Ride the Lightning
It’s ironic that Long Islanders’ utility bills are in the stratosphere today considering that a century ago visionary inventor Nikola Tesla intended to supply free energy to the world, starting from his 200-acre laboratory in Shoreham.
As The Port Jefferson Echo reported in the summer of 1901, Tesla “expects to converse electrically with all countries without wires and this station at Wardenclyffe will be his main station.” Tesla had already partnered with George Westinghouse to harness Niagara Falls for hydropower and had a previous falling out with Thomas Edison over the merits of AC vs. DC current.
“Tesla’s goal at Wardenclyffe was essentially to electrify the Earth to provide free wireless energy to the whole world,” says Joseph Sikorski, a Long Island independent film director and co-screenwriter of Fragments From Olympus—The Vision of Nikola Tesla, a movie in pre-production. By using the ionosphere, the layer of charged particles in the atmosphere some 30 miles from the Earth’s surface, Tesla theorized that the energy could be safely tapped by anyone with the properly attuned antennae.
BNL physicist Helio Takai, who also teaches physics at Stony Brook, conjectured that Tesla may have wanted to transmit the energy at 60 hertz, the average household current today, adding that the ionosphere wouldn’t be harmed because it’s always electrically charged.
“We don’t know what he was thinking because we don’t know where all his notes are,” Takai tells the Press. “Sixty hertz is a pretty long wavelength.… This would go around the globe about four times and reflect very well from the ionosphere.”
Tesla’s enlightened proposal clashed with his investor’s pragmatic expectations. His primary backer at Wardenclyffe, J.P. Morgan, was turned off. “Free power to the whole world?” the fabled investment banker reportedly told Tesla. “But where do we put the meter?” Morgan stopped funding the project, and by 1903, Tesla went bankrupt, but not before putting on one spectacular lightening display from his Wardenclyffe tower that lit up the night sky above Shoreham for miles around.
Wardenclyffe’s demise would foreshadow those of other inventive-though-controversial energy ideas that never seem to come to pass on Long Island. Proposed wind farms off Jones Beach and the Rockaways have so far met similar fates. And, of course, there’s Shoreham.