Friday, November 18, 2011

Tesla's Legacy Under Threat

On Long Island, roughly sixty miles east of New York City, sits what remains of the Wardenclyffe Tower, one of the world’s most ambitious dreams ever – or at least, what was meant to be, but which never materialized. The tower was built between 1901 and 1917 by one of the world’s most incredible geniuses, Nikola Tesla. After an already illustrious career in inventing such things as alternating current, which laid the foundation for our modern everyday existence, the tower was meant to be part of a wireless telecommunications system that would show that wires were not required for telephones. It might have been an shocking concept in the early years of the 20th century, but a century later, wireless communications dominates the world. Indeed, it remains a total puzzle to me how thousands of megabytes seem to float in mid-air and yet somehow reach their destination!
In short, the world we live in, is Tesla’s. But the world does not remember Tesla; the tower is one of the few remaining monuments that physically remind us of his genius. There isn’t even a Tesla home, as he largely spent his life living in hotel rooms. And even the tower itself was never complete; in 1917, the uppers structure was blown up on orders of the United States Government, who feared the landmark would be used by German submarines approaching the East Coast. After the war, the facility was sold a number of times, eventually ending up with the Belgian photographic company AGFA, which closed the facility in 1992. Today, the tower stands for sale – for just over 1.5 million dollars – and there are plans to build a shopping mall.

When you read about the Wardenclyffe Tower, most commentators are quick to point out that the facility was never truly operational. To some extent, that is correct, as the tower was never used for the purpose it was built for. But Tesla did use the facility for a number of years, for other experiments. The reason why the tower was never used, has nothing to do with its original purpose, and all with what Tesla wanted to use it for.
The tower was almost operational in 1903, when Tesla decided he would demonstrate one other aspect of his genius: how electrical energy could be transmitted without the need for power lines. The entire project was sponsored by one of the richest men in America, J.P. Morgan. When he found out that wireless electrical consumption could not be metered, he stopped the development and made sure none of his fellow millionaires would offer Tesla funding for its completion. By 1905, all activity on the site was stopped, with employees laid off the following year. It marked the beginning of Tesla’s demise; he had become a dangerous eccentric, one who could upset the economies that ruled the world.

Today, Tesla is largely a forgotten genius. Ask people whether they know Edison, and they will. Tesla, not so much. But it is a fact that Tesla’s genius was several times that of Edison. It is just that Tesla was far more controversial. And thus, in the end, he was shunned and “actively forgotten”. But he retains a small but strong following. They have been vociferous in their attempts to designate the tower as a historic site, a campaign which started in the late 1960s. Today, the campaign is all about preserving the tower, as if a shopping mall will
be developed, one of the last physical reminders of Tesla will be destroyed. The cost of keeping his name alive, it seems, is 1.65 million dollars. The question is whether more than a century on from J.P. Morgan stopping Tesla, the economies of the 21st century are any different.

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