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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

“We don’t know what he was thinking because we don’t know where all his notes are,” says Helio Takai, a Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist and physics professor at Stony Brook University who’s as well-versed as a scientist can be in Tesla’s theories. “Sixty hertz is a pretty long wavelength. At 8 hertz you’d go around the globe. This would go around the globe about four times. It would reflect very well from the ionosphere.”

Takai explained that the ionosphere wouldn’t be harmed because the sun keeps it electrically charged all the time.


While in his prime working at Wardenclyffe, Tesla was a regular at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he would dine with the likes of Mark Twain and John Jacob Astor IV. When he was staying out on the Island, he’d have his assistant commute from Manhattan each day on a special train car carrying a special picnic lunch prepared by the hotel’s chef. A railroad spur, now paved over, led to his place. Tesla’s hotel bills eventually ran up to $20,000. Tesla gave the property’s deed to the Waldorf to reduce his debts, hoping to buy it back, but it wound up in foreclosure, and the die was cast.

On July 4, 1917, the Smiley Steel Company blew up the tower and earned reportedly $1,750 from the salvage job. Sadly, one rich man who could have reversed Tesla’s fortune, George Westinghouse, had died three years before. His company, which had profited so handsomely through Tesla’s prowess, had begun investing in Marconi’s giant transmitting station in Rocky Point, RCA Radio Central, which eventually included six towers 410 feet high. (The last one was torn down in 1977, and its remains are rusting in the Pine Barrens.) To put this height in perspective consider that the Channel 21 antenna along the LIE is almost 300 feet high. Interestingly there is a wireless transmission facility where Wardenclyffe is today: the 120-foot high cellular tower by the Rocky Point Fire Department, whose property may still have some of Tesla’s tunnel network buried under it. When its garage was being extended, a bulldozer drove deep into an unexpected hole.

“While the tower itself is very stagy and picturesque, it is the wonders that are supposed to be hidden in the earth underneath it that excite the curiosity of the population in the little settlement,” wrote The New York Times in 1904. The villagers, the paper said, claim “the entire ground below the little plain on which the tower is raised has been honeycombed with subterranean passages. They tell with awe how Mr. Tesla, on his weekly visits to Wardenclyffe, spends as much time in the underground passages as he does on the tower or in the handsome laboratory and workshop erected beside it, and where the power plant for the world telegraph has been installed.”

Tesla gave some hints of his purpose.

“In this system that I have invented,” Tesla said, “it is necessary for the machine to get a grip of the earth, otherwise it cannot shake the earth. It has to have a grip… so that the whole of this globe can quiver.”

Let There Be Light

These days, Tesla’s electrical accomplishments light up the globe. We use his inventions every day without thinking—even kids playing Xbox or Wii owe a debt to the Serbia-Croatian immigrant who came to the United States in 1884 with a handful of change in his pocket, made a fistful of money and died penniless in 1943 at the New Yorker Hotel.

Many people don’t know who he is, or if they’ve heard the name, they might think it’s a rock band, an expensive electric sports car, or a rather humorless eccentric inventor played by David Bowie in the Hugh Jackman-Christian Bale movie, The Prestige. At least Bowie looked the part, but David Byrne would have been better, and wittier.

By many accounts, Tesla was a showman. In an article about the inventor’s Colorado Springs lab, published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1899, Chauncy Montgomery M’Govern called Tesla “the new wizard of the West,” and described the show. After making the room “dark as a cave,” Tesla, “in the labored accentuation of the foreigner,” announces, ‘Now, my friends, I will make for you some daylight.’ Quick as a flash the whole laboratory is filled with a strange light as beautiful as that of the moon, but as strong as that of old Sol.”

It’s understandable that Time’s July 5, 2010 issue devoted to Edison may have given Tesla short shrift but it’s a shame the editors didn’t draw from the July 20, 1931 edition, when Tesla graced the cover (his image taken from a portrait by Princess Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy done in 1916) with a headline that read “All the world’s his power house.”

No doubt the pendulum is swinging Tesla’s way again and he’s beginning to get his due from unusual places. Here’s just one example. This summer ArcAttack, an innovative band of self-professed geeks from Texas, made it to the second round on America’s Got Talent by using a robot to play drums while two guys in Faraday shock-proof suits cavort between a pair of Tesla coils, with sparks flying off them, and the current illuminating two fluorescent tubes. They’ll be performing at the New York Hall of Science in Queens over the Sept. 25 weekend. If you want to experience Tesla coils first-hand, go to the Boston Museum of Science’s Theatre of Electricity, which has four of them.

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