By Karl Grossman
“SAVED. THANK YOU! TSCW,” declared the hand-written sign on the fence that surrounds the 16-acre site. TSCW stands for Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe. The site, in Shoreham on Long Island’s north shore, is the location of the only remaining laboratory of inventor Nicola Tesla.
The word Tesla has become familiar. Tesla Motors, now producing what is being heralded as a superb all-electric car, is named after Tesla. Tesla is a basic unit of measurement in physics standing for magnetic-field strength. Some might be aware that the two major developers of electricity in its early days were Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, or that the two major developers of radio were Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla. Regarding Tesla, there is far, far more.
But the story of Nikola Tesla — his life and work — is not known to most people, even on Long Island where for years he lived and worked.
A group of Long Islanders — with global support — are attempting to remedy that. Last month they succeeded in acquiring Tesla’s Long Island laboratory.
The laboratory is an elegant structure designed by Tesla’s friend, famed architect Stanford White. Built between 1901 and 1903 of red brick, its ornate windows and graceful grillwork are splendid. Alongside it is where Tesla constructed a 187-foot high communications and energy transmission tower. From its top, great bolts of electricity shot off into the sky, easily visible in nearby areas on Long Island and across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut.
Granite slabs in an octagonal shape and a large mound mark where the tower stood. Below are believed to be copper-lined tunnels high enough for a person to walk through, and a shaft 120 feet down to the aquifer below which Tesla envisioned linking the tower to the energy flow of the Earth.
Tesla invented the system to distribute alternating current (AC). (Edison favored direct current.) Tesla invented much of how radio signals are transmitted. (Marconi has long been called the “father” of radio but the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Marconi made use of Tesla patents that came first.) Tesla also invented, among other things, fluorescent lighting, the AC motor, remote control using electricity, a component of the coaxial cable, electronic ignition for gas engines, the bladeless turbine, even a particle beam weapon.
“He was perhaps the greatest inventor who ever lived,” declares literature from a company composed of Long Islanders now making a feature film about Tesla titled “Fragments From Olympus — The Vision of Nikola Tesla.” They contributed funds in the successful effort to buy the Tesla laboratory. “He was a pioneer of modern electricity, radio, X-rays, robotics, remote control and missile science to just scrape the surface of his contributions,” the filmmakers say. “Yet he died in poverty, and few today even know his name. Not since DaVinci has such a scientist, poet and visionary advanced the ideas of the world.”
The son of Serbian parents born in what is now Croatia, Tesla arrived in the United States in 1884 with four cents in his pocket. But, notes Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center, he was a “visionary” with ideas that would revolutionize the world.
At a press conference last month at Wardenclyffe, which was the name of Tesla’s laboratory, Ms. Alcorn, of Wading River, said, “We saved the property. Now we have to raise the money to create a legacy worthy of Tesla.”
The $850,000 to acquire Wardenclyffe from the Agfa Corporation, which used it as a photo processing plant until 1987, came not only from donors on Long Island — including the “Fragments from Olympus” folk — but from an online appeal of Matthew Inman on his “The Oatmeal” website that attracted funds worldwide. New York State provided a matching grant. Ms. Alcorn estimates it will now take $10 million for the dream of the Tesla Science Center at Wardencyffe — dedicated to illuminating Tesla’s work and science education — to become a reality. For more information on the campaign, visit www.teslasciencecenter.org.
I wrote and hosted a TV program — “Saving Nikola Tesla’s Laboratory” — for WVVH-TV in 2010. It’s up on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_H-UBvdPtag. I jumped the fence with my cameraman, Bob Beres of Sag Harbor, to do the shoot. At the press event last month, I was able for the first time to enter part of the structure. It’s loaded with mold; it needs a lot of work.
It is a Long Island — indeed global — treasure waiting to be restored.