Though it was far from completion, it was rumored to have been tested on several occasions, with spectacular, crowd-pleasing results. The ultimate purpose of this unique structure was to change the world forever.
Tesla's inventions had already changed the world on several occasions, most notably when he developed modern alternating current technology. He had also won fame for his victory over Thomas Edison in the well-publicized "battle of currents," where he proved that his alternating current was far more practical and safe than Edison-brand direct current. Soon his technology dominated the world's developing electrical infrastructure, and by 1900 he was widely regarded as America's greatest electrical engineer. This reputation was reinforced by his other major innovations, including the Tesla coil, the radio transmitter, and fluorescent lamps.
In 1891, Nikola Tesla gave a lecture for the members of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New York City, where he made a striking demonstration. In each hand he held a gas discharge tube, an early version of the modern fluorescent bulb. The tubes were not connected to any wires, but nonetheless they glowed brightly during his demonstration. Tesla explained to the awestruck attendees that the electricity was being transmitted through the air by the pair of metal sheets which sandwiched the stage. He went on to speculate how one might increase the scale of this effect to transmit wireless power and information over a broad area, perhaps even the entire Earth. As was often the case, Tesla's audience was engrossed but bewildered.
Though his notes do not specifically say so, one can only surmise that Tesla stood at Pike's Peak and cackled diabolically as the night sky over Colorado was cracked by the man-made lightning machine. Colossal bolts of electricity arced hundreds of feet from the tower's top to lick the landscape. A curious blue corona soon enveloped the crackling equipment. Millions of volts charged the atmosphere for several moments, but the awesome display ended abruptly when the power suddenly failed. All of the windows throughout Colorado Springs went dark as the local power station's industrial-sized generator collapsed under the strain. But amidst such dramatic discharges, Tesla confirmed that the Earth itself could be used as an electrical conductor, and verified some of his suspicions regarding the conductivity of the ionosphere. In later tests, he recorded success in an attempt to illuminate light bulbs from afar, though the exact conditions of these experiments have been lost to obscurity. In any case, Tesla became convinced that his dream of world-wide wireless electricity was feasible.
In 1900, famed financier J.P. Morgan learned of Tesla's convictions after reading an article in Century Magazine, wherein the scientist described a global network of high-voltage towers which could one day control the weather, relay text and images wirelessly, and provide ubiquitous electricity via the atmosphere. Morgan, hoping to capitalize on the future of wireless telegraphy, immediately invested $150,000 to relocate Tesla's lab to Long Island to construct a pilot plant for this "World Wireless System." Construction of Wardenclyffe Tower and its dedicated power generating facility began the following year.
In 1908, Tesla described his sensational aspirations in an article for Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony magazine:
In essence, Tesla's global power grid was designed to "pump" the planet with electricity which would intermingle with the natural telluric currents that move throughout the Earth's crust and oceans. At the same time, towers like the one at Wardenclyffe would fling columns of raw energy skyward into the electricity-friendly ionosphere fifty miles up. To tap into this energy conduit, customers' homes would be equipped with a buried ground connection and a relatively small spherical antenna on the roof, thereby creating a low-resistance path to close the giant Earth-ionosphere circuit. Oceangoing ships could use a similar antenna to draw power from the network while at sea. In addition to electricity, these currents could carry information over great distances by bundling radio-frequency energy along with the power, much like the modern technology to send high-speed Internet data over power lines.
The Wardenclyffe team tested their tower a handful of times during construction, and the results were very encouraging; but the project soon devoured Tesla's personal savings, and it became increasingly clear that no new investments were forthcoming. In 1905, having exhausted all practical financial options, the construction efforts were abandoned. Regarding the project's demise, Tesla stated:
"It is not a dream, it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive -- blind, faint-hearted, doubting world! [...] Humanity is not yet sufficiently advanced to be willingly led by the discoverer's keen searching sense. But who knows? Perhaps it is better in this present world of ours that a revolutionary idea or invention instead of being helped and patted, be hampered and ill-treated in its adolescence -- by want of means, by selfish interest, pedantry, stupidity and ignorance; that it be attacked and stifled; that it pass through bitter trials and tribulations, through the strife of commercial existence. So do we get our light. So all that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combatted, suppressed -- only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle."
If Tesla's plans had come to fruition, the pilot plant would have been merely the first of many. Such "magnifying transmitter" towers would have peppered the globe, saturating the planet with free electricity and wireless communication as early as the 1920s. Instead, the futuristic facility's potential went untapped for over a decade, until the tower was finally demolished for salvage in 1917.
The fall of Wardenclyffe thrust the brilliant inventor into a deep depression and financial distress, and in the years that followed his colleagues began to seriously doubt his mental well-being. His eccentricities became increasingly exaggerated, underscored by his tendency to bring home and care for the injured pigeons he encountered during his daily visits to the park. He also developed an unnatural fear of germs, washing his hands compulsively and refusing to eat any food which had not been disinfected through boiling. But his mind remained pregnant with groundbreaking ideas, as he demonstrated when he described radar technology in 1917, almost twenty years before it became a reality. In 1928, aged seventy-two years, he filed one of his last patents; it described an ingenious lightweight flying machine that was an early precursor to today's tilt-rotor Vertical Short Takeoff and Landing (VSTOL) planes such as the V-22 Osprey.
Had Wardenclyffe been completed without interruption, Tesla may have once again managed to alter the course of history. Instant access to power, information, pirated phonograph cylinders, and lewd photos of bare-ankled floozies on the TeslaNet may have ushered in the Information Age almost a century ahead of schedule, making today's world a very different place indeed. Perhaps one day we will enjoy the future that Tesla envisioned, albeit a bit behind schedule.
Suggested by Matt.