Welcome to Tesla st. Shoreham, NY.
For the longest time, this one small street was the only evidence to state the property once belonged to the famous inventor. The still unrenovated part of the compound resembles the old “Tesla’s” that me the kids in the community once called it. On the eastern end of the complex, a property once known as Wardenclyffe and the Peerless property (after the photo company who bought it and left in 1987), sits an old rusted fence keeping the curious out. The old brick building that had once been Nikola Tesla’s workshop has incomprehensible graffiti pasted onto its side while vines twist their way up its loose bricks. Weeds are scattered under the fallen leaves.
Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla created some of America’s most pervasive technologies. His invention of the now omnipresent and efficient Alternating Current eventually defeated Thomas Edison’s Direct Current for transfer of electricity. His many other inventions, such as neon lighting, motors and work on X-Rays have made a lasting impact on American technology.
Tesla had a plan for Wardenclyffe. Behind that brick building now so dilapidated once sat a tall tower made of steel girders bolted to the ground. Tesla came to Wardenclyffe in 1901 with an idea to revolutionize electrical access for all of humanity. His plan was to use the earth and its ionosphere to create a large circuit, giving people with the right device access to nearly infinite and free electricity. Obviously, this idea did not sit well with investors, and through lack of funding, Tesla had to sell the property. His tower was demolished. Tesla died January 7, 1943, penniless in a room of the New York Hotel. With no company to keep his legacy going, his huge role in modern science and technology died with along with him.
Until now. Now he has become a folk hero.
A small booth sits on the front lawn of the Tesla Center housing a few small-scale scientific demonstrations. A small brass egg spins hypnotically on a magnetically charged plate. It is called an Egg of Columbus, a invention originally designed by Tesla to showcase the principle of the rotating induction motor. A father and son watch the demonstration, and the kid looks on in wonderment. A man in a leather jacket and long beard turns to him, “You ever see a lion tamer?” he asks the small child. “Well, he’s taming electricity.”
Welcome to the Tesla Science Center.
The north side of the building streams with people. A statue of Tesla stares out at the main road behind a black iron fence. Tesla’s grey-black face has a melancholy look to it. His modern fans use their new age cell phones to take pictures of him. Most are in awe of that long dead man.
The main complex has been renovated. People walk on freshly cut grass and weeded pavement. The trees are shedding their leaves in the bright sunlight as cars pull up, parking wherever they can find space.
In 2012, The Friends of Science East, a.k.a Tesla Science Center, along with the website Oatmeal, built a crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo to buy the Wardenclyffe property. With a total of 33,253 funders worldwide they raised $1,370,461 through the online campaign alone.
On October 25, 2014, they hosted “Tesla meets Tesla,” where several Tesla Car owners all of them members of the online Tesla Motors Club, a semi-official group of online Tesla car enthusiasts, drove to the center to lecture about their vehicles and volunteer on the grounds. It was the first time that the center was open to the general public.
“You see that?” Vice President of the Tesla Center Gene Genova said, pointing to a stretch of wall across from the parking lot where the Tesla Car owners worked that morning. “That whole thing was covered in shrubs and vines. We went in there and took it all out.”
There are around 100 volunteers who signed up to volunteer at the Tesla Center, and all live in the surrounding area. While it is rare that the whole group shows up to their saturday cleanup sessions, there is, what Genova calls, a “stalwart” group that comes almost every saturday to volunteer on the property. So far the major areas renovated were the front, the parking lot and the rear of the main buildings.
“I’ve been into Tesla for about 15 years,” said volunteer Jeffrey Velez as him and his coworkers packed up their tools having worked all morning at the center. He liked the work, and his passion for Tesla as the man and scientist made it more engaging. “The man was very altruistic. He wasn’t about the money.”
“He wasn’t trying to make a buck,” agreed volunteer Thomas W. Smith. “Even back then he was more into the environment. He was against fossil fuels, and he was even into solar.”
During the Tesla Meets Tesla event, the front area of the property was manned by the Tesla car owners. 30 odd vehicles lined the sides and rear portion of the front space.
Jay Todtman drove from Valley Stream, NY, finding the call on the Tesla Motors Club Forum. “Tesla is completely unappreciated,” he said. “He made alternating current and safe electricity possible.”
Some drove their cars from states away. Jonathan Fair toured his car from Woodbridge Virginia, a 660 mile round trip. Originally, Fair said he only came to help volunteer for the museum, but the young man was shocked to hear that 500 people signed up for the event. “(Tesla) was a man before his time,” he said.
What Tesla had to go through, his degeneration of his popularity and his long slide into depression, has caught the imaginations of the world. This epitome of the American underdog relates to most everyone having been spurned for great ideas. Now his identity and image crops up world-wide. Tesla Motors, founded by the elusive Elon Musk, has taken that name and used it to support the image of his cars as innovative.
There was a time in our young lives that I remember when Tesla gained huge popularity among my friends. When I was younger and the property still derelict, I leapt that fence several times. We climbed into open doorways and saw the filth and garbage left by other kids. All the buildings were falling apart and were littered with vines and weeds. We wondered whether the buildings there were from Tesla’s time, and whether we stepped where the great inventor might have stepped.
We wondered what could have been.
President of the Tesla Science Center Jane Alcorn said she originally came onto the project in order to build a museum and science center, but has unexpectedly had to turn her focus to fundraising. “I am not fond of asking for money, as (Tesla) must have felt,” Alcorn said over e-mail. “But I recognize the great need for adequate funding as he did, so I must ask for it as well.”
“People are only now beginning to know what Tesla did,” said Genova. “All of our volunteers have a love of Tesla, and are trying to bring it back.”
“It seems to me that Tesla had a unique vision that was underappreciated during his lifetime,” Alcorn said. “His concepts and discoveries were not always fully realized during his life, so in a way his story is a sad one; but today we are acknowledging his genius, and rediscovering what he contributed to modern life.”
Instead of staring out into the street, as if looking towards the future, the Tesla statue’s shaded eyes look towards the ground. It seems to say progress is often slow. Sometimes, many people don’t get to see it in their lifetime. Standing under him and staring up into his eyes, he seems to look directly into you, as if he were asking you a question.