their future success. Without those royalties, Tesla ran out of funds when he needed them the most to keep his Long Island project going.

Trying to attract new investors, Tesla turned on his Wardenclyffe Tower on July 14, 1903. It was the first—and last—time. The New York Sun reported the electrifying results: “All sorts of lightning were flashed from the tall tower and poles last night. For a time, the air was filled with blinding streaks of electricity, which seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand. When interviewed, Tesla said, ‘The people about there, had they been awake instead of asleep, at other times would have seen even stranger things. Some day, but not at this time, I shall make an announcement of something that I never once dreamed of.’”

What people would give to see inside Tesla’s dreams! Indications are that he intended to transmit high frequency electricity, about 60 hertz, the average household current today, through the ionosphere, the layer of charged particles in the atmosphere some 30 miles above the surface of the planet that responds to radio waves.

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