Nikola Tesla’s Greatest Folly – the Wardenclyffe Tower

Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island, NY
Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island, NY

The eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla had worked with the likes of both Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.  He was already famous for his invention of the AC (alternating current) electric motor.  Why stop there?  His futuristic Wardenclyffe Tower was intended to be the first ever wireless power transmission station.  Tesla envisioned transmitting messages across the Atlantic using the Earth itself to conduct the signals. To better compete with Giovanni Marconi’s new ‘Radio,’ he added the claim of worldwide wireless power transmission via the earth’s charged ionosphere.

Using the Earth itself as the medium for conducting the current, thus dispensing with wires … a machine, working like a pump, drawing electricity from the Earth and driving it back into the same, thus creating a ripple which, spreading through the Earth like a wire, could be tapped at great distances.” 

Nikola Tesla

The Croatian born Tesla had a tumultuous career after arriving in the US as an immigrant in 1884.  He quit working for Thomas Edison after just 6 months, failed in an attempt to start his own electrical company (Tesla Electric Light), then licensed his famous AC induction motor patents to George Westinghouse, giving up his royalties as well. At the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he helped Westinghouse demonstrate AC electric lighting, besting Edison’s DC (direct current).

The brilliant, insomniac, workaholic’s mind never ceased to stop spinning with ideas.  Today, he would have likely been diagnosed with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). The Serbian-American inventor soon left Westinghouse and formed the Nikola Tesla Company in 1895.

He demonstrated his wireless power at Colorado Springs, sending lightning bolts 135 feet into the sky from his famous high voltage Tesla Coil.

With this highly publicized achievement under his belt, Tesla made the rounds to investors, wining and dining millionaires at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City. The wealthy financier J. P. Morgan agreed to invest $150,000 to build a wireless station capable of sending messages across the Atlantic Ocean to London.

Nikola Tesla and the Tesla Coil
Nikola Tesla demonstrating his Tesla Coil

In 1901, Tesla informed Morgan of his intent to increase the power beyond Marconi’s feeble Radio but needed much more money.  Tesla also believed his new wireless electric current would make the sky glow like the aurora borealis, thus providing night time lighting as well! This was met with skepticism by the shrewd Morgan, who refused to fund a single dollar more without proof of transmission.  Despite this, Tesla purchased 200 acres on Long Island Sound in the Wardenclyffe resort community.

He started construction on a 187 feet tall octagonal tower with a mushroom shaped metal cupola 68 feet wide, weighing a staggering 55 tons, plus an iron core extending 120 feet into the earth.  Beneath it was the power station and boiler room. This soon sprouted curiosity. What was Tesla was up to at Wardenclyffe that he kept secret from the public and the press?  He would respond matter-of-factly to questioning reporters, stating only that, “We have been sending wireless messages and power from this station for long distances for some time.”  In truth, he was under tremendous pressure from Morgan to deliver.

Then for a single summer night in July 1903, newspapers excitedly reported the mysterious Tesla Tower had finally come alive!

Shooting off bright crackling flashes of blue lighting out into the starry night sky, the effect was visible for a hundred miles, as far away as Connecticut.  In 1903, it must have seemed like something from a Jules Verne novel come to life.  The next day, no explanation of the fantastic display was forthcoming from the enigmatic Nikola Tesla or his staff.  Sadly, Wardenclyffe Tower never operated at full power again.  Tesla gave no explanation as to why. When Tesla requested more money from J.P. Morgan, the investor replied curtly, “I have received your letter, and in reply would say that I should not feel disposed at present to make any further advances”.

Tesla’s finances began to unravel as investor money flowed instead to Westinghouse and Marconi’s successful radio. The press claimed Tesla’s tower was nothing but an elaborate hoax. In 1904, he took out a mortgage on Wardenclyffe, and four years later a second mortgage. In 1905, his patents on alternating current (AC) expired, halting his royalty payments. His mounting financial problems, stifled his neurotic inventor’s creativity, leading to a deep depression, and ultimately a nervous breakdown.

People living around the odd Wardenclyffe Tower noticed the Tesla plant seemed to have been abandoned.  In 1915, when his backers demanded to know when they were going to recapture their investments, the inventor was unable to give a straight answer.  With Tesla unable to make any further payments, the banks foreclosed on the Wardenclyffe property.  Sadly, the historic tower was demolished and sold for scrap iron in 1917. For years the land was leased to a photo products company.

Despite his many inventions and patents, the eccentric Tesla lived a near recluse’s life.  Towards the end of his life, he lived alone in a New York City hotel room at the Hotel New Yorker, feeding white pigeons out his window.  A strict germaphobe, he preferred to dine alone and never married.  In 1931 he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine for his 75th birthday. He died almost penniless in 1943 at the age of 86.  George Westinghouse had been paying his hotel bills. The main building of the Wardenclyffe Tower remains standing to this day out on Long Island.

A century later, billionaire Elon Musk would choose the famous inventor’s name for his new electric car company, TESLA. Today, there are thousands of Tesla vehicles on the roads of our planet, a fitting legacy for the brilliant if erratic inventor of the AC electric motor. Musk later adopted Tesla’s risk-inclined flair with his successful SpaceX rocket program.  I leave you with this parting thought in Tesla’s own words:

Perhaps it is better in this immature world of ours that a revolutionary idea instead of being helped and patted, be hampered and ill-treated by selfish interest, pedantry, stupidity and ignorance; that it be attacked and stifled; that it pass through bitter trials and tribulations, only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle.”

Nikola Tesla

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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