By 1900, at the age of 44, Nikola Tesla had already
accomplished the equivalent of several lifetimes of scientific work and
invention. He had conquered the entire system of alternating current,
demonstrated radio and robotics and had recently concluded his seminal
experiments in high-frequency electricity in Colorado Springs. Those
experiments confirmed to Tesla that he could deliver power without wires on a
small scale. He felt he was on the threshold of a whole new technology and he
needed to transfer those Colorado results to a project of grander scale. The
project he chose was the Wardenclyffe tower. It became his financial undoing.
To this point, Tesla had been rewarded with a fortune from
the sale of patents and consulting work. But this was a fortune in personal
terms – not a fortune in industrial or business terms. His reputation was
so well founded that he attracted the attention and financial backing of both
private wealth and corporate capital. (Even the cost of his Colorado
experimentation was beyond his personal resources and was mostly privately
funded.) The business potential that Tesla foresaw from his new project was
such that the lack of personal money should not be a problem. In June of 1900,
Tesla set out to acquire the necessary funding. By November he had a $150,000
commitment from J.P. Morgan with an agreement to build a system within a year
to transmit messages across the Atlantic.
Tesla’s vision of the future of his system was
astonishing in the context of the time. He foresaw all aspects of wireless
power and radio transmission: civil and commercial radio, radiotelephone,
mobile telephones, air and sea remote control devices, even television! He
later called his project the World System of intelligence transmission.
The full details of his vision were too ambitious to be divulged all at once
for fear that they would be interpreted as deranged. This would prove to be an
impediment later as Tesla’s vision was orders of magnitude more
enterprising than simple Trans Atlantic message transmission. This was a period
in which Tesla more often chose secrecy as a defense against competitors, both
business and technical. It is a two edged sword.
Immediately Tesla worked to complete the electrical design.
In early 1901 he set about ordering generators and transformers from
Westinghouse Electric and acquiring land on Long Island. The open farmland he
selected was at Shoreham, about 75 miles east of Manhattan. Purchased from a
James S. Warden, the site was named Wardenclyffe. Tesla engaged his friend,
architect Stanford White, to design the principal building and a colleague of
White, W.D. Crow, to design the tower.
For most of 1901 Tesla lived near the site and supervised
every detail. The White building was completed and the tower was rising. It
would be 187 feet above the ground with a well 12 feet square and 120 feet deep
as an integral part of the design.
The year was coming to a close and two important problems
arose. The electrical equipment was distressingly overdue and Marconi signaled
the letter ”S” from England to Newfoundland on December 12th
using equipment only a fraction of the complexity being prepared at
Wardenclyff! Now, the full reach of Tesla’s vision was coming to light. He
was planning to use Wardenclyffe to transmit electric power to any point on
earth without wires! Success would be the most important technical achievement
of the age. Even failure would be valiant, but what of the practical aspect for
which the tower had been funded?
Construction continued through 1902, more than a year beyond
the timetable agreed to with J.P. Morgan. In early 1903 the 68-foot diameter
wooden spherical cage atop the tower was nearing completion. This ball was to
be sheathed in copper, but funds were running out and many creditors were still
to be paid. It was obvious that more funding would have to be raised if the
tower was to be made functional. Tesla wrote Morgan several times that spring
for additional funds. Finally, Morgan replied on July 14, 1903 with a firm
Morgan’s reputation for an eye for a good deal, and his
refusal to invest more with Tesla plus a Wall Street panic in the fall of 1903
made raising more funding impossible. His longtime benefactor, Thomas Fortune
Ryan, invested some additional money to pay creditors, but no new funds were
available for the tower. Effectively, this was the end of the Wardenclyffe
In 1915, Tesla turned the deed to the Wardenclyffe property
over to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel for $20,000 in unpaid hotel bills. The tower
was demolished for salvage in 1917. A predecessor of the current occupant,
Peerless Photo Products, a subsidiary of the Belgian photo company,
Agfa-Gevaert, acquired 15 acres of the property in 1939. I visited the site in
September 1983 for a reception hosted by Agfa-Gevaert to receive a presentation
of the Nikola Tesla U.S. commemorative postage stamp. Peerless Photo was still
in operation at that time. The White building, bearing a bronze historical
plaque, was in good shape and being used for storage. The eight concrete
foundations of the original tower are clearly visible about 60 or 70 feet to
the right of the White building. The 120-foot deep well appears to have been
filled in, perhaps to remove it from being an attractive hazard to trespassing
Some years ago, perhaps as many as ten, Agfa-Gevaert
terminated operations at Peerless Photo. Before any disposition of the property
can be made, Agfa must clean up the ground contaminated from years of
photochemical manufacturing by Peerless Photo. The cleanup program must be
approved and monitored by the Department Environmental Conservation (DEC). Agfa
has made an assessment of the problem and begun preparing remediation plans for
the DEC. The cleanup program is not a critical issue for Agfa as the property
is fenced and guarded.
The Shorham School District maintained a science museum at
the Wading River High School. The Museum Accreditation Association advised the
District that they would need more room. The Agfa property looked inviting both
for availability and its historical significance. To pursue this end, the
museum board set up a not for profit corporation, Friends of Science East
(Friends/East), in 1996.
The intricacies of not for profit corporation regulations
effectively preclude Friends/East from accepting title to this property, should
it be offered. The nearby Town of Brookhaven was approached with the idea of a
science museum on the Agfa property. With Friends/East to run the museum, a
large quantity of photo exhibits and Tesla memorabilia available from the Tesla
Wardenclyffe Project and the support of the Town, the idea was presented to
Agfa. The result on Agfa’s side has been positive – though in no way
a certainty. Donation of the property represents a viable alternative for Agfa
with favorable community goodwill.
(The Tesla Wardenclyffe Project was incorporated about the
same time as Friends/East with the aim of founding a Tesla museum on the
Wardenclyffe site and preserving the Stanford White building. They purchased
the large Leland Anderson collection of Tesla photographs and have joined with
Friends/East in the Agfa museum site.)
There is a substantial level of interest for a museum at the
Agfa Tesla site. The Town of Brookhaven declared July 10, 2003 as Nikola Tesla
Day, issued a Proclamation and held a reception with multiple speakers. They
intend to declare each July 10 Nikola Tesla Day at least until 2006,
Tesla’s 150th Birthday. Several other nearby communities have
joined in recognizing Tesla and supporting a museum on the Agfa site.
Brookhaven National Laboratories, one of the Nation’s leading science
institutions, is located in the immediate area and could be a source technical
speakers and exhibits.
Acknowledgements to Leland I. Anderson for history and
Marianne Macy for current status assists.
William H. Terbo, Executive Secretary