Nikola Tesla Wardenclyffe ...
At the turn of the 20th century, Tesla’s Wardenclyffe tower stood so tall at 187 feet that it could be seen across the Sound in Connecticut

Suffolk County can’t claim Nikola Tesla, the visionary scientist and inventor, as a native son—he was born in what is now Croatia—but it can proclaim its appreciation for what he tried to accomplish on Long Island more than a century ago because his last laboratory, known as Wardenclyffe, still stands in Shoreham.

With that thought in mind, the Suffolk County Legislature unanimously approved a resolution by Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai) very early Wednesday morning (at 1:45 a.m. to be exact) to declare the famed Serbian-American’s birthday on July 10 as “Nikola Tesla Day,” now and forever after.

At the legislature’s general meeting last month Anker had praised the efforts of the non-profit Tesla Science Center, led by the group’s president Jane Alcorn, to save the Wardenclyffe site from destruction. Their goal is to turn the property into an educational and scientific research facility someday.

“I commend the volunteers for their tireless dedication in protecting an historic landmark,” said Anker in a statement. “In addition to inspiring and educating visitors about Tesla’s contributions to modern science, the museum will encourage investment in our community’s local businesses, strengthening the area’s economic base.”

Nikola Tesla came to Shoreham in 1901 and bought 200 acres from James S. Warden, director of the Suffolk County Land Co.
Nikola Tesla

After the recent vote, Anker added, “I am proud to join the Tesla Science Center in recognizing July 10th as Suffolk County’s Nikola Tesla Day… Suffolk County will never forget Tesla’s vast contributions to technology.”

Tesla, who was born on July 10, 1856 to Serbian parents, came to America in 1884 and worked for Thomas Edison before leaving to start his own electric company that relied on his discovery of alternating current. Tesla came to Shoreham in 1901 and bought 200 acres from James S. Warden, director of the Suffolk County Land Co.

At the turn of the 20th century, Tesla’s Wardenclyffe tower stood so tall at 187 feet that it could be seen across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut, much as today’s residents on the shore of the Nutmeg State can spot the red-and-white striped stacks of Northport’s power plant. But the difference between then and now is profound and well worth recalling. The National Grid generating facility, which supplies 40 percent of Long Island’s energy needs, runs on fossil fuel. Had Tesla’s backers, notably J.P. Morgan, not pulled the plug on his innovative project in 1905, Wardenclyffe would have sent energy around the globe for free by drawing on the Earth’s electro-magnetism in a process that Tesla took to his grave when he died penniless in a Manhattan hotel in 1943.

The tower was torn down in 1917 and sold for scrap. Until last year, the fate of the Shoreham lab itself was up in the air as the Stanford White-designed brick building had been annexed to a warehouse by a photoproducts company which had polluted the 16-acre industrial site so badly over the decades that it was declared a New York State Superfund Site after Agfa Corporation had acquired it in 1969.

Cleaning up the property reportedly cost Agfa more than $5 million. After the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) gave interim approval of the remediation work in 2010, the company wanted to sell the property for $1.65 million, but waited until the Tesla Science Center, a 501(C)3 non-profit organization, was able to raise enough money to use the state’s matching grant, set up by former Assemb. Marc Alessi, and close the sale in 2013. The center got a great boost thanks to an impassioned appeal by Matt Inman, the comic creator of The Oatmeal, who had used Indiegogo.com, a crowd-funding website, to launch what he dubbed, “Operation Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum.” Making a significant contribution was Babylon-based filmmaker Joe Sikorski and his partner Vic Elefante, who’ve been collaborating for several years on a fictional film about Tesla they call “Fragments From Olympus.” They donated all their seed money, about $33,000, to help seal the deal.

Supporters of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham Monday, May 13. Left to right: David Madigan, former Assemblyman Marc Alessi, Jane Alcorn, and filmmaker Joe Sikorski. (Photo credit: Spencer Rumsey/Long Island Press)
Supporters of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham Monday, May 13. Left to right: David Madigan, former Assemblyman Marc Alessi, Jane Alcorn, and filmmaker Joe Sikorski. (Photo credit: Spencer Rumsey/Long Island Press)

In September, 2013, Serbian President H.E. Tomislav Nikolic joined other dignitaries, including Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), to dedicate a monument at Wardenclyffe in Tesla’s honor, featuring a statue of the visionary inventor donated by the Republic of Serbia.

On hand for the monument’s unveiling was Sikorski, who was filming the event for his upcoming documentary about Wardenclyffe, Tower to the People. He has since gotten some invaluable assistance from the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, such as copies of the original architectural drawings of the tower.

Now Sikorski is hoping other Long Islanders, living here or elsewhere, might have “photos, old home movies” or any other relevant material pertaining to Wardenclyffe that would help him fill in some gaps in his documentary, which he wants to complete by Tesla’s birthday in July.

“Somewhere in an old photo album, basement or attic,” Sikorski told the Press, “there is someone in the community who can help us document this important piece of history… We’re also looking for local people who may have heard stories from their parents or grandparents about Wardenclyffe tower or have had an interaction with Nikola Tesla when he was on Long Island.” He set up a special email, research@teslasdream.com, for people to respond to.

As for his fictional film, Fragments From Olympus, Sikorski keeps coming up with tantalizing announcements. Last month word went out that Mickey Rooney, now 93, had signed on to appear in it. Sikorski wouldn’t say what role the famed Hollywood star would have, but Rooney did play the lead in Young Tom Edison many years ago. So far on board for this feature project, Sikorski says, are the actors Michael Lerner, Sean Young and Leo Rossi, and the cinematographer Howard J. Smith.

No doubt this flurry of activity—from Suffolk County officially commemorating his birthday to the growing roster of movie stars hoping to bring his life to the silver screen and his statue now standing outside his empty laboratory that may someday house a science center in his name—would have pleased Tesla. Discussing Wardenclyffe’s future in 1904, he wrote, “See the excitement coming!”

He may yet be right.

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Spencer Rumsey, the Long Island Press’ senior editor, has worked on dailies, weeklies and monthlies, including New York Newsday and the New York Post, the East Village Eye and the supermarket tabloid Star Magazine. Starting at the Press in 2010, he’s written award-winning stories on planning, politics and policy, to name a few topics, and he’s taken on a wide range of targets in his Press blog, Rumsey Punch.