Lost Knowledge: Save Tesla’s lab!

The weekly Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those slightly off to the side). Each Tuesday, we look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” is also the theme of the current issue of MAKE, Volume 17 (on newsstands now)

As we’ve pointed out here before, most of what we publish in the Lost Knowledge column isn’t actually lost. It may be in hiding, a scarcely practiced discipline, an obscure preservational hobby. But here’s a piece of technology’s past, America’s past, that’s in jeopardy of being lost forever. The New York Times ran an article on Monday about the fate of Wardenclyffe, the rural Long Island site of Tesla’s lab, and his insane plan to wirelessly distribute power around the planet.


In 1901, Nikola Tesla began work on a global system of giant towers meant to relay through the air not only news, stock reports and even pictures but also, unbeknown to investors such as J. Pierpont Morgan, free electricity for one and all.

It was the inventor’s biggest project, and his most audacious.

The first tower rose on rural Long Island and, by 1903, stood more than 18 stories tall. One midsummer night, it emitted a dull rumble and proceeded to hurl bolts of electricity into the sky. The blinding flashes, The New York Sun reported, “seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand.”

But the system failed for want of money, and at least partly for scientific viability. Tesla never finished his prototype tower and was forced to abandon its adjoining laboratory.

Today, a fight is looming over the ghostly remains of that site, called Wardenclyffe — what Tesla authorities call the only surviving workplace of the eccentric genius who dreamed countless big dreams while pioneering wireless communication and alternating current. The disagreement began recently after the property went up for sale in Shoreham, N.Y.

It appears the Agfa Corporation, who owns the site, is looking for some quick cash and is willing to deliver the place to a buyer “fully cleared and level.” Nice going, Agfa. Classy.

This Scrooge-y news has mobilized Tesla enthusiasts and organizations to start a drive to save the site, restore it, and turn it into a Tesla museum.

You can give a tax-deductible donation here, or just sign up to be kept in loop on what’s going on. I’m going to kick in a few bucks. I hate the idea of the memory of this uber-maker continuing to get such disrespect. Let’s make this a maker cause celebre!

The Tesla Wardenclyffe Project and Friends of Science East.

A Battle to Preserve a Visionary’s Bold Failure [Thanks, Keith!]


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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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