The oystermen must have been puzzled by what they saw going up near the north shore of Long Island in New York state at the turn of the 20th century. Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant from what is now Croatia, had set up a laboratory in the midst of potato fields and erected behind it a tower almost 60 meters (200 feet) tall. Tesla said he intended to use it to communicate wirelessly around the world.
The idea was ambitious but not unreasonable, Guglielmo Marconi having just sent the first tentative signals across the Atlantic in 1901. But the Long Islanders living next to the huge tower would have been more shocked—perhaps literally—if Tesla had carried out his second plan, which was so audacious he hid it initially even from J.P. Morgan, the financier who was bankrolling the operation. Tesla wanted to use the tower for wirelessly transmitting not just signals but also useful amounts of electrical power. His strategy for accomplishing that feat was vague, but it seems he had notions of sending power wirelessly to such things as airships in flight and automobiles on the move.
Tesla never did quite finish the enormous tower—Morgan got fed up and cut off funds. Tesla abandoned the lab, which fell into disrepair, and in 1917 the tower was unceremoniously demolished.
Decades later, Tesla’s laboratory was turned into a factory for photographic paper, an operation that left enough toxic waste on the grounds to have the property qualify as a Superfund site. Today the elegant brick lab building is abandoned once again. Plywood covers its windows. All that remains of the tower is its huge octagonal footing, now overgrown with trees.
Scientists and engineers these days, of course, appreciate Tesla’s enormous if rather quirky brilliance—he invented the induction motor, for one thing, and he championed alternating current when Thomas Edison would have none of it, for another. So it’s no surprise that some of Tesla’s admirers are seeking to preserve his old laboratory.
“To think that Tesla walked here, walked on this ground, and had his vision and his dream,” says Jane Alcorn as she surveys the laboratory. Alcorn heads a not-for-profit group dedicated to turning the now-derelict site into a science museum. She knows full well what great things Tesla imagined for the place. “The transmission of power without wires will very soon create an industrial revolution and such as the world has never seen before,” Tesla wrote in a 1906 letter to George Westinghouse.
While Tesla’s vision may appear ludicrous today, things were different before power poles and high-tension lines became a part of the industrialized landscape. Tesla had demonstrated his ability to send power wirelessly over modest distances at a laboratory he had set up earlier in Colorado Springs. But he failed in his grand attempt to scale up the effort. And by the time his power tower came crashing down, people were too busy stringing electrical cables to worry very much about how to do away with them. Recently, though, some hardheaded scientists and engineers have been thinking very carefully about how to do just that.