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THE TALE of Nikola Tesla is one of advanced technology, high drama, eccentricity bordering on the barmy—and even modern crowdfunding. It’s almost incidental that Tesla has a car named after him.


Nikola Tesla, 1856-1943, was a Serbian-American scientist, inventor, engineer and futurist. He was also sufficiently eccentric to qualify retroactively as Geek of All Time.

In his youth, Nikola Tesla took part in ultra-accomplished technical studies, draft evasion, fights with his professors, gambling and had a nervous breakdown. In 1882, he joined Continental Edison Company in France. Within two years, he moved to America to work at Edison’s facility in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla soon developed animosity for each other. Tesla quit his Edison job over a soured technical deal and formed his own company in 1886. The hissy fits continued over which was better: Edison’s direct current or Tesla’s alternating current.

The matters got vicious, Edison displaying the dangers of AC by electrocuting an elephant. Tesla got George Westinghouse on his side, together with Western Union. Bankers took sides.

Tesla won the war (household electricity is AC), but lost plenty of the battles. For a time, he was destitute and depended on Westinghouse paying his rent at the Hotel New Yorker.

IN his heyday,

During good times, here 1931, Tesla made the cover of Time

Tesla’s technical achievements are significant, including invention of the AC generator, developments of early x-ray and work with wireless transmission of electric waves (i.e., radio telegraphy).

Who was first: Guglielmo Marconi or Nikola Tesla? Other hissy fits were finally settled, more or less in Tesla’s favor, by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943, which was also the year of his death.

An early Tesla.

A fairly early Tesla; the person, not the car. (The car looks to be a Renault. Might the woman be Tesla’s Amy Farrah Fowler?)

Tesla lived a life of considerably more than eccentricity. Some say he was stark bonkers. For instance, he was known for abhorring overweight people, obsessing about the number 3, insisting on a precisely set table each evening at Delmonico’s—and identifying with a particular pigeon feeding from his hotel apartment window. “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman and she loved me.”

He curled the toes of each foot 100 times each evening because, he claimed, it stimulated brain cells. And he was known for walking around the block three times before entering a building. (Sheldon Cooper, are you listening?)

A multo

A multiple image of Tesla in his laboratory. The huge arcs are generated by his “Magnifying transmitter,” a variation of the Tesla coil. [Note added August 24, 2013: According to Science, 16 August 2013, Tesla was photographed separately before the transmitter was turned on.]

Tesla’s greatest ambition never came to fruition. In 1901, construction began on Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham, New York, about halfway out Long Island. The facility was initially seen as demonstrating wireless communication across the Atlantic (Marconi’s first transatlantic messages, relying on several Tesla patents, were around this same time, 1901-1902.)


Wardenclyffe Tower was Tesla’s Long Island facility foreseen as transmitting electric power across the Atlantic.

In 1903, Tesla wrote banker J.P. Morgan that Wardenclyffe would do more than simply handle transatlantic messages; it would transmit electric power over the Atlantic.

Today, we transmit wireless electric power by means of direct induction or resonant magnetic induction—but only over short distances (see for recent automotive developments; see for a timeline). Only recently have researchers achieved anything approaching Tesla’s ambitious goal.

Wardenclyffe construction had fits and pauses. Funding dwindled. There’s evidence (see that by 1917 the U.S. government destroyed the tower because of fears it could be used for wartime communication with Germany.

Today, the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is a nonprofit organization with a goal of establishing a regional science and technical center at the site. Jane Alcorn, president of the group, and Matthew Inman, creator of the web cartoon The Oatmeal, initiated a “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum” crowdfunding campaign. Its goal of $850,000 was raised in short order. Significant donations came from the producers of the Tesla film, Fragments from Olympus—The Vision of Nikola Tesla, and from Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors.

A matching fund from the state of New York brought the total to approximately $1.7 million in six days. On May 2, 2013, the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe announced it had purchased the 15.69-acre site and will begin raising “about $10 million to create a science learning center and museum worthy of Tesla and his legacy.” Its website is ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on May 31, 2013 by in Sci-Tech and tagged , , .
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