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Nikola Tesla's former lab, home to a brilliant scientist, deserves preservation

Nikola Tesla's Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899.

Nikola Tesla's Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899. Credit: Nikola Tesla Museum

In a fairer world, Nikola Tesla would have so many monuments built to him and museums named in his honor that the preservation of Wardenclyffe, his former lab on Route 25A in Shoreham, New York wouldn’t be a big deal.

Tesla’s the guy who invented or perfected practically everything you were taught someone else, someone much wealthier and more famous, invented or perfected.

Thomas Edison pioneered the delivery of electricity by direct current, but we don’t really use it today because direct current plants can only transmit power over a fairly short range. We use alternating current, Tesla’s brainchild. The battle between the two types of generation and their inventors grew so heated, with Tesla, who had once worked for Edison, backed by Westinghouse, that it led to a legendary “War of the Currents,” in which Edison tried to convince people alternating current would kill house pets, and attempted to popularize the term “Westinghoused” as a word for being electrocuted.

It was also Tesla’s work that really made radio possible, although Marconi generally gets the credit.

And he illuminated, beautifully, the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Tesla researched and excelled in practically every imaginable field of engineering and scientific research, from x-rays to theoretical physics to sound transmission. Perhaps, most amazingly, he invented and patented the “logic gate” or “AND Gate,” the most crucial component in the development of modern computers and robotics, in 1898, before most scientists could even imagine the need for such a thing.

From about 1903 until 1915, Tesla did his research at Wardenclyffe, which included a laboratory designed by genius architect Stanford White, and a 187-foot high tower meant to transmit both radio waves and electricity. The set-up was paid for by J.P. Morgan, but the financier stopped footing the bills after about a decade when he realized the money in radio was going to be made by Marconi, and discovered Tesla was more than a little nuts.

And that he was: obsessed with the number 3, afraid to touch human hair, insistent that each meal he eat be served with 18 linen napkins with which to polish his silverware,

Tesla was probably a victim of OCD, before such a thing had been named.

But he was quite possibly the most brilliant practical scientist ever to live.

And because his Colorado Springs lab was torn down in 1905 and his New York City lab burnt in a fire, Wardenclyffe is all that remains to honor him. The fact that the still-standing lab was built by a famous architect lends credence to the idea the place should be preserved.

Decades of contamination that occurred after the site became a photo-products processing company has been cleaned up: once a Superfund site, the land now has a clean bill of health from the state Department of Environmental Control.

But the current owner, a Belgian multinational company, wants to sell. The money to turn the place into a museum, tantalizingly close to materializing several times, has never come through. There’s a zoning battle heating up, and it’s uncertain what will happen to the parcel.

The situation is made even odder by the cult-like appreciation of Tesla around the world, which has the local realtor representing the property’s owners fielding oddball calls from all over the world.

One way or another, the lab needs to be preserved. Tesla was a pivotal figure in our history, and Wardenclyffe represents our last chance to commemorate that fact.

Pictured above: Nikola Tesla's Colorado Springs laboratory in 1899.