Up in the Air

Back story

Photo: Erico Guizzo

Search on ”Tesla Street” in Google Maps and you’ll come up with five streets in the United States bearing the name of the Serbian inventor who brought us the induction motor and AC power transmission, among other pathbreaking contributions to technology. One of those Tesla Streets is special: It’s located in Shoreham, N.Y., on the site of Nikola Tesla’s last and only remaining laboratory building.

This turn-of-the-20th-century brick structure, designed by the renowned New York City architect Stanford White, languishes on what is now a Superfund site. A not-for-profit group in the area hopes to turn it into a science museum one day, but for the moment the building remains shuttered, slowly decaying, and surrounded by barbed wire.

Senior Editor David Schneider [left] visited this historic locale, not so much to see the building but rather to examine the remains of something long gone: a tower that once jutted 57 meters into the air. Google’s satellite view of this intersection shows vestiges of it—an octagon of concrete and granite measuring more than 20 meters across, which once served as the tower’s footing. When he started building the tower in 1901, Tesla planned to use it to project not only radio signals but also useful amounts of electrical power. Alas, it was torn down in 1917, before Tesla could find out if his wildly ambitious vision could ever be more than that.

”What better place to start a story about the prospects for sending electrical power wirelessly—an idea that a century later is again gaining currency?” asks Schneider [see ”Electrons Unplugged,” in this issue]. Though Tesla never managed to transmit power wirelessly from his tower as he had hoped, companies are now attempting similar feats, albeit at much smaller scales.

What would Tesla think of today’s efforts with wireless power? ”He thought he could send kilowatts across oceans and continents to power distant airships and automobiles,” says Schneider. ”He’d probably laugh at engineers who are now working on systems to send a few watts across a room.”

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