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A Museum at Wardenclyffe

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The Creation of a Monument to Nikola Tesla

by Gary Peterson

Wardenclyffe -- Long Island, New York
Credit: Tesla Said, John T. Ratzlaff


Nikola Tesla's historic laboratory and wireless communications facility known as Wardenclyffe, located about 65 miles east of New York City on the North Shore of Long Island.  The distinctive 187 foot tall tower was demolished in 1917, but the sturdy 94 foot square building still remains standing in silent testimony to Tesla's unfulfilled dream.  


Radio communications, fluorescent lighting and AC power, these are all familiar and vital components of life as we know it in the latter part of the twentieth century and all were contributions of the prolific turn-of-the-century inventor Nikola Tesla.  In spite of their exceptional significance, there are additional inventions which this remarkable man left to the world with the capacity to be of an equivalent or perhaps even greater value to society.  Much of Nikola Tesla's legacy, that which can be read about, built and used, is in the form of these inventionsmuch but not all.

Near the North Shore Long Island community of Shoreham, New York there remains a sturdy 94 by 94 foot red brick structure which is another, no less significant reminder of this great man's work.  Its importance lies not so much in the technology which it represents nor in the engineering clues that remain buried there.  It is in the fact that the Wardenclyffe Power Plant / Office Building, designed by the well renowned architect Stanford White, is the last of Dr. Tesla's own work places to remain standing anywhere in the world.  The saga of the building's history, from its construction in 1902 alongside a 187 foot companion tower to house the various components of a prototype world broadcasting and communications facility to later less glamorous uses, is a story yet to be fully told.  And, there is history in the making as well.  For a movement is underway which, if successful, will result in the establishment of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffea permanent monument to this great creative genius and his work.

Just to the east of Manhattan, Nikola Tesla's principle place of residence from 1884 until his death in 1943, is another somewhat larger body of land known as Long Island.  Extending about 115 miles along the Atlantic shoreline of the United States, this 12 mile wide island is bounded by Long Island Sound to the north, and the East River, New York Bay and the Narrows to the west.  It was formed due to the effect of glaciations, with its geography being defined by the deposition of two glacial moraines and associated outwash plains.

Settlement of the area started in the late 1600s and continued on through the year 1800, after being purchased from the indigenous people known as the Montauks.  The occupations of the residents were mainly related to farming, a character which the area retains to this day.  A cordwood industry eventually developed as well, with logs of chestnut, oak and pine being shipped by sailing vessel to heat homes and fuel brickyard kilns in nearby New York City.  Around 1850 the effects of an increasing demand for fuel along with a chestnut blight combined, resulting in forest depletion.  The introduction of coal as wood's replacement occurred at the same time.

About 50 years later, having just returned to New York from a productive scientific expedition at the edge of the Colorado Rockies, Nikola Tesla was anxious to put a mass of new found knowledge to work.  His vision was focused on the development of a prototype wireless communications station and research facility, and he needed a site on which to build.  Long Island was already home to more than one-and-a-quarter million people when in 1901 he cast his eyes some 60 miles eastward to the north-shore village of Woodville Landing.  Only six years before the northern branch of the Long Island Railroad had opened, reducing travel time to the locality from a horse-drawn five hours to less than two.

Seeing an opportunity in land development a western lawyer and banker by the name of James S. Warden had purchased 1400 acres in the area and started building an exclusive summer resort community known as Wardenclyffe-On-Sound.[1]  With an opportunity for further development in mind, Warden offered Tesla a 200-acre section of this parcel lying directly to the south of the newly laid track. It was anticipated that implementation of Tesla's system would eventually lead to the establishment of a "Radio City" to house the thousands of employees needed for operation of the facility.  The proximity to Manhattan and the fairly short travel time between the two, along with the site's closeness to a railway line must surely have been attractive features and Tesla accepted the offer.

The Wardenclyffe World Wireless facility as envisioned by Tesla was to have been quite different from radio broadcasting stations as they presently exist.  While there was to be a great similarity in the apparatus employed, the method in which it was to be utilized would have been radically different.  Conventional transmitters are designed so as to maximize the amount of power radiated from the antenna structure.  Such equipment must process tremendous amounts of power in order to counteract the loss in field strength (P = 1/R2) encountered as the signal radiates outward from its point of origin.  The transmitter at Wardenclyffe was being configured so as to minimize the radiated power.  The energy of Tesla's steam driven Westinghouse 200 kW alternator was to be channeled instead into an underground structure consisting of iron pipes driven from a point 120 feet beneath the tower's base.[2]  This was to be accomplished by combining an extremely low frequency signal (ELF) with the higher frequency signal coursing through the transmitter's master oscillator and helical resonator.  The low frequency current in the presence of an enveloping corona-induced plasma of free charge carriers would have "pumped" the earth's charge.[3]  It is believed the resulting ground current and its associated wave complex would have allowed the propagation of wireless transmissions to any distance on the earth's surface with as little as 5% loss due to radiation.  The terrestrial transmission line modes so excited would have supported a system with the following technical capabilities:

1. Establishment of a multi-channel global broadcasting system with programming including news, music, et cetera;
2. Interconnection of the world's telephone and telegraph exchanges, and stock tickers;
3. Transmission of written and printed matter, and data;
4. World wide reproduction of photographic images;
5. Establishment of a universal marine navigation and location system, including a means for the synchronization of precision timepieces;
6. Establishment of secure wireless communications services.[4]

Wardenclyffe -- Long Island, New York



The plan was to build the first of many installations to be located near major population centers around the world. If the program had moved forward without interruption, the Long Island prototype would have been followed by additional units the first of which being built somewhere along the coast of England.[5]  By the Summer of 1902 Tesla had shifted his laboratory operations from the Houston Street Laboratory to the rural Long Island setting and work began in earnest on development of the station and furthering of the propagation research. Construction had been made possible largely through the backing of financier J. Pierpont Morgan who had offered Tesla $150,000 towards the end of 1900.[6]  By July 1904, however, this support had run out and with a subsequent major downturn in the financial markets Tesla was compelled to pursue alternative methods of financing. With funds raised through an unrecorded mortgage against the property, additional venture capital, and the sale of X-ray tube power supplies to the medical profession, he was able to make ends meet for another couple of years.[7]  In spite of valiant efforts to maintain the operation, income dwindled and his employees were eventually dropped from the payroll.

Still, Tesla was certain that his wireless system would return handsome rewards if it could only be set into operation and so the work continued as he was able.  A second mortgage in 1908 acquired again from the Waldorf-Astoria proprietor George C. Boldt allowed some additional bills to be paid, but debt continued to mount and between 1912 and 1915 Tesla's financial condition disintegrated.  The loss of ability to make additional payments was accompanied by the collapse of his plan for high capacity trans-Atlantic wireless communications.  The property was foreclosed, Nikola Tesla honored the agreement with his debtor and title on the property was signed over to Mr. Boldt.  The plant's abandonment sometime around 1911 followed by demolition and salvaging of the tower in 1917 essentially brought an end to this era.  Tesla's April 20, 1922 loss on appeal of the judgment completely closed the door to any further chance of his developing the site.

Little is known about the next 17 years of the building's history.  In 1919 the Radio Corporation of America established an overseas communications facility in the area. As part of this system a high power transmitter was build only two miles away in the adjacent town of Rocky Point.  It is possible the building saw use as a storage warehouse in conjunction with this operation.  Then, on April 24, 1939 a story about Tesla's building appeared in the news.  It was reported the property had been sold to new interests, specifically a Mr. Walter L. Johnson of Brooklyn, New York.[8]  Within a few months the building was in the hands of Peerless Photo Products, Inc., it having been selected "due to its location in a smoke and smog free environment with an abundant supply of pure water and high grade, intelligent labor."[9]  Shortly thereafter on-site manufacturing operations that would span the next 48 years had begun.  The primary activities at the Peerless Photo Products plant were related the production of photographic emulsions used in the manufacture of photographic film and the emulsion coating of photographic paper.

In July 1987 all manufacturing operations at the Peerless Photo Products site ceased and decommissioning of the plant began.  The bulk of the decommissioning process would require more than three years.  The first step involved the removal of some remaining semi-solid material from an onsite wastewater treatment plant and its shipment to a permitted disposal site.  About the same time, remaining treatment chemicals were also disposed of in a similar fashion.  In addition, various unused chemicals associated with the actual manufacturing processes along with some salvaged materials were shipped off of the site. In the next stage all of the tankage and piping from emulsion manufacture through wastewater treatment plant were thoroughly flushed with a hot high pressure wash system and the rinse water removed.  The floors in areas of chemical use and coating machinery operation were also cleaned and the labs were washed down, with all of the resulting wastewater once again being shipped off site for disposal.  The usable process equipment was dismantled for later shipment and other less easily cleanable pieces of equipment were removed.  As an additional measure the septic tanks were completely pumped to remove any residuals from in house operations.  The final phase of decommissioning saw the removal of eight underground storage tanks. [10]

The third period in the history of Nikola Tesla's laboratory can be said to have opened on March 3, 1967 with the recommendation of a research committee appointed by Brookhaven Town Supervisor Charles W. Barraud that the building be designated as an historic site.  At that time, just about 50 years after the tower's demolition, the historical significance of the property as it relates to Nikola Tesla's engineering legacy was officially recognized.  The American bicentennial year of 1976 saw an even greater revival of interest in Nikola Tesla and his work.  A number of notable events entered into the historical record during this year.

One of the first was the establishment by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE) of the Nikola Tesla Award. On January 27, 1976 the first award was presented to Leon T. Rosenberg for his outstanding contributions in the field of generation and utilization of electric power. This was followed a few days later by the IEEE's "Nikola Tesla Symposium" conducted during their January 30, 1976 meeting at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in New York City. Presenters included Robert W. Flugum, Assistant DirectorTransmission Division of Electric Energy Systems, USERDA; Frank A. Jenkins, Duke Power Company; Prof. Vojin Popovic, Beograd Yugoslavia; Tomo Bosanac and Lazar Ljubisa; J. R. Morin, GTE Sylvania Inc.; Charles L. Wagner, Manager, Transmission Systems Engineering, Westinghouse Electric Corp.; John J. Dougherty, Director, Transmission & Distribution Division, EPRI; Dean B. Harrington and Karl F. Drexler; Veljko Korac; and, J. C. White, General Electric Company.

About five months later, on July 7, 1976, ceremonies timed to coincide with the 120th anniversary of Tesla's birth were begun at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.  The event included a symposium co-chaired by Vasa Veskovic, Council General of Yugoslavia and R. C. Anderson, Assistant Director, BNL and organized with cooperation of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.  Among the scheduled speakers were Frank A. Jenkins, President IEEE Power Engineering Society; Walter H. Bales, Westinghouse Electric Corporation; Gorden D. Friedlander, Senior Editor, IEEE Spectrum; and, Eric B. Forsyth, head of BNL's Power Transmission Project.  That same day, with the cooperation of the Brookhaven Town Historic trust, an historical marker was dedicated and placed near the entrance of the Tesla Laboratory building.[11]  The plaque, donated by Yugoslavia, bore the following inscription:


The following Saturday, July 10, 1976, a 5 dinar stamp was issued by Yugoslavia, marking the 120th anniversary of Tesla's birth on July 10, 1856.  Designed by Andreja Milenkovic, it carried an image reflecting the Tesla monument in front of the Electrical Engineering Facility in Belgrade against a background of Niagara Falls.  Another effort this year was the July 24 dedication of the Nikola Tesla statue on Goat Island adjacent to Niagara Falls.  One further action which took place in 1976 was the first application seeking to have the property containing the Tesla Laboratory Building and the Communications Tower Foundation placed on the New York State Register, and National Register of Historic Places.  This important act would set the stage for future efforts directed towards preservation of the historic Wardenclyffe landmark.

In the Spring of 1994 at the request of Dr. Ljubomir Vujovic of the Tesla Memorial Society, noted Tesla historian Leland Anderson contacted the various Tesla-named organizations here in the United States.  The mailing was to encourage the initiation of a letter writing campaign once again advocating placement of the Wardenclyffe site on the National Register of Historic Places.  It was requested that letters be directed towards three specific U.S. Government offices.

The first office was that of the Vice President of the United States.  It is significant that Vice President Gore is presently aware of Dr. Tesla's achievements in the areas of electrical and mechanical engineering.  The second was the National Park Service, Cultural Resources, U.S. Department of the Interior.  The National Park Service oversees the preservation of federal historic sites and administration of buildings programs.  Their programs include the placement of properties on the National Register of Historic Places plus grant and aid assistance.  The third entity was the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.  This agency advises the President and Congress on historic preservation issues.  It reviews and comments on federal projects and programs affecting historic, architecture, archaeological, and cultural resources.

What ensued over the course of the next few months was an outpouring of support by individuals from across America.  At the advice of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, follow-up letters were addressed to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.  It should be noted that National Historic designation is always preceded by historic designation at the state level.  By mid-October 1994, a second Application for Technical Assistance had been filed with New York State on behalf of the historic Wardenclyffe building and tower foundation sites.  This reinitiated the formal nomination process which, if entirely successful, will result in placement of the Wardenclyffe sites on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Subsequently the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation conducted an on-site inspection which established that the sites meet with the seven New York State criteria for Historic Designation.  Up until May 1995 much of this work had been conducted by members of an ad hoc group called the TESLA WARDENCLYFFE PROJECT COMMITTEE.  By that time it was apparent that we needed to coalesce into a formal institution in order to successfully achieve our growing set of objectives.

On May 6, 1995 the first meeting of the Board of Directors was held and it was agreed that the ad hoc committee would be re-established as the TESLA WARDENCLYFFE PROJECT, INC.  The Directors were confirmed and its Officers were elected.  At the same meeting a Technical Advisory Board was established.  This group presently includes such notable individuals as Leland Anderson, Margaret Cheney, James Corum, Harry Goldman, William Terbo, and George Westinghouse, IV.  Our most important objective was, and still is, acquisition of the 16.2 acre parcel in Shoreham upon which are located the Wardenclyffe building and the transmitting / receiving tower foundation.

The present owners, AGFA Corporation, had stated their intention to divest themselves of the property after completion of a final cleanup.  Furthermore, they indicated that donation of the entire facility to a properly configured receiver would be a cost-effective way for them to proceed.  It is with this in mind that we initiated discussions with an Eastern Long Island group known as The Friends of Science East, Inc.  This not-for-profit corporation was created in January 1996 with the mission of establishing a regional science center in their area.  The Peerless Photo Products site was among the possible locations being considered in that regard.  (Please note that in addition to the 10,000 square foot Tesla Laboratory Building an additional 90,000 square feet of floor space exist at the Peerless site.)

Since a primary goal of the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project is to acquire Tesla related memorabilia with the hope of establishing a Tesla museum in the lab building and that of the Friends of Science East is to establish a science museum, it is felt that a common interest exists in the acquisition of the property.  Ongoing discussions between the two groups have resulted in the development of a common vision for the site's future.  This is centered around the concept to establish a joint operating entity called Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe.  While AGFA has expressed an interest in seeing the site conserved for a future use that is in harmony with its historical nature and has stated that donation of the property for such purposes is under consideration, the company will not make a final decision in this regard until their present decommissioning activities have been completed.

If the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is successful in its bid to acquire Tesla Laboratory Building, a vast field of possibilities will be opened up.  Defined in the broadest terms, its mission will be the reintegration of Nikola Tesla back into the mainstream of science and academia, and to instill visitors with a greater interest in the sciences in general.  Once plans for the Nikola Tesla Museum, the Nikola Tesla Library and Historical Archives, and the Science Museum are sufficiently advanced it is felt that restoration and placement of the building and the adjacent tower foundation on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places will naturally follow.

As more and more commercial and residential development takes place across America and around the world, much greater importance becomes attached to the preservation of such rare sites as Wardenclyffe for the benefit of the present and future generations.  While considerable progress has been made in advancing our program, many formidable challenges still lie ahead.  Working together, the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project and the Friends of Science East have established an open dialogue with the building's owners, and strong assurances have been received that we are prime candidates to acquire the property.

How do you the reader fit into all of this?  The Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, Inc. is a small but growing institution.  We are registered as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt membership organization and are actively seeking additional people to fill out our ranks.  If you have something to offer the Project, whether it is in the form of financial support through a membership contribution, access to a particular talent, or simply your vote of confidence, then please take some time from your schedule to send us a note or make a phone call.  A plan to steer the destiny of an important historical landmark on the North Shore of Long Island, New York is now underway.  We are working to earn your support and would very much like to hear from you.  All correspondence should be addressed to:

P.O. BOX 8041
United States of America

or call:  (970) 453-6692.

[1] History of Shoreham, Mary Lou Abata, 1979.

[2] Nikola Tesla On His Work With Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony and Transmission of Power, L.I. Anderson, Sun Publishing, Denver 1992.

[3] "Spherical Transmission Lines and Global Propagation," K.L. Corum and J.F. Corum, Proceedings of the 1996 International Tesla Symposium, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

[4] Prodigal Genius The Life of Nikola Tesla, John J. O'Neill, Ives Washburn, Inc., 1944.

[5] "Nikola Tesla the Founder of Radiocommunications," Vojin Popovic, Nikola Tesla: Life and Work of a Genius, Yugoslav Society for the Promotion of Scientific Knowledge, Belgrade, 1976.

[6] "Wardenclyffe, Forfeited Dream," Leland I. Anderson, Long Island Forum, Aug., Sept., 1968.

[7] Tesla
Man Out Of Time, Margaret Cheney, Prentice Hall, 1981.

[8] "Sale of Nicola Tesla Property Recalls Stories of Aged Inventor," Brooklyn Eagle, April 24, 1939.

[9] "Radio Pioneer at Shoreham," Thomas R. Bales, Patchogue Advance, Sept. 13, 1951.

[10] "RI/FS Work Plan," Groundwater Technology, Sept. 30, 1993.

[11] "In Recognition," Brookhaven Bulletin, July 12, 1976.

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