Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Lab Becomes a World Historical Site

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The last remaining laboratory of Serbian-American inventor, Nikola Tesla, seemed doomed up until four years ago. A massive crowdfunding campaign was created to raise funds by a local community group to purchase the Wardenclyffe property with a goal of turning it into a science center.

On December 11, the Tesla Science Center was presented with a plaque from the American Physical Society (APS) declaring the Shoreham, New York lab a world historical site, honoring its role in raising awareness of physics, honoring its past scientific progress, and paying tribute to Tesla’s achievements. The site was designated a historic landmark by Brookhaven town in 2014. Joining in on the ceremony was a large crowd of local dignitaries and community members. In gold, the plaque reads, “while long-distance wireless power transmission remains a dream, worldwide wireless communication was achieved within a century.”

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Photo by Kevin Redding/TBR News Media

Wardenclyffe joins on 40 sites that the APS, the largest professional committee of physics in the United States, have deemed worthy of recognition since 2004. The APS is a national nonprofit headquartered in Maryland that promotes education and advancement in physics. Their interest in Wardenclyffe stems off the work of the Tesla Science Center, the nonprofit group who purchased the land with the lab and has turned it into a hub for science education, to inspire the Teslas of tomorrow.

Thomas Edison’s rival, Tesla’s pioneering work of using an alternating current (AC) is used in electrical systems today, powering everything from laptops to streetlights. In 1887, he designed an induction motor that used an alternating current, a power system used in Europe and the United States due to the advantages in long-distance, high-voltage transmission.

He’s still the underdog in the sense that he’s not part of American schoolchildren’s curriculum. Until he’s part of the curriculum, I could say he’s still not recognized for what he did. Here we are using alternating current for the electric grid. We wouldn’t be powering our homes the way we are if it weren’t for Tesla. And yet whose name do we know? Thomas Edison.

Tesla established Wardenclyffe in 1901 with the help of investors like J.P. Morgan. In 1903, he completed a 187-foot transmitter tower designed to broadcast messages and transmit wireless transmission of electric power. He envisioned creating a community of homes on the Wardenclyffe’s 200-acre site, called Radio City, for the workers who would operate his transmission systems.

Photo by Napoleon Sarony
Photo by Napoleon Sarony

Unfortunately, he lost the property to foreclosure, which sold for $20,000 ($473,300 in current US money). The tower was brought down by dynamite on July 4, 1917 with its parts sold to pay off Tesla’s debt. In 1925, ownership of the property was transferred to Walter L. Johnson of Brooklyn and purchased by Plantacres, Inc in 1938. They leased the land to Peerless Photo Products who manufactured emulsions for photo paper. AGFA Corp bought the property, using it between 1969 to 1992 before closing the facility. During that time, they funded a massive environmental waste cleanup, under the scrutiny of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which included untreated water that was contaminated with silver, cadmium, lead and other chemicals that had been dumped there over the years.

In 2009, AGFA placed the property on the market for $1,650,000. At the time, a group formed in 1996, called Friends of Science East and later renamed the Tesla Science Center feared the site would be sold to developers. They struggled to find the funding to purchase the land until popular webcomic artist, Matthew Inman, began an online fundraising campaign called “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum.” The successful Indiegogo campaign, with additional help from the popular comic website, The Oatmeal, they were able to raise nearly $1.4 million dollars to save Tesla’s lab.

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Photo from Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe

President of the Tesla Science Center, Jane Alcorn, stated they found the site to be “quite a jungle. We actually had big machetes and people with clippers and chain saws because where we’re standing now, in this parking area, it was so covered with vegetation you couldn’t even walk through it,” which created an eerie vibe to the abandoned industrial complex.

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Photo from Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe

Renovations are still in the beginning stages. The organizations first priority is to have the location look like it did during Tesla’s time. They have received about $3.5 million in donations and grants. CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, who named his electric car company after Tesla, announced on the inventor’s 158th birthday in July, their pledge of $1 million as well as rocket company SpaceX who pledge the same amount two years ago. Fans of Tesla have traveled from as far away as Italy, California, and South American to volunteer cleaning up the site.

They hope to open two buildings, redeveloping the lab and reintroducing Tesla’s work to the public by January 2018.

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