In 1905, a team of construction workers in the small village of Shoreham, New York labored to erect a truly extraordinary structure. Over a period of several years the men had managed to assemble the framework and wiring for the 187-foot-tall Wardenclyffe Tower, in spite of severe budget shortfalls and a few engineering snags. The project was overseen by its designer, the eccentric-yet-ingenious inventor Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943). Atop his tower was perched a fifty-five ton dome of conductive metals, and beneath it stretched an iron root system that penetrated more than 300 feet into the Earth’s crust. “In this system that I have invented, it is necessary for the machine to get a grip of the earth,” he explained, “otherwise it cannot shake the earth. It has to have a grip… so that the whole of this globe can quiver.”

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.

Tesla holding a disconnected vacuum bulb lit by high frequency currents
Tesla holding a disconnected vacuum bulb lit by high frequency currents

Back at his makeshift laboratory at Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs, the eccentric scientist continued to wring the secrets out of electromagnetism to further explore this possibility. He rigged his equipment with the intent to produce the first lightning-scale electrical discharges ever accomplished by mankind, a feat which would allow him to test many of his theories about the conductivity of the Earth and the sky. For this purpose he erected a 142-foot mast on his laboratory roof, with a copper sphere on the tip. The tower’s substantial wiring was then routed through an exceptionally large high-voltage Tesla coil in the laboratory below. On the night of his experiment, following a one-second test charge which momentarily set the night alight with an eerie blue hum, Tesla ordered his assistant to fully electrify the tower.

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.

Tesla peering out of his lab at Pike's Peak, ca. 1899
Tesla peering out of his lab at Pike's Peak, ca. 1899

In December 1901, a scant few months after construction began, a competing scientist named Guglielmo Marconi executed the world’s first trans-Atlantic wireless telegraph signal. Tesla’s investors were deeply troubled by the development despite the fact that Marconi borrowed from seventeen Tesla patents to accomplish his feat. Though Marconi’s plans were considerably less ambitious in scale, his apparatus was also considerably less expensive. Work at Wardenclyffe continued, but Tesla realized that this his competitor’s success with simple wireless telegraphy had greatly diminished the likelihood of further investments in his own, much grander project.

In 1908, Tesla described his sensational aspirations in an article for Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony magazine:

“As soon as completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind. More important than all of this, however, will be the transmission of power, without wires, which will be shown on a scale large enough to carry conviction.”

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.

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla

Given his supporting experimental data and previous engineering accomplishments, there was little reason to doubt the veracity of Tesla’s claims. But building the power station, the huge wooden tower, and the fifty-five ton conductive dome depleted the original investment money relatively quickly, leading to chronic funding shortages. The complications were further compounded by a stock market crash in 1901 which doubled the cost of building materials and sent investors scurrying for financial cover.

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.

One of our Damn Interesting original propaganda-style science posters
One of our Damn Interesting original propaganda-style science posters

Nikola Tesla shuffled off this mortal coil in 1943, suffering a heart attack alone in his hotel room. Though he kept copious diaries of his experiments and ideas throughout his life, they were notoriously vague and lacking in technical details. He preferred to rely on his photographic memory for such nuances, therefore much of his knowledge went with him to the grave. Some modern investigations and calculations, however, do support Tesla’s contention that wireless electricity is not only feasible, but it may have even been a superior alternative to the extensive and costly grid of power lines which crisscross our globe today.

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.