April 28, 2012 – Being ahead of your time is great if you’re an Olympic sprinter or a Victorian time traveler. It can kind of suck, though, if you’re a scientist. Take Tesla.
Born in 1856 in what’s now Croatia and becoming a U.S. citizen at the age of 35, Nikola Tesla had hundreds of patents, developed AC/DC power distribution, invented radio, and made inroads into wireless technologies that spanned communications, data, and energy. He died in 1943 poor, irrelevant, and talking a lot about death rays.
There are a few reasons why one of the best brains to slip through a birth canal ended up so marginalized in such a technology-entrenched culture as ours, much of which he made possible. However, a lot of people just point the finger at Thomas Edison.
Edison was kind of the anti-Tesla. He was an inventor firmly in the right time. His inventions—the light bulb, the motion picture—were inspired exactly when we were ready for them, and he had the business and public relations savvy to make sure he capitalized. I mean, wireless communications and data exchange? That’s like today stuff, man. Were Tesla alive right now, he would have an Intel commercial about him and host his own Science Channel program.
Anyway, Edison was also a literal anti-Tesla as well, since the two were fierce rivals. And Edison was able to use his financial and political clout to ensure his own legacy and do his best to shred Tesla’s.
In fact, despite Tesla’s substantial contributions to science, he kind of became the Captain Beefheart of the field after his death. Everybody kind of forgot about him. These days, he’s risen back to prominence. Now he’s more, I don’t know, the Syd Barrett of science. I credit these guys.
Still, throughout his life he undertook some pretty cool experiments that really raised the perception of his laboratory almost to the point of the mythic. Like at Wardenclyffe.
In 1901, Tesla began construction on a facility in Shoreham, NY, on the northern coast of Long Island, to experiment with wireless overseas communications and wireless electricity transmission. The facility included a low, square brick building and a massive, 186-foot-tall science fiction-like tower. The latter was topped by a giant steel cupola 55 feet in diameter that, judging by old pictures and artist representations, really shouldn’t be on any sovereign nation’s soil until at least 2058.
Unfortunately, before he could change the world, his money ran out and his backers became leery of what they imaged would be the possibility of free power for all, right out of thin air. Just a few years later, the facility began slowly shutting down. Eventually it was foreclosed. The amazing tower itself was destroyed in 1917, the same day the extraterrestrials decided to take a pass on starting interstellar relations with our planet.
In 1939, a photo lab moved into the facility, which was then sold to its present owner, Agfa, which shuttered it in 1992. For the past two decades Wardenclyffe has sat there abandoned and dejected, sulking over the fact that it could have surpassed Kitty Hawk as one of the most important science history sites in the country.
Today, the original facility is still there and visible from the perimeter of the property. It’s been added onto over the years, but with varying materials, so the core brick structure is easy to pick out, including its distinctive and centrally set chimney.
The whole 16-acre property is thinly wooded and surrounded by chain link and barbed wire, but because it sits at the intersection of Route 25 and Tesla Street, you can view it from two sides without trespassing.
As per the rules of my probation and the mandates of my own cowardice, I didn’t go poking around inside the property, although some previous trespasser had rolled back bit of the chain link fence on the Tesla Street side, making the idea extremely appealing.
Since the visible area that you can see is actually the property to the rear of Wardenclyffe, you can just make out the overgrown, circular foundation rim of the tower, if you know what you’re looking for. The foundation is worth checking out on the Google map below (just zoom in). The place once also featured a memorial plaque to Tesla, but it was stolen a few years ago.
These days, Tesla’s legacy is secure, there are statues of him all across the world, Tesla coils in every science center, and his ashes are ensconced in a golden orb on display in a museum dedicated to him in Belgrade.
Still, Wardenclyffe should be a bit more hallowed, I think. I mean, had his backers not suffered from such short-sightedness, I probably wouldn’t have had to live most of my life without a cellphone and WiFi, and by now we’d probably never had to plug anything in ever again. Tesla needs to be reincarnated…soon.