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Tribute to an eccentric genius

William J Broad
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The building in Shoreham, New York, that once housed the laboratory of physicist/inventor Nikola Tesla (left).— Photo: AP
The building in Shoreham, New York, that once housed the laboratory of physicist/inventor Nikola Tesla (left).— Photo: AP

A dream of 16 years came true for science enthusiasts on Friday when they struck a deal to buy a dilapidated estate on Long Island and transform it into a museum and educational memorial to Nikola Tesla, an eccentric genius who lit the world with alternating current but died penniless.

The overgrown 16-acre site, in Shoreham, features his only surviving workshop. The crumbling brick laboratory was designed by Tesla’s friend Stanford White, a celebrated architect who drew up plans in Manhattan for the Washington Arch as well as neoclassical gems like the Century Club.

Agfa Corp., which owns the heavily wooded site and once operated a factory there, agreed to sell the estate to Tesla enthusiasts for an undisclosed sum after they succeeded in raising $1.4 million through a Web campaign. The property had been listed at $1.6 million.

Tesla, best known for establishing alternating current as the basis for the modern transmission of electrical power, died in 1943 at age 86 on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan. (The inventor late in life had become obsessed with the number three and its multiples.)

Marc J. Seifer, author of Wizard , a Tesla biography, said the memorial would become a magnet for visitors from around the globe while providing jobs on the island’s North Shore and a lift for the local economy.

“It’ll be a beacon,” he said in an interview. “Tesla was an inventor in so many different realms — aircraft design, robotics, beam weapons, mass communications — that he’s an inspiration for what true genius really is.”

Mr. Seifer said donors from more than 100 countries contributed money to the Web campaign, run by the comic The Oatmeal and another site Indiegogo.

The effort of the Tesla enthusiasts to acquire the Agfa property on Long Island began officially in 1996 with the founding of Friends of Science East, a non-profit corporation spun off from the science museum at Shoreham-Wading River High School. The group investigated Tesla and the site’s history and redoubled its acquisition efforts after Agfa in early 2009 put the property up for sale.

Friends of Science East now calls itself the Tesla Science Centre at Wardenclyffe, after Tesla’s name for the site during its heyday. By 1903, the inventor had erected a wooden tower there that rose more than 18 stories above the surrounding farms. One night, it fired bolts of electricity into the sky.

But Tesla eventually sold Wardenclyffe to satisfy his debts. In 1917, the new owners had the giant tower blown up and sold for scrap. Today, the brick laboratory is the main Tesla relic. — New York Times News Service

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