Dickenson V. Alley/Burndy Library
REMNANTS OF A DREAM Nikola Tesla in a multiple-exposure photo in 1899, as a Tesla coil discharged millions of volts. A science group wants to preserve the remains of his lab. More photos.
A fight is looming on Long Island over the ghostly remains of Nikola Tesla’s biggest and most audacious project.
In 1901, Nikola Tesla began work on a global system of giant towers meant to relay through the air not only news, stock reports and even pictures but also, unbeknown to investors such as J. Pierpont Morgan, free electricity for one and all.
A publicity photo taken in 1899 at Nikola Tesla's laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the inventor worked before he established his Wardenclyffe laboratory on Long Island. The photo was a double exposure -- his pose and the sparks recorded at different times -- helping him avoid electrocution. The "magnifying transmitter" pictured here was said to produce millions of volts of electricity.
Photo: Yugoslav Press and Cultural Center
It was the inventor’s biggest project, and his most audacious.
The first tower rose on rural Long Island and, by 1903, stood more than 18 stories tall. One midsummer night, it emitted a dull rumble and proceeded to hurl bolts of electricity into the sky. The blinding flashes, The New York Sun reported, “seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand.”
But the system failed for want of money, and at least partly for scientific viability. Tesla never finished his prototype tower and was forced to abandon its adjoining laboratory.
Today, a fight is looming over the ghostly remains of that site, called Wardenclyffe — what Tesla authorities call the only surviving workplace of the eccentric genius who dreamed countless big dreams while pioneering wireless communication and alternating current. The disagreement began recently after the property went up for sale in Shoreham, N.Y.
A science group on Long Island wants to turn the 16-acre site into a Tesla museum and education center, and hopes to get the land donated to that end. But the owner, the Agfa Corporation, says it must sell the property to raise money in hard economic times. The company’s real estate broker says the land, listed at $1.6 million, can “be delivered fully cleared and level,” a statement that has thrown the preservationists into action.
The ruins of Wardenclyffe include the tower’s foundation and the large brick laboratory, designed by Tesla’s friend Stanford White, the celebrated architect.
“It’s hugely important to protect this site,” said Marc J. Seifer, author of “Wizard,” a Tesla biography. “He’s an icon. He stands for what humans are supposed to do — honor nature while using high technology to harness its powers.”
BON VIVANT Tesla, circa 1907. He was celebrated for his inventions, but he also made bitter enemies. More Photos.
Recently, New York State echoed that judgment. The commissioner of historic preservation wrote Dr. Seifer on behalf of Gov. David A. Paterson to back Wardenclyffe’s preservation and listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
On Long Island, Tesla enthusiasts vow to obtain the land one way or another, saying that saving a symbol of Tesla’s accomplishments would help restore the visionary to his rightful place as an architect of the modern age.
“A lot of his work was way ahead of his time,” said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center, a private group in Shoreham that is seeking to acquire Wardenclyffe.
Dr. Ljubo Vujovic, president of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, said destroying the old lab “would be a terrible thing for the United States and the world. It’s a piece of history.”
Tesla, who lived from 1856 to 1943, made bitter enemies who dismissed some of his claims as exaggerated, helping tarnish his reputation in his lifetime. He was part recluse, part showman. He issued publicity photos (actually double exposures) showing him reading quietly in his laboratory amid deadly flashes.
Today, his work tends to be poorly known among scientists, though some call him an intuitive genius far ahead of his peers. Socially, his popularity has soared, elevating him to cult status.
Books and Web sites abound. Wikipedia says the inventor obtained at least 700 patents. YouTube has several Tesla videos, including one of a break-in at Wardenclyffe. A rock band calls itself Tesla. An electric car company backed by Google’s founders calls itself Tesla Motors.
Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, sees the creator’s life as a cautionary tale. “It’s a sad, sad story,” Mr. Page told Fortune magazine last year. The inventor “couldn’t commercialize anything. He could barely fund his own research.”
Wardenclyffe epitomized that kind of visionary impracticality.
Tesla seized on the colossal project at the age of 44 while living in New York City. An impeccably dressed bon vivant of Serbian birth, he was widely celebrated for his inventions of motors and power distribution systems that used the form of electricity known as alternating current, which beat out direct current (and Thomas Edison) to electrify the world.
His patents made him a rich man, at least for a while. He lived at the Waldorf-Astoria and loved to hobnob with the famous at Delmonico’s and the Players Club.
Around 1900, as Tesla planned what would become Wardenclyffe, inventors around the world were racing for what was considered the next big thing — wireless communication. His own plan was to turn alternating current into electromagnetic waves that flashed from antennas to distant receivers. This is essentially what radio transmission is. The scale of his vision was gargantuan, however, eclipsing that of any rival.
Investors, given Tesla’s electrical achievements, paid heed. The biggest was J. Pierpont Morgan, a top financier. He sank $150,000 (today more than $3 million) into Tesla’s global wireless venture.
Work on the prototype tower began in mid-1901 on the North Shore of Long Island at a site Tesla named after a patron and the nearby cliffs. “The proposed plant at Wardenclyffe,” The New York Times reported, “will be the first of a number that the electrician proposes to establish in this and other countries.”
The shock wave hit Dec. 12, 1901. That day, Marconi succeeded in sending radio signals across the Atlantic, crushing Tesla’s hopes for pioneering glory.
Still, Wardenclyffe grew, with guards under strict orders to keep visitors away. The wooden tower rose 187 feet over a wide shaft that descended 120 feet to deeply anchor the antenna. Villagers told The Times that the ground beneath the tower was “honeycombed with subterranean passages.”
The nearby laboratory of red brick, with arched windows and a tall chimney, held tools, generators, a machine shop, electrical transformers, glass-blowing equipment, a library and an office.
But Morgan was disenchanted. He refused Tesla’s request for more money.
Desperate, the inventor pulled out what he considered his ace. The towers would transmit not only information around the globe, he wrote the financier in July 1903, but also electric power.
“I should not feel disposed,” Morgan replied coolly, “to make any further advances.”
Margaret Cheney, a Tesla biographer, observed that Tesla had seriously misjudged his wealthy patron, a man deeply committed to the profit motive. “The prospect of beaming electricity to penniless Zulus or Pygmies,” she wrote, must have left the financier less than enthusiastic.
It was then that Tesla, reeling financially and emotionally, fired up the tower for the first and last time. He eventually sold Wardenclyffe to satisfy $20,000 (today about $400,000) in bills at the Waldorf. In 1917, the new owners had the giant tower blown up and sold for scrap.
Today, Tesla’s exact plan for the site remains a mystery even as scientists agree on the impracticality of his overall vision. The tower could have succeeded in broadcasting information, but not power.
“He was an absolute genius,” Dennis Papadopoulos, a physicist at the University of Maryland, said in an interview. “He conceived of things in 1900 that it took us 50 or 60 years to understand. But he did not appreciate dissipation. You can’t start putting a lot of power” into an antenna and expect the energy to travel long distances without great diminution.
Wardenclyffe passed through many hands, ending with Agfa, which is based in Ridgefield Park, N.J. The imaging giant used it from 1969 to 1992, and then shuttered the property. Silver and cadmium, a serious poison, had contaminated the site, and the company says it spent some $5 million on studies and remediation. The cleanup ended in September, and the site was put up for sale in late February.
Real estate agents said they had shown Wardenclyffe to four or five prospective buyers.
Last month, Agfa opened the heavily wooded site to a reporter. “NO TRESPASSING,” warned a faded sign at a front gate, which was topped with barbed wire.
Tesla’s red brick building stood intact, an elegant wind vane atop its chimney. But Agfa had recently covered the big windows with plywood to deter vandals and intruders, who had stolen much of the building’s wiring for its copper.
The building’s dark interior was littered with beer cans and broken bottles. Flashlights revealed no trace of the original equipment, except for a surprise on the second floor. There in the darkness loomed four enormous tanks, each the size of a small car. Their sides were made of thick metal and their seams heavily riveted, like those of an old destroyer or battleship. The Agfa consultant leading the tour called them giant batteries.
“Look up there,” said the consultant, Ralph Passantino, signaling with his flashlight. “There’s a hatch up there. It was used to get into the tanks to service them.”
Tesla authorities appear to know little of the big tanks, making them potential clues to the inventor’s original plans.
After the tour, Christopher M. Santomassimo, Agfa’s general counsel, explained his company’s position: no donation of the site for a museum, and no action that would rule out the building’s destruction.
“Agfa is in a difficult economic position given what’s going on in the global marketplace,” he said. “It needs to maximize its potential recovery from the sale of that site.”
He added that the company would entertain “any reasonable offer,” including ones from groups interested in preserving Wardenclyffe because of its historical significance. “We’re simply not in a position,” he emphasized, “to donate the property outright.”
Ms. Alcorn of the Tesla Science Center, who has sought to stir interest in Wardenclyffe for more than a decade, seemed confident that a solution would be worked out. Suffolk County might buy the site, she said, or a campaign might raise the funds for its purchase, restoration and conversion into a science museum and education center. She said the local community was strongly backing the preservation idea.
“Once the sign went up, I started getting so many calls,” she remarked. “People said: ‘They’re not really going to sell it, are they? It’s got to be a museum, right?’ ”
Sitting at a reading table at the North Shore Public Library, where she works as a children’s librarian, Ms. Alcorn gestured across a map of Wardenclyffe to show how the abandoned site might be transformed with not only a Tesla museum but also a playground, a cafeteria and a bookshop.
“That’s critical,” she said.
Ms. Alcorn said the investigation and restoration of the old site promised to solve one of the big mysteries: the extent and nature of the tunnels said to honeycomb the area around the tower.
“I’d love to see if they really existed,” she said. “The stories abound, but not the proof.”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 5, 2009, on page D1 of the New York edition.
"Telsa and the Avon Lady are attacking"
"ORB" is the 37th episode of The Venture Bros. and is part of Season 3.
While watching an episode of the old Rusty Venture cartoons, Billy Quizboy discovers a hidden message describing the length and circumference of a cylinder intended to be used as a scytale, the final clue needed to crack a cipher that has been concealed throughout the vintage television series. Upon decoding the message, Billy finds the message to be incomprehensible, but Pete White reveals that the code hidden in the 30 year old series is an Internet URL which leads them to an online map of the Venture compound.
The map indicates a point which proves to be Brock's herb garden, but when they suggest digging it up, Brock vehemently objects, stating that when he took the mission to protect the Ventures, he was instructed to protect that plot of land. Under orders from Doctor Venture, however, he allows them to excavate. A box from an episode of the Rusty Venture cartoon is found, as well as a gramophone cylinder intended for Brock.
The cylinder is a recording made by the bodyguard of the late Colonel Lloyd Venture, Eugen Sandow, who recounts a battle between Nikola Tesla and his allies, and a mysterious Guild of historical figures (among them Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, and Mark Twain), all protecting a mysterious Orb. The Guild, at this time made up of writers, poets, scientists, wizards, and sinister costumed men, laments the fighting. The two key members of the society appear to be Venture and Fantômas (apparently one of Phantom Limb's ancestors who may or may not be the fictional literary character). Their world is being torn asunder, which leads various members of the Guild (in particular, Fantômas) to suggest activating the Orb, even though its function is ambiguous. The more sensible Guild members (primarily Colonel Venture and Wilde) rebuke Fantômas' impetuousness, stating that "the Orb is a source of untold power. We must take our time and learn how to harness that power for the good of mankind." Wilde scoffs at Fantômas, who believes the Guild alone should decide what is best for mankind; the writer states that the Guild was designed to "protect and serve man at his best," not to be a "Guild of Calamitous Intent." Even Wilde, however, cannot resist suggesting that the Orb be tested. This causes even more dissension within the Guild.
Back in the present, the Ventures and their friends use the internet to decipher Billy's clues which presents them with a riddle:
|“ ||In Minuit's bargain sits house that coke built. In a loud room of quiet Whistlers behind the Wilde Gray gentleman sits the 221210. ||” |
Their interpretation of the clues sends them to Studio 54 in Manhattan; Doctor Venture and Billy promptly take off. Brock begins to search for the second recording cylinder. When he uses the directory in his Dodge 'Hemi' Charger to get further information on his mission, Operation Rusty's Blanket, the car tries to assassinate him.
Brock then visits Hunter Gathers, who is working as an exotic dancer after his sex change. Gathers informs him that guarding Doctor Venture wasn't his mission: rather, it was to protect the mysterious device left behind by his father. Furthermore, in case Doctor Venture found the Orb and tried to activate it, Brock was to "take him out." For more information, however, Hunter tells him that he needs to talk to another Venture bodyguard.
While Doctor Venture and Billy investigate Studio 54, Brock finds Kano from the original Team Venture, who still has the second gramophone cylinder. It reveals that Sandow was forced to kill Colonel Venture upon his decision to activate the Orb. Sandow recounts how Colonel Venture revealed that the Orb was a collaboration of the best painters, alchemists, poets, and philosophers known to mankind; Archimedes, DaVinci, Galileo, and Newton are among its contributors. The Orb's purpose remained unknown through the centuries, as it had never been activated. While many believed it to be a weapon of catastrophic power, Colonel Venture believes it to be a self-sustaining engine.
A further aspect of Brock's discovery is that Kano is not actually a mute. The former bodyguard reveals that it was a self-imposed punishment for depriving the world of a great man. When Brock asks him if he was the one who killed the great Jonas Venture, Kano does not answer and Brock leaves.
Doctor Orpheus has discovered the Ventures' activities, and calls upon the Alchemist to help decode the clues, which he believes Billy and Doctor Venture have misinterpreted. The Alchemist successfully decodes the clues, and sends Billy and Venture to the Frick Museum. With Billy's help, Doctor Venture rediscovers the thrill of the adventure, a sensation long-lost since his father died and the boys were born. Neither Venture nor Billy realize that Brock is closing in, prepared to kill them both if necessary.
The pair discover the Orb where the Alchemist said it would be. To Brock's surprise, Doctor Venture does not attempt to activate the Orb. Remembering Jonas (whom Venture remembers as a lousy father but a great scientist), he decides to study it responsibly: if even his father was afraid of using the Orb, he rationalizes that he probably should be too. He locks it in a safe in the Venture Compound, resolving that - should it ever prove to be of use to the good of mankind - he will share it with the world.
Brock, having stowed away in the X-1's landing gear compartment, exits the jet and goes to leave the garage when the Charger suddenly appears. The episode ends just before it hits Brock.
- One of the animation directors (Kimson Albert) gets to have a "nickname" inserted into his credits. For "ORB" the credit reads Kimson "Butter me, I'm on a roll!" Albert.