Tesla Center Gets $1M Grant for Inventor’s 158th Birthday

tesla science center
Nikola Tesla, left, and Wardenclyffe Laboratory and Tower in Shoreham. The tower has since been demolished, but the lab still stands.

Jane Alcorn, president of Shoreham’s Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, had a big reason to smile at the birthday bash she hosted for the famed inventor Nikola Tesla, who would have turned 158 on Thursday.

She made the morning complete when she told the party guests that Elon Musk, the Canadian-American billionaire who is the CEO of the electric car company Tesla Motors and the rocket company SpaceX, had pledged $1 million to help the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe reach its next phase.

Musk had participated in a conference call on Monday with Eugene Genova, the vice president of the center’s nonprofit group, and Matthew Inman, whose Oatmeal blog had raised enough money in less than two weeks in 2012 to help the center buy the property for $850,000 and save it from developers. Not only did Musk promise the big bucks, Alcorn reported, he declared he’d build a supercharging station for his electric cars at the Shoreham site.

Tesla, whose breakthroughs in electricity impressed Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan, would have smiled. Without his development of alternating current, where would we be today? His goal for Wardenclyffe was far-reaching indeed: sending energy wirelessly around the globe to empower all the people of the world.

Alcorn’s welcome announcement came before the vanilla and chocolate sheet cake was served. But it was clearly the icing, metaphorically speaking, on a wonderfully touching ceremony that included a medley of songs that were hits when the Serbian inventor was young—from “Sidewalks of New York” to “America the Beautiful” as performed by Lori London, “a big fan” who flew in from Chicago for the event—as well as live streaming from a pair of Tesla aficionados in Palo Alto, Calif. And poignant reminiscences by one of Tesla’s living relatives, William H. Terbo, now 85, who met his great uncle in Manhattan when he was 10 years old.

Practically destitute at the time, Tesla was living at the New Yorker Hotel at 34th Street and 8th Avenue, unable to do little more than dream and feed the pigeons on his windowsill. He died there in 1943.

Terbo said he was “intimidated” by meeting Tesla but “old enough to understand what was going on,” knowing that his mother wanted to find out how bad off her uncle was.

“He was not a good businessman because it was never his intention to be a good businessman,” Terbo said. “His father was a Serbian orthodox priest. My grandfather was also a Serbian orthodox priest and he married Tesla’s sister. That type of clerical background gave him a much more moralistic view of what was the object of life. Not to make great wealth, or have great fame, but do something good for the whole world. And I think that is the image he had in his mind.”

As a tribute to Tesla’s appreciation of birds, Rob Bentivegna from the Rocky Point Fire Department’s Shoreham Company, brought a dozen of his white homing pigeons to Wardenclyffe in a wooden crate. They were released after the presentations were done, and some birds even flew under the tent above the seated guests before soaring into the sky.

Accompanying the commemoration were a pair of proclamations honoring Tesla’s birthday from U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and a short presentation from a staffer in the office of Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southamton), who spoke while a United States flag, which had flown over the Capitol on Tesla’s birthday last year, was being raised.

William Turbo, Tesla’s grandnephew, is the distinguished silver-haired gentleman at the podium. (Spencer Rumsey/Long Island Press)
William Turbo, Tesla’s grandnephew, is the distinguished silver-haired gentleman at the podium. (Spencer Rumsey/Long Island Press)

Before the Empire State flag was run up the flag pole, New York State Sen. Ken Lavalle (R-Port Jefferson) praised the accomplishments of the Wardenclyffe center’s board to get to this point, comparing Alcorn to the Energizer Bunny. He noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proclaimed July 10th “Nikola Tesla Day in the State of New York,” which drew a round of applause.

Also on hand were Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine and Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner—by coincidence he in a polka dot tie and she in a polka dot dress—who spoke glowingly as the Brookhaven Town flag was raised.

“She’s an inspiration to carry on the legacy of science,” said Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai), who recently got the county legislature to pass a resolution also honoring Tesla’s July 10th birthday in perpetuity. “Just picture what America would be like without Nikola Tesla. It would be far behind the times.”

The new mayor of Shoreham Village, Ed Weiss, solemnly presented the Shoreham burgee to Alcorn and humorously recalled his “personal interest” in Wardenclyffe after moving to Suffolk from Queens in the 1950s. Growing up a block away, he and his brother used to play baseball at a field nearby, and “if you hit the ball into this property, it was a home run!” The crowd laughed in appreciation.

“We had no idea of the significance of this site at the time,” Weiss said. “But we certainly understand the significance of it right now.”

As Neil Baggett, the organization’s secretary, spoke, volunteers raised “the Earth flag” in front of the lab itself.

“As we learned from Matt Inman’s dramatic crowd-funding effort in 2012, Nikola Tesla, the great inventor and visionary, is truly a world citizen,” Bagget said, referring to contributions that came from around the globe to help Wardenclyffe. “When Tesla stood where we’re standing today, he had a vision of a connected world…Therefore, by the authority invested in me, and by at least 40,000 people all around the world, I hereby proclaim July 10th to be Nikola Tesla Day all around the world now and forever!”

The ceremony was being held on “hallowed ground,” Alcorn reminded the assembled crowd. “You’re sitting within the confines of the tower base where above you once stood a tower 187 feet high—the tallest thing on Long Island.” Tesla started construction there in 1901 but by 1905 he was out of money—Morgan had pulled out—and his goal would never be achieved.

When the nonprofit took title to the site last year, Genova, the center’s vice president, recalled, he and his board knew they had a lot of work to do just to gain access to the grounds, let alone rehabilitate the laboratory designed for Tesla by the great American architect Stanford White.

Nikola Tesla
The statue of Tesla was presented to the science center last year by the Republic of Serbia. Officials celebrated the occasion with a birthday cake. (Spencer Rumsey/Long Island Press)

“We couldn’t even move in these areas,” he said. Genova and another member of the board had to bring in chain saws. Over time their efforts inspired “hundreds of volunteers” from the local community and beyond who have spent “2,000 hours” since last May to further Wardenclyffe’s transformation from a photoproducts facility that had fallen into neglect (at one point it was a Superfund site) into “a goddamned Tesla museum,” he joked, invoking Inman’s online manifesto that evoked such an overwhelming response.

As Tesla biographer, W. Bernard Carlson, told the audience about Wardenclyffe, “This is as special a place in the world of modern science and technology as you can find.”

A University of Virginia engineering professor and department chair, Carlson spent 15 years writing “Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.” He regaled the birthday party-goers with Tesla’s brilliance.

“Tesla is, as I like to emphasize, the visionary, the man who saw the Information Age,” Carlson said. “Oftentimes people said in the 1950s he’s the man who invented the 20th century. I say, no, he’s the man who invented the 21st century.”

Once Wardenclyffe is renovated—it currently has asbestos and other toxic building materials inside the building that must be removed—the plan is to feature Tesla’s inventions and highlight his theories in a museum setting and house a laboratory for inventors to work on their own prototypes and a place for innovators to turn their dreams into reality.