Most people these days know the name Tesla as an electric car. Tesla owner Elon Musk took that name to honor one of the world’s greatest inventors, Nikola Tesla.
Tesla invented the alternating current we use today, but his dream was free wireless transmission of sound and energy. And he hoped to develop that technology at a lab he built on Long Island.
The remnants of that lab will soon turn into a new science center named after Tesla. But it’s been a long journey for Jane Alcorn, a retired Suffolk County librarian.
Alcorn points to the ruins of Nikola Tesla’s lab in Shoreham, New York. It’s a brick building with large, boarded-up arched windows and a No Trespassing sign stuck to the door.
“This is where he intended to create the biggest of his endeavors. He wanted to create a magnifying transmitter that would be able to send messages, images and energy around the Earth.”
And he constructed a massive tower that he hoped could tap into the planet’s energy for wireless transmissions. That tower is long gone, but his lab building remains.
His friend, the famous architect Stanford White, designed it, and Tesla’s work was financed by the banker JP Morgan.
“He agreed to provide Tesla with $150,000, which was an enormous amount of money in 1901.”
But when Tesla ran out of funds, Morgan refused to reinvest. The property was foreclosed on, and Tesla lost his lab.
For a long time, it was owned by a photo processing plant that disposed toxic chemicals into the ground. And then it was boarded up for years.
Now cars zip by this place every day without so much as a second glance.
And just like the old lab, Tesla’s name faded.
“I didn’t know anything about him, either,” said Alcorn.
Jane Alcorn wanted to find a place to house a local science museum in Shoreham, and in 1994, she found Tesla’s lab.
“And I thought, hmmm, we have a scientist's laboratory, and we have a science museum that needs a home. What better place than that laboratory. I didn’t know 23 years ago that it was going to take this long to get here.”
The long wait included a massive cleanup. The owner at the time was forced to take care of the chemicals left behind.
And that took over a decade.
But then Alcorn and the other science center volunteers needed to raise a lot of money – over $1 million just to purchase the property and then another million to start construction on the science center.
“We watched and waited. And meanwhile, tried to create a little buzz about the place.”
The buzz worked.
Two fans of Nikola Tesla came to their aid.
Matthew Inman, the Oatmeal cartoonist, helped launch a crowdfunding campaign that raised just over a million dollars to buy the property in 2013.
And Elon Musk, the CEO of the Tesla car company, donated a million dollars last summer to pay for construction.
“Also, he’s going to be providing a Tesla car supercharging station here.”
And there will be a museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla in the old laboratory building itself.
“We want the laboratory building, the beautiful Stanford White building, to stand alone and be a focal point for everybody who comes to visit this site.”
Alcorn has grand plans for the science center.
It will have an auditorium, classrooms, and a business incubator where, just like Tesla, entrepreneurs can get help launching their ideas.
“So that it would be looking to the future as Tesla always did, and keeping in tune with his idea of invention and improving people’s lives.”
The welcome center could open by the summer, but Tesla’s lab and the rest of the science center will take a few more years.
Want to learn about some of the groundbreaking technology pioneered by Tesla, Marconi and others? Check out WSHU's web series Vintage Radio.