The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Tesla in America


5206 The largest monument to the inventor Nikola Tesla in the USA is this statue at Niagara Falls. It is in front of the Power Portal Arch, which is the original arched doorway entrance to the world’s first large-scale alternating current hydroelectric power plant, the Adams Station, constructed at Niagara Falls in 1895. The plant was located above the falls at a site now occupied by a wastewater treatment plant. When the Adams Plant was demolished, this doorway was preserved, and reassembled here in a park near the falls in 1966. The statue of Tesla was unveiled in a separate ceremony ten years later. CLUI photo

ALL THIS TALK ABOUT TESLA cars and mega-battery plants makes one wonder about the original Tesla—Nikola Tesla, the increasingly not-overlooked, though still generally misunderstood electrical engineer and technological visionary. Nikola Tesla’s legacy on the landscape of America is everywhere, through the network of alternating current electrical lines that literally string our nation together. The technology was first deployed at Niagara Falls, an obvious and early source of industrial energy, where the first large-scale hydroelectric plant in the nation was constructed in 1895 using equipment invented by Tesla.
Tesla came to the US in 1884, and worked for Thomas Edison’s electrical lighting company in New York City. His ideas about uses of electricity differed greatly from Edison, who was developing direct current systems (DC) for the nation’s electrical appliances and infrastructure. Tesla, who pioneered and advocated using alternating current (AC), soon established his own Tesla Electric Company. Tesla’s labs and offices operated in a number of locations in Manhattan over the years, including 89 Liberty Street, and 46 East Houston Street. His lab at 33 South Fifth Avenue burned down in 1895, taking much of his work and papers up in smoke.
There are a few plaques commemorating Tesla around New York City, where he spent most of his life. They are at places he lived and worked, including one on the exterior wall of the Hotel New Yorker, where he lived from 1933 until 1943, when he passed away in room 3327 (which also has a plaque on its door.) Nikola Tesla Corner was officially established by the city in 1994, and is marked with a street sign at the intersection of 40th Street and 6th Avenue, next to Bryant Park, where Tesla spent time in his later years. Though he lived most of his life in New York City, his two laboratories outside the city, one in Colorado, and one in Long Island, are where his experiments took shape in their most dramatic form.

5207 Sign in the park where Tesla’s Colorado Springs lab was located. CLUI photo
Colorado Springs Lab Site
Tesla was financed by some of the major industrialists of his day. In 1899, he received $100,000 from John Jacob Astor to develop a new lighting system, but instead used the funds to establish a high voltage and high frequency lab on a remote hillside in Colorado Springs. 
Though he operated the lab here for less than a year, it was at Colorado Springs that he had his major breakthroughs that hardened his theories about long-distance wireless energy transmission. He produced artificial lightning at the lab, with millions of volts arcing over more than 100 feet of open space. He also energized the earth, and lit light bulbs 100 feet away or more, proving that the earth, as well as the air, could be used as a conductor. Eventually his high draws of energy destroyed the local power station, six miles away, putting an end to his experiments there. He returned to New York, and the Colorado Springs lab remained, but was eventually torn down in 1904 and its contents sold.

5208 Tesla’s lab at Colorado Springs was built on this site, with a direct view to Pikes Peak, where he imagined setting up another tower. Now a public park, no traces of the lab remain obviously visible today, though unusual forms built to expend the energy of skateboarding youths dominate the site. Others can be seen more passively scanning the ground with electromagnetic sensors, searching for the remains of something. CLUI photo
5209 The main lab building at Wardenclyffe, designed for Tesla by Stanford White, remains mostly intact at that site, connected to several newer industrial buildings built by photo processing and chemical companies that operated there for many decades. CLUI photo

Wardenclyffe Lab, Shoreham, NY
Soon after abandoning his Colorado Springs lab, Tesla began construction on a bigger lab to further pursue wireless energy transmission. With somewhat reluctant funding from J.P. Morgan, Tesla purchased 200 acres at Shoreham, New York, on Long Island, in 1901. Spurred on by Marconi’s successful transatlantic radio transmissions later that year, Tesla moved into the lab in 1902, with its 187-foot-tall electrical transmission tower mostly completed. 
Support for Tesla’s project never fully materialized, as investors supported Marconi, and grew suspicious of Tesla’s abilities. Some thought he was mad. Though he made one test at the tower in 1903, Westinghouse and his creditors soon took the equipment out of it. By 1905, with mounting debts, Tesla mortgaged the property, eventually losing it in foreclosure in 1915. When the tower was torn down in 1917, some said it was because it was a landmark potentially useful to enemy ships in the war. It is more likely it was simply considered an eyesore by developers eager to build housing in the area.
By the late 1930s, Peerless Photo Products had purchased the site, and operated a photochemical plant, making emulsions for film and paper. Several more buildings were constructed after the company was bought by Agfa, in 1969. Agfa stopped manufacturing there in 1987, and the site became another fallow contaminated industrial site, slowly overgrown with weeds.

5211 Early property map showing Tesla’s “wireless tower” at Wardenclyffe. CLUI photo
Contamination issues were assessed, if not addressed, by the time Agfa put it up for sale in 2012. Local educational and historical nonprofit organizations, which had been interested in the site for years, were finally able to join forces and purchase the site in 2013, after a crowdsourcing campaign, state grants, and a major contribution from Elon Musk, founder of the Tesla Company. 
The plan is to establish a museum and technology center there, called the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, honoring Tesla but also supporting science education in general. Supporters include scientists from Brookhaven National Lab (a large Department of Energy site a few miles away) and Google. Elon Musk has pledged a million dollars more for the museum, and to put a charging station for Tesla cars at the site.

5212 The site of the long gone tower was the first part of the property to be cleaned up and commemorated. The octagonal base of the tower has been cleared and delineated, and planted with grass. Volunteer crews continue to hack away at the weeds on the rest of the property, while fundraising continues for the design and construction of the museum. CLUI photo
After losing Wardenclyffe, Tesla continued to work tirelessly and to invent things, including a vertical take-off aircraft and an alleged death ray, little of which was commercially developed. 
Though he moved to Milwaukee and worked for Allis-Chalmers for a few years, he was otherwise based in Manhattan, working out of rented offices at various locations. He lived in hotels, including the Waldorff Astoria and the St. Regis, moving on to others, leaving unpaid bills. He ate most of his meals alone in Delmonico’s, or in the hotel. Though asocial in his behavior in some ways, he also had close friendships, including with Mark Twain, who admired him greatly. 
Starting in 1934, and lasting until his death, he was supported with a monthly stipend (or consulting fee) by the Westinghouse Company. In his final years he became a vegetarian, and spent much of his time feeding and nursing pigeons, in parks, and through his windowsill. He died, penniless, in 1943 at the age of 83. 
His nephew eventually took his body and belongings back to Belgrade, where much of it remains as part of the Tesla Archives and Museum there, currently the only museum (open to the public) commemorating this remarkable man.