For all the modern-day desire to emulate Steve Jobs, the heroic nerd isn’t a new American trope. As long ago as the Gilded Age, scientist Nikola Tesla was a celebrity. He lived at the Waldorf Astoria and was close friends with Mark Twain.
But he was neither entertainer nor robber baron. Rather, as the inventor of an effective alternating current system of power generation, he’d helped usher in a new, electrified era. His ambitious visions of the future (and complete lack of a filter) made great copy, meaning newspaper reporters were always eager to put him in print.
In 1901, at the height of his fame, Tesla built a laboratory in the rural farmland of Shoreham, Long Island. Dubbed Wardenclyffe, the facility was designed by Stanford White and meant to be the site of his greatest achievement yet: Intercontinental transmission of wireless radio signals. But it wasn’t to be. “Wardenclyffe was a landmark as magnificent in concept and execution as America’s Golden Age of electrical engineering ever produced,” writes Margaret Cheney in her 1981 biography Tesla: Man Out of Time—“magnificent and doomed.”
Today, raccoons roam the graffiti-covered interior, which has been gradually stripped of all valuable piping and wiring. The soaring interior has been subdivided into warren-like enclosures, arched windows boarded over. The tower that formerly loomed overhead is long gone. Until very recently, it was a Superfund site, polluted with silver and cadmium.
While Marconi made it into the history books for his wireless innovations, and Edison is remembered as the great inventor of the lightbulb and popularizer of electricity, Tesla fell out of favor. By 1916, he was bankrupt. (That made the papers, too.) He died at the New Yorker Hotel in January 1943, reportedly with only a snow-white pigeon as a companion. For ages, he was remembered largely as a Doctor Strange-like figure, lurking in the shadows of scientific respectability.
For 17 years, a retired teacher named Jane Alcorn has been trying to turn this moldering near-ruin into a science museum. She even organized a nonprofit and extracted the promise of an $850,000 matching grant from the state of New York, but couldn’t quite scrape together the $1.6 million required to buy the property. But now the internet, that hive of fandoms, has spawned a new generation of enthusiasts ready to right the wrong of Tesla’s neglect. A fund-raising campaign on Indiegogo, spearheaded by Matthew Inman, creator of the popular web comic The Oatmeal, drew more than 30,000 donations, and the Tesla Science Center now has $1.25 million and counting in cash to go toward the effort.
Born in 1856, an ethnic Serb in what’s now Croatia, Tesla cobbled together an advanced education in engineering despite limited financial resources and struck out for America in 1884. Upon arrival, he proceeded, letter of introduction in hand, to the early R&D shop run by Thomas Edison.
The understaffed Edison hired Tesla on the spot, but the relationship soon soured: the American supposedly promised his hardworking employee a substantial bonus to redesign the company’s energy-generating dynamos, but when Tesla went to collect his prize, Edison reneged.
The tale is a nice setup for the “War of Currents” that followed. As America embraced electricity, two technologies wrestled for dominance: Edison’s direct current system, which was first to market, and Tesla’s more efficient alternating current system, commercialized by competitor Westinghouse Electric. The latter would emerge victorious, despite downright slanderous attempts by Edison to brand it as dangerous, including using AC to electrocute the Luna Park Zoo’s troublesome elephant Topsy, on Coney Island.
To free up capital for the battle, Tesla released Westinghouse from a lucrative contract for the use of his patents—a step that would contribute greatly to his later poverty.
But by 1901, he’d had already moved on to bigger, wilder ideas. At Wardenclyffe, he hoped to establish a facility for wireless communications on a transcontinental scale—hence the enormous tower that loomed over the building. (In the end, Marconi would get much of the glory, though by building on Tesla’s patents.) Perhaps even more ambitious were his ideas for the wireless transmission of power, a technology that’s only just now, a century later, creeping into the marketplace.
However, it was something more mundane that brought down Wardenclyffe: cash flow problems. Even if the science had worked—and the Gilded Age had seen enough marvels that it might have seemed doable—Tesla’s primary investor, J.P. Morgan, didn’t become one of the wealthiest men in America by giving things away. The money dried up, and the project failed. The property was repossessed; the tower was knocked down (though the concrete and granite foundation remains). The building and land were sold to film manufacturer Peerless Photo, later acquired by the Belgian multinational Agfa Graphics, which owns the property today.
But Tesla wasn’t completely forgotten. Many a curious autodidact would stumble onto the man’s legacy. Marc Seifer, author of the Tesla biography Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, described discovering Tesla in the 1970s, while researching another man: “I said to myself, ‘This is ridiculous. If someone had invented all this stuff, I would’ve heard his name before,’” he remembered to The Observer.
Jane Alcorn, however, didn’t set out to rescue Tesla from obscurity. Rather, she simply wanted to find a new home for the small science museum housed in the local high school.
“I had been aware of a Tesla’s laboratory in a very peripheral way,” she explained. She knew Wardenclyffe, which was already empty, had originally been home to a scientist, but she didn’t know much about him. “Maybe that would be nice—to have a science museum in a scientist’s laboratory,” she thought.
In the meantime, more enthusiasts were emerging. The scientist appeared as a minor but pivotal character in the 2006 fantasy movie The Prestige, portrayed by a grave-faced David Bowie. A fictionalized version of his Houston Street lab (which burned down sometime in the late 1800s) appeared in the 2010 Nicholas Cage movie The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
So as Ms. Alcorn worked toward securing the site, visitors from Japan, Istanbul, Europe and elsewhere would call her up and ask to have someone meet them outside Wardenclyffe, in hopes of learning new details. “This has been in the past—and will continue to be—almost a site of pilgrimage,” said Ms. Alcorn.
That’s where Matthew Inman came in, alerting his hundreds of thousands of fans to the cause. Suddenly it was less a dry matter of historical preservation than a mission to do right by an unjustly forgotten underdog.
Mr. Inman first became aware of Nikola Tesla from a site called Badass of the Week and was struck by that typical disbelief that he didn’t already know about the man. “As I was reading the article I was kind of thinking, ‘Oh wow, that’s really impressive. Oh wow, he did—oh my God, holy shit, he did all of those things?’”
Impressed, Mr. Inman wrote a comic that was included in his first book, 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (And Other Useful Guides). But it wasn’t until he began selling T-shirts that read “Tesla >Edison” that he realized the depth of devotion to this supposedly forgotten hero. “These things just started selling like crazy,” he explained. That’s when he decided to completely rewrite the original comic and turn it into a paean.
Mr. Inman knew he didn’t have the technical background to do justice to Mr. Tesla’s feats of engineering. Instead, he decided to focus on “the spirit of what he did, in terms of—the guy was a huge nerd,” he said.
The final product: “Why Nikola Tesla Is the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived.” Within a week, the comic had over 500,000 Facebook likes, and Mr. Inman found himself the unofficial king of internet Tesla fandom. When he heard about the fundraising attempts, he stepped forward, offering up his hordes of eager Oatmeal readers. It took just days for the campaign to blow past its goal of $850,000. The project will require millions more in donations before the museum opens its doors, but such a day suddenly looks possible.
For years Mr. Inman has referred to him as an unsung hero, but between the funds raised and the press attention, “I almost feel like the dude is pretty well sung at this point,” he admitted.
The question is, why now? One plank of Ms. Alcorn’s plan for the site hints at the currents propelling this renaissance: Besides classrooms and interactive exhibits, she’d like to include a hacker space. “If you had an invention in mind but you didn’t have a place to create your prototype, and you didn’t have the equipment, machinery or space to work on it, we could have a space with equipment you might not have at home that you could use to create your prototype.”
Between his world-altering ambitions and his loner image, Nikola Tesla engages our infatuation with innovators and entrepreneurs. We’re in a cultural moment when shirtless photos of Mark Zuckerberg pop up on TMZ, even as he extols the “hacker way” in SEC filings, and Google cofounder Sergey Brin appears at Fashion Week wearing Google Glasses. Everyone has his own idea for an earth-shattering tech startup.
And Tesla is the perfect embodiment of the ever-optimistic idealist, holding fast to his disruptive convictions. “Even when everything was against him and he was broke, even when he was a little old man in his 80s, he was always working on something,” explained playwright Jeffrey Stanley, author of the semi-autobiographical Tesla’s Letters, which premiered Off Broadway in 1999.
That goes a long way toward explaining his popularity with the tech crowd: Google cofounder Larry Page likes to cite him as an inspiration; Paypal founder Elon Musk, in what looks like a self-aware admission of his own grand ambitions, named his electric car startup Tesla Motors.
Edison, on the other hand, represents a corporate approach that lacks the cultural cachet it once held. In fact, according to Leonard DeGraaf, an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, Edison’s greatest legacy may be that he made inventors seem like a solid bet. “He makes invention safe for people to invest in, as an activity that they can throw money at,” because he proved he could deliver, Mr. DeGraaf explained. A valuable contribution to the history of American business—but one that, fair or no, reeks of mass-production in an era that fetishizes the creative and the artisanal. Besides, it’s so much sexier to take a chance on Space X, Mr. Musk’s great hope for colonizing Mars, than to invest in a practical, revenue-generating snoozefest like Paypal.
That said, the bigger bets are a lot more likely to leave you alone in the end, with just pigeons for company.