Tesla’s Electric Dreams

Will Dean, Heather Lember, and Anna Lillian Moser

Electricity is all around us: our homes, offices, and streets, it’s easily available, for a price. But what if it was free, and available through the air?

Wardenclyffe Tower, near Shoreham Long Island, was designed to do just that in the early 20th century. Designed by Nikola Tesla, the brilliant Eastern-European inventor who created alternating current, the induction motor, and radio, the Tower would make electricity free and widely available by projecting it through the air as waves of energy.

Tesla sold the tower concept to wealthy investors, including J.P. Morgan, as a way to wirelessly transmit communications, and hid his electricty-for-all plan. By 1901, construction of the facility and tower began in a whir of press attention.

Tesla generated great interest in his new project by promising communication from places as far away as “any two points separated on Earth.” (Port Jesserson Echo, 1901)

Construction proceeded slowly but the project received a knockout blow when Guglielmo Marconi sent the first successful radio broadcast across the Atlantic ocean on December 17th 1902.

Tesla’s tower was much more expensive than Marconi’s so to muster support he began testing his apparatus and proclaiming his plan to transmit electricity not just sound through the air. Huge bolts of lightning were reportedly seen, and more stories filled the newspapers.

[Just as pictures] The New York Sun reported in 1903 “All sorts of lightning were flashed from the tall tower and poles last night. For a time, the air was filled with blinding streaks of electricity, which seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand. “ (A Battle to preserve… New york times)
The New York Times shouted in 1904, “Cloudborn electric wavelets to encircle the globe!”

Funders like Morgan were less impressed with this new plan and refused to put more money into the tower. (A Battle to preserve… New york times)

Tesla patents on alternating current expired and progress faltered. He tried to reinvigorate his plans, but couldn’t attract investors, and he was forced to sell the tower 1915 to pay off 20,000 dollars of debt at the Waldorff-Astoria, where he lived.

Picture: (Sun, Teslas Predicts more wonders).

The tower was blown up and sold for scrap in 1917 to cover Tesla’s debts, although rumors at the time claimed that the government ordered it destroyed to prevent German spies from using it to transmit messages. Tesla was discredited and forgotten through much of the 20th century but his reputation and ideas are undergoing a renaissance now thanks to internet fan sites and books. According to new scientific research pulling electricity out of the air might become a reality in the next few decades.

The site of Tesla’s tower, though, remains abandoned. In 2009, Agfa put the site up for sale and he Tesla Science Center tried to get the company to donate it for a museum. The owners refused.

But thanks to an unlikely fundraising drive organized by an internet cartoonist, fans of Tesla raised 1.37 million dollars to preserve the site turn into a museum. Perhaps one day, a new monument will arise on Long Island to mark the accomplishments of true genius, and who knows, it might even be powered by cloudborn electric wavelets humming through the air.

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