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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


There are scientists interested in Tesla and a growing number of “Tesla people,” who for a variety of reasons want to see the inventor finally get his due, especially as we relegate Edison’s inventions, like the incandescent light and the phonograph, to the history shelves. Some Tesla advocates are quite “out there,” claiming Tesla was actually an avatar sent here from another planet to help humans advance. The basis for that belief could be traced to Tesla himself, who once reported he was receiving “signals from Mars.” It turned out that his sophisticated equipment was actually picking up the radio frequency emitted by Jupiter, making Tesla the “father of radio astronomy.” But that correction came too late to redeem his reputation, which after Wardenclyffe’s failure, had taken a fall. He still has a long way to go.

“Revered as a demigod by some in the New Age community,” writes Marc J. Seifer in Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, “Tesla has, at the same time, been relegated to virtual nonperson status by influential segments of the corporate and academic communities.”

Raising people’s awareness of Tesla seems to drive many people, as a quick search online will show.


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Here on Long Island, two filmmakers have taken the cause personally, and their efforts have borne fruit. Joseph Sikorski and Michael Calomino’s Fragments From Olympus, a serious feature-film about Tesla, just won the 2010 best screenplay award at the Long Island Film Festival’s international competition, beating out 400 entries. Friends since their days at Lindenhurst High School, the pair, both in their early 40s, have found inspiration in Tesla’s life.

“He was a brilliant man who worked tirelessly to advance science for the greater good,” says Calomino. “The most striking thing about him is that he refused to accept payment for the majority of his patents just so Westinghouse could stay in business. I think that really says it all.”

Another goal the men share is to put Tesla and Edison more in balance.

“How Edison really manipulated public opinion against Tesla to the disadvantage of the science at the time was something we felt needed to be told,” Calomino says.

“The whole idea of vindication for him started to burn in me,” Sikorski tells the Press in his Babylon production studio.

Initially he and his friend were drawn to Tesla by his claim that he had invented a “death ray” (he actually called it a “peace ray”) and wanted to give it to help the Allies in World War II. Using some kind of particle beam accelerator, Tesla reportedly said he could demolish 10,000 planes from 250 miles away. He never got a chance to prove it. Tesla died two days before he was supposed to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt. A prototype of this device reportedly exploded above the jungles of South America as it was being taken by government officials to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. That’s one of the storylines Calomino and Sikorski tell in their movie. Sikorski has been busy trying to line up financing for the film, and the results so far have been promising. He’s had some feelers from Hollywood but doesn’t want to let anyone “punch up” the script and turn Tesla “into a crazy scientist.”

Sikorski says: “He’s been victimized all through history and I’m not going to be the one who victimizes him on screen.”

For their movie, Sikorski would use computer-graphics to generate Wardenclyffe Tower, but he’s using his film’s website to link to the Tesla Museum and Science Center’s site so the nonprofit group can raise funds to help save the facility.

“From this lab,” the filmmakers say, “Tesla’s dream was to send free electricity wirelessly to the whole world. Corporate greed put a stop to it. The people’s generosity could help preserve it!”

“It’s a wonderful thing to take something that’s been a blight on the landscape and turn it into something positive,” enthuses Jane Alcorn of the Tesla center. “What better place for a science center than in a scientist’s former lab?”

The notion is not science fiction, claims Assemb. Marc Alessi, who says he’s been able to squirrel away $850,000 in capital money that not even Gov. David Paterson could touch. And he says that he has a wealthy Suffolk entrepreneur lined up to match the funds, once Agfa gives them the green light, as well as a bipartisan coalition of elected officials, from the town, county, state, and Congress that have pledged to support the project. Indeed, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) is hoping to appropriate $9 million in federal “rails to trails” money to help with the Wardenclyffe site, since old LIRR tracks from the Wading River line run near the property. Making Tesla’s facility a destination or an embarkation point could make it all go.

“Any redevelopment has to contemplate dedicating the historic part of the property, which is the base of the tower and the lab, toward some type of museum,” says Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko. He said the museum would have to be run through a foundation, which would require another round of capital fundraising. “But I really think that money will come. You have Tesla fans all over the world.”

So far, Agfa has refused to give the site that landmark status, which would greatly aid a nonprofit group in getting grants to preserve the Stanford White building and begin the extensive—and expensive—restoration effort. Alessi says he’s had to be “very aggressive” to bring the corporation to the table. He doesn’t want it to become “just a static museum that’s honoring the past,” and through a public-private partnership, he and others envision an incubator facility on the site that could foster new ideas and even earn enough money to contribute to the tax base.

The irony that the Shoreham nuclear power plant is only a mile or two away from a site where, Alessi says, “the greenest energy on Earth was almost harvested” is on his mind. “The Earth’s energy itself was going to be wirelessly transmitted and we wouldn’t need power plants and fossil fuels.”

But that’s a lesson, as Tesla would say, we have yet to learn.

“The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result,” Tesla once wrote. “He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of a planter—for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.”

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