Nikola Tesla: The Man, The Myth, The Legacy

Appreciating a Tour and Visionary Plans at the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe

From left, a couple from Australia who came to visit (and find the brick they bought!), TSCW Board Secretary Neil Baggett, Trudy Fitzsimmons and Katheryn Laible
From left, a couple from Australia who came to visit (and find the brick they bought!), TSCW Board Secretary Neil Baggett, Trudy Fitzsimmons and Katheryn Laible

We are grateful that the rain held off while we traipsed about the property that holds Nikola Tesla’s last and only surviving laboratory, “Wardenclyffe,” in May of 2019. It was a privilege to listen to board member Neil Baggett talk about the great scientist and his time on Long Island, and plans to advance his legacy. While nothing can replace an in-person tour with a devoted expert – we highly recommend taking one if you can! — here is a bit of what we learned:

Nikola Tesla was a highly prolific inventor, a gifted electrical and mechanical engineer, and a pioneering physicist. He was a futurist, an innovator and a risk-taker. As a deeply mysterious genius with a gift for showmanship who was reportedly born around midnight in the midst of a terrible lightning storm, many consider him a wizard. Some, even, a great mystic.  

A true historian, Baggett’s philosophy about dealing with Tesla is to stick to what can be confirmed, “There’s a lot said about Tesla,” he remarks, “What we don’t know for sure, we try not to say.”

That goes for the board and staff of the developing Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe. Others who support the effort to restore his laboratory and otherwise pay pilgrimage may subscribe to more speculative theories. When it comes to Tesla these are in ample supply, ranging widely to include but hardly be limited to him being a mystic seer, a native of Venus who didn’t die but rather just went home, a champion of free power for the people undone by corporate bandits, and a mad scientist whose tower to power the world was more effective as a death ray which accidentally caused one of the largest, most unexplained explosions on record in Siberia by flipping a switch in Shoreham, NY.

That’s fine, says Baggett, “They are free to believe what they wish. We stick to what we know.”

The Man

An image provided by TSCW of Nikola Tesla, age 29, with illustrations depicting his impact on innovation.
An image provided by TSCW of Nikola Tesla, age 29, with illustrations depicting his impact on innovation.

What we know is fascinating in its own right. Tesla was born in 1856 in Serbia, the son of a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. The rest of his family were military men and scholars. He stood 6’4” and throughout his adult life weighed almost invariably 142 pounds.  He was a man of many quirks: Although he dressed elegantly and fancied crystals, he despised pearls to the point of being unable to speak to people wearing them. Touching hair and shaking hands were also taboo. He was obsessed with the number three and multiples thereof. There’s a room 3327 with his name on it where he lived in the Hotel New Yorker.

Tesla worked exceptionally long hours, claiming 3am to 11pm, walked 8-10 miles per day, and hardly slept. Although he earned no academic degrees, he was granted 12 honorary ones. He spoke eight languages and was said to have a photographic memory that enabled him to memorize books and visualize plans in great detail before putting them down on paper.

Tesla first came to New York City at age 28.  Prior to that, Tesla worked for the Continental Edison Company in Paris, France designing dynamos. Overseer Charles Batchelor found him to be brilliant to the point of sending Tesla overseas with a letter of recommendation that said, “Mr. Edison, I know two great men. You are one and this is the other.”

Tesla’s biggest and most elusive accomplishments were about electric power. Much is said about the “War of Currents” between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Tesla had invented the AC motor, but Edison used only DC power.  After leaving Edison due at least in large part to this difference, Tesla spoke widely and was recognized as an “Extraordinary Electrician.” He was a strong proponent of AC power, which eventually won out in the United States despite Thomas Edison’s incredible efforts to make DC dominant.

Giants Among Men, Legendary Rivalries: Tesla, Edison and “The War of Currents”

Some believe quite strongly that Edison’s hard nose and exceptionally capitalistic, factory-driven approach to innovation played a large role in driving Tesla mad and undermining his success, to the detriment of humanity today. It is fairly well-documented that Tesla thought he had been promised a bonus of $50,000 (roughly $1.5M in 2019 dollars) for working out kinks in one of Edison’s DC projects, while Edison insisted that the somewhat younger, foreign-born genius didn’t understand American humor. It is also well documented that Edison secretly funded the first electric chair powered by his rival’s AC current which led to a brutal public display emphasizing his argument that AC was too dangerous. This was in addition to other unpleasant public shows, one of which famously included electrocuting an elephant.

Still, Baggett’s assessment is less accusatory: Although they were by no means great friends and had a massive split over the promised payment to Tesla and their diverging ideas regarding the best form of electric power, Tesla did win the 7th Edison Award, which he treasured for the rest of his life. Edison was a ruthless and often unsavory businessman, but Tesla’s solitary methods didn’t help him to thrive in the political and economic systems of human beings who – like it or no – ultimately end up determining who is rewarded and who is not. He had little close association with any big companies and the support systems that come with them. Fiercely independent, he didn’t collaborate easily. One exception was George Westinghouse, who played a major role in adopting Tesla’s AC system, which he then used during a major project conducted with both innovation giants.  Westinghouse generated AC power at Niagara Falls and General Electric transmitted it to Buffalo. Edison participated as part of General Electric, into which his company had recently been merged by JP Morgan.

The World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, celebrating the discovery of America in 1492, was planned for 1892. In 1893 it actually happened, hosting 27 million people.  Westinghouse and Tesla generated the AC power that lit the fair.  This marked Tesla’s most triumphant victory: Winning “The Current War.” 

Ultimately, Tesla’s income largely came from patents, many of which he sold outright to Westinghouse. He agreed to forgo the AC motor royalties to keep Westinghouse afloat rather than ruin the company. Still, self-sacrificing though that may have been, one may still observe that this was a poor decision, especially as Westinghouse was a sharp businessman who likely could have taken care of himself.  Plus, although it’s true he spent latter years of his life almost penniless, subsisting on meager fare and communing with pigeons, Tesla didn’t exactly live humbly or modestly, himself.

Prolific Invention & Fantastic Dreams; a “Worldwide Wireless Network”

Tesla’s inventions were many, not the least of which included the induction motor, neon and phosphorescent lights, and the remote control, which was used for a boat. Tesla made substantial contributions toward radio, so much so that although many still credit Guglielmo Marconi with the invention, a 1943 Supreme Court decision overturned many of Marconi’s patents to recognize Tesla as the primary pioneer. He also studied x-rays. As late as 1913, he designed a bladeless turbine that was used in flow meters, speedometers and odometers. In the 20’s he had already worked out details that basically envisioned the cellphone. His last patent was for a flying machine capable of vertical takeoffs.

In addition to Westinghouse, there were some other prominent supporters. John Jacob Astor gave Tesla $100,000 in 1899, which is roughly equivalent to $3.1M today. Astor felt burned, as he thought he was making a far more conservative investment in the continuing development of cool-bulb lighting systems while Tesla spent the funds on elusive dreams of powering the world in Colorado. Still, Astor did later work with him on aircraft and propulsion systems. This ended when Astor went down with the Titanic in 1912.

Another investor was JP Morgan, whose daughter Ann and Tesla were close friends, despite her penchant for pearls.  Tesla had some success in Colorado, studying the effect of lightning bolts on the ground, getting wireless light bulbs to light within a field.  He also produced a great deal of lightning with his own equipment, the impacts of which succeeded in burning his relationship with the El Paso Electric Company that had been providing him free power. Still, Tesla was convinced his experiments had him on the verge of a major breakthrough, enabling him to elicit $150,000 from Morgan in return for a 51 percent interest in his patents and inventions, including future ones.

Historic image provided by TSCW of Tesla's enormous Shoreham Tower
Historic image provided by TSCW of Tesla’s enormous Shoreham Tower

This passionate pursuit of global energy and information transmission – a “Worldwide Wireless Network” — is what brought him in 1901 to develop “Wardenclyffe,” his Shoreham, Long Island laboratory. (At that time, Wardenclyffe was the name of the village now called Shoreham.)  At this point, communications between North America and Europe relied on a Trans-Atlantic cable. Tesla planned to send information through the earth without a cable. However, while Tesla’s construction was still underway, rival Marconi sent the letter “S” across the Atlantic in wireless Morse code, proving radio would work. Although, as mentioned, it was decided shortly after Tesla’s death that many of those patents should have rightfully gone to him, Tesla himself hadn’t pursued that line of research. He thought those signals, which travel in a straight line, were ineffective. In light of Marconi’s plans, he decided to go bigger. Despite Morgan’s refusal to supply further funding, Tesla persisted.

The tower at Wardenclyffe was a monstrous 187 feet high and 68 feet across, topped with a giant metal hemisphere and rooted with a grounding rod that ran 120’ down into the ground. Tesla envisioned this as the centerpiece of a system that would be equivalent to today’s cellular telephone system plus radio and television, and establish the Earth itself as one giant wireless power grid. A quote of Tesla’s that we found on the Tesla Science Center website reads thus:

“As soon as completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind. More important than all of this, however, will be the transmission of power, without wires, which will be shown on a scale large enough to carry conviction.”

Tesla was on a mission to provide free power to all, anywhere they happened to be. Baggett’s assessment of that is guarded, “We don’t know if he would have followed through on that. Only that he said he would.” Still, this was the stated intention, and Tesla was a patently terrible capitalist.

Later Years

By 1915, Tesla had run out of money. Astor was dead and Morgan was no longer interested. His debt at the Waldorf-Astoria where he’d been living would have been valued at nearly $500,000 in 2019. The tower was dynamited for scrap to help pay for this. Tesla didn’t quash rumors that his tower had been used by Germans in World War I, in order to keep news of his personal ruin quiet.

Tesla lived until 1943. He had some successful inventions and awards, and a number of challenges both with his work and his mental health. His passion for pigeons found particular focus on an injured white bird that he claimed was his true love. He spent over $2,000 on that bird, building her a device to support her body while her bones repaired. In 1934, after some years of poverty, Westinghouse – for reasons not entirely clear – began paying him $125 per month plus his rent at the Hotel New York. This continued for the rest of Tesla’s life. He became famous for his birthday reports, which involved grand celebrations, memoirs and opinions, as well as grandiose claims that included, among other things, a motor that ran on cosmic rays, energy that ran counter to Einstein’s physics, metallurgical breakthroughs and photographs that captured thought.

Baggett will note that Tesla’s trajectory had one thing in common with Albert Einstein, who also experienced great success early on in his career, only to have his biggest dream – A Unified Field Theory – frustrate him until his passing. “People with this great a scope of dream find it tough to realize. Both were men of great vision. While his path was challenging, Tesla built and made great things.”

Serbia loves this genius son. Although he achieved US citizenship, Tesla is said to have been very proud to have been one of them. When he died in 1943, it is said that agents from the U.S. Federal Government inspected a safe that held a number of papers, some of which had been rumored to blueprint a Death Ray that Tesla believed terrible enough to successfully scare mankind away from war forever. No such plans were found. His beloved Edison Prize, also, has never been found. The nation of Serbia requested what remained of his estate. In 1957 it was all given to them. They are apparently still going through the papers to this very day.

Advancing the Legacy

While the property now owned by Friends of Science East is 16 acres, Tesla originally had 200. James Warden had built Wardenclyffe (now called Shoreham Village) to house wealthy New Yorkers in the summertime. Now, more of his land would be developed to add houses for workers at Tesla’s new power plant. 

Between 1940 and 1987, the site was a photo processing plant owned first by Peerless Photo Products and then by Agfa Photo. Tesla’s lab essentially became a factory. Other buildings were constructed and are still on the site. Between 1987 and 2012, when folks came around to save the place, it basically became a jungle. There were three factors precipitating the purchase: the land was about to be re-zoned by the Town of Brookhaven, the hazardous materials cleanup had been concluded and the property was cleared for sale, and there was an interested European investor.

Baggett will tell you that he is thankful for what he sees as a series of miracles.

One is the crowdfunding miracle, led by a man who came forward to champion the cause, Matthew Boyd Inman, author of an online comic called The Oatmeal. Inman wrote a passionate piece:  “Why Nikola Tesla was the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” He also launched an Indiegogo campaign with a goal of $850,000 to match a New Yorker state grant, buy the Agfa property, and save Tesla’s laboratory.

That goal was met with a climactic $33,333 donation from the producer of a film called “Fragments From Olympus – The Vision of Nikola Tesla.” It was then surpassed by donors who raised the total to more than a million dollars between August 15 and August 24, 2012.  The campaign ended after 45 days, bringing the grand total raised to $1.37M. Contributions ranged from $1 to $35,000, with an average donation of about $40. Together with funds from a NYS matching grant, they had amassed over $2M.  

On May 2nd, 2013, the members of the Board purchased the grounds. The next day saw the volunteer miracle, when local (and some distant) volunteers descended on the property, clearing the overgrown grounds in record time. They brought not only rakes and shovels, but bulldozers and electrical technology and legal assistance. 

That fall, the nation of Serbia gifted a statue that now stands on the property surrounded by a patio crafted via an exceptionally creative buy-a-brick campaign.  In 2014, also with the illustrated encouragement of Inman, complete with a tweet to provoke response, Elon Musk stepped up to pledge $1M and a Tesla charging station for his electric cars.

The donors as a whole are known as “Tesla Village.” They number roughly 33,000 people in 108 countries. Several Eagle Scout projects have also helped to move things along. Last August, the site was added to the US National Historic Register.

The board, itself, Baggett would describe as “regular people with ideas, dreams and a little bit of money.” During the first few years, most of the resources they had to offer came in the form of sweat equity. Now they have an Executive Director, Marc Alessi, and a growing staff to build and operate the Center. The board will focus on keeping the dream, setting goals to achieve it, approving the budget requests, and raising the money to fund them.

All in all, the progress to date has been an amazing show of the power of volunteers. The pervasive repetition of Tesla’s beloved number 3 and its numerological multiples (i.e., 108 countries is 1 + 0 + 8 = 9, also 108/3=36) is a source of delight to those involved.

Plans for the Site

A building called the “Bauer Residence” is one of the first on the slate for renovation. It will become an administrative building and visitor center. The vision is to recreate the lab and create a STEAM museum that honors Tesla’s memory and his legacy of visionary innovation.

Due to the post-Tesla history, the lab requires extra work. The photo processing equipment must be removed, as well as a second floor, stairs and various walls. Asbestos remediation has occurred. Mold issues remain, keeping them from opening the building to visitors just yet. Fortunately, some pictures exist and there are plans to meet with design professionals. They look forward to recreating the laboratory. While rebuilding the tower on the foundation stones that still exist may prove to be a tall order, there is already a small-scale, simple model on the grounds beside them that has been donated.

While they may still tear them all down, it is possible that some of the later buildings will prove useful, especially as diverse craft exhibits are intended to be a major part of what is expected to be a very active museum teeming with young STEAM students. There are also visions for an incubator of innovation designed to foster fledgling inventors and entrepreneurs. Already, there are several educational programs occurring with local partners. Most are off-site, but some – like Tesla’s upcoming birthday party, which is also celebrating the centennial of Tesla’s 1919 autobiography, My Inventions! — are already making good use of the grounds. They look forward to advancing groundbreaking partnerships with experts, venture capitalists and investors.

“Maybe we’ll keep a few shares of whatever projects are launched here,” Baggett muses.

There are talks of having an exhibit about the Tesla automobile on site, especially as Elon Musk has promised the charging station. Baggett smiles as he relates a race from Detroit to NY that occurred between an old Model T Ford and a new Tesla not too long ago, “The Model T is slow, but a Tesla needs a long time to charge. It was close, but the Tesla won by half an hour!”

All in all, The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe promises to be a fitting tribute advancing the legacy of a unique person who was, ultimately, an American Icon.

Says Baggett, “We would love to see him more appreciated.”

Note: This article was amended to fix the name of the Hotel New Yorker in which Tesla lived. We had written Hotel New York. We also were mistaken in our understanding of what’s required inside the lab, which has also been corrected and given further description. Some other minor adjustments were made to improve clarity and understanding. Any other errors here are our fault, and not that of the TSCW, which endeavors mightily to provide accurate information and clear up misunderstandings regarding Tesla. We are incredibly grateful to both Neil Baggett and Jane Alcorn for helping minimize any errors we may have made. Thank you!