Decades after Nikola Tesla figured out how to use the energy of Niagara Falls to send electricity far enough and strong enough to run the trolleys and lights in Buffalo and, eventually, power everything in the Northeast, there are three museums sparking up in his honor – two of them local.
Entrepreneurs in Buffalo intend to start construction in the spring on “Tesla City,” a restaurant and brewery complete with exhibits hanging from the ceiling in what was once a Niagara Street way station for Tesla’s electricity a few years after it arrived from the Falls in 1896.
Another group struggling in Niagara Falls formed a “Tesla at Niagara” nonprofit in hopes of installing a museum tribute in the last building that remains from the original Adams power station that could power lights 400 miles away.
A third group, downstate, plans a “physics playground,” environmental center, maker space and exhibit about Tesla’s life at the former lab where he built a domed 187-foot tower for what he wanted to be a global, wireless communication system.
“Maybe two museums in Buffalo are too much, but … Tesla’s long overdue,” said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, developing in Shoreham, Long Island.
The system that Tesla launched here with hydropower is the same one electrifying the planet now.
“Here’s a man who contributed mightily to the world, to the society, in the large sense,” Alcorn said. “His electrical system is used worldwide. Here in America, his name was not exalted in the way that Edison’s had been.”
For years, the only local tribute to Tesla was the statue of the inventor reading, on Goat Island in Niagara Falls State Park.
Then Elon Musk, SolarCity and Space X founder, named his new electric car, “Tesla.” That fueled curiosity about the tall, thin genius inventor and star of the Gilded Age, who hung out with Mark Twain, pioneered the radio, X-rays, radar, lasers, robots and fluorescent lights and died alone and broke in his New York City hotel room in 1943.
“I’m kind of amazed at how popular he’s become,” said Marc Seifer, author of “Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla.” “After Tesla, you have a renewable source of clean energy ... Nikola Tesla is the single most important person for helping to slow down global warming.”
At midnight Nov. 16, 1896, a switch was flipped, and for the first time, electricity from the Falls powered lights, trolleys and machines in Buffalo. It was Tesla’s defining victory over Thomas Edison in their feud over how to transmit electricity – direct current versus alternating current.
Tesla was a Serbian immigrant and electrical engineer who moved here in the 1880s. He worked for Edison until he quit in frustration.
At the time, Edison was famous for perfecting the light bulb. His electric company – eventually General Electric – invested in special converter machines called commutators that forced electricity to travel one way, a form known as direct current, or DC.
As a university student in Europe, Tesla worked out a way to use electricity in its natural state, as back-and-forth alternating current, or AC. He moved to the United States to refine and implement his idea for using a rotating magnetic field in an induction motor to send AC electricity farther and stronger than DC.
Tesla’s system made Edison’s DC, its commutators and the 3,000 coal-powered plants that powered them obsolete, said Seifer.
Edison campaigned against Tesla’s concept. He electrocuted cats, dogs, a horse and even an elephant to prove AC was dangerous.
“Edison closed his mind,” Seifer said.
Tesla fought back. He toured the East Coast, sending hundreds of thousands of volts through his own body for stage audiences.
“Thousands of people went to go see him,” Seifer said.
George Westinghouse bought his patents and backed him. Together they won the bid to set up AC hydropower at Niagara Falls.
“Once Tesla’s system was put in,” said Seifer, “all 3,000 power plants were taken down.”
Tesla kept inventing. He spent the rest of his life pioneering precursors to cell phones and computers and other fundamental features of modern life.
But unlike Edison, he slipped into obscurity.
“Tesla did not leave a business behind,” said Alcorn. “He did not leave a wife and family. By the time he died, most of his friends were gone.”
In Buffalo, the plain red brick building with boarded windows at 2280 Niagara St., known as “Terminal A,” was the first big distribution point for electricity when it opened in 1900, eclipsing a smaller generating station miles away where Falls electricity first ran trolleys in 1896.
“It was almost under the radar. It was very unadorned and meant to be disguised as, ‘Nothing to see here,’ ” said Bill Zimmerman, owner of Seven Seas Sailing School on his plan for “Tesla City.” “It was hiding the very magic that allowed energy to travel.”
About six months ago, he and Paul Tsouflidis, Acropolis restaurateur, connected on Facebook and met to talk business. Tsouflidis was captivated.
“I was fascinated by this Tesla guy,” said Tsouflidis, the son of an electrician. “I didn’t know he was the inventor of the transportation of electricity.”
At the time, Zimmerman was part owner of 2280 with a friend whose family once used it as a factory for fire extinguishers. As a student of local history and author of articles, he knew it was a first stop for bulk power from the Falls.
He thought a restaurant and brewery would be a self-sustaining way to tell the story and fund a museum, where Zimmerman imagines serving “Edison Bitter Ale.”
Last week, he and Tsouflidis closed on the building. They expect to start construction this spring. Plans include a glass addition, a rooftop terrace and a scaled-down replica of Tesla’s Wardenclyffe tower. Inside, they envision a catwalk for people to stroll along the 200-foot building span. Tesla-related displays will hang from the ceiling where there are still original wheels on a track that was a crane for electrical equipment.
“As soon as someone walks in,” Tsouflidis said, “I want them to start learning about Tesla.”
To coordinate news and happenings with Tesla societies and Tesla museums, Zimmerman started a Facebook page called “Nikola Tesla Collaborative,” which he intends to turn it into a nonprofit.
“I’m friends with the people in Niagara Falls,” said Zimmerman, who is working on a book. “We really hope they succeed in everything they intend to do.”
The Tesla museum journey is off to a slower start in Niagara Falls.
A team of power history buffs has been working on “Tesla at Niagara” for the last couple of years. They want to renovate the Adams Transformer House at 1501 Buffalo Ave. and set up a museum inside the last building left where Tesla’s power system began.
They don’t have a lot of museum details.
First, they need a building.
Peter Fontanarosa, the owner, seemed enthusiastic about their plan to buy or rent and restore and develop a museum. The owner of a construction company, he bought the building for $65,000 in 1997 after he heard Niagara Mohawk was selling.
About two months ago, the museum group offered an undisclosed amount.
They haven’t heard from him since.
“It’s very, very frustrating for us because we’re on hold and time is slipping away,” said Terry Lasher Winslow, vice president of “Tesla at Niagara,” former Niagara County Historian and leader of an industrial history museum in Troy. “It will diminish the whole project considerably if we’re not in the original building. So we’re opting to wait.”
Thinking Fontanarosa was ready to make a deal, they were too. They have a web site, www.teslaniagara.org, 501c3 status and a $500,000 Indiegogo campaign, which is now stalled at $210.
The Transformer House that once sent volts of electricity to Buffalo is still a glimpse of what was an electrical wonder of the world.
It stood in the shadow of two taller, “Power House” stations, designed by Stanford White and demolished in 1961.
Tesla compared them to the pyramids, cathedrals and Greek temples.
Like its grand cousins, the Transformer House is made from limestone blocks carved by Italian masons. The late afternoon sun looks golden when it pours in from the arched windows that stretch from floor to ceiling.
Fontanarosa says he gets the same sense of wonder and beauty he got from the Pantheon and other beautiful old things in the country where his family is from.
“It’s as exciting as what I saw in Italy,” he said.
Fontanarosa, the son and grandson of bricklayers, leaves the big wooden door open when he comes to putter, store equipment, move in cars like Jaguars and Cadillacs he lets park for the winter.
But he is coy about how much he wants for the building.
When his smart phone rang and the number of the museum organizer popped up, he didn’t answer.
“I’m not a good negotiator,” he said.
He’s heard about that Elon Musk gave $1 million to the Long Island museum. He doesn’t want to give up his building for too little.
”I’m not selling for a meager dollar,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Tesla in Long Island
In 1901, Tesla moved his work to a lab on Long Island. His backer was J.P. Morgan, who helped pay for a long-gone 187-foot tower intended for transmitting wireless transatlantic messages.
By 1915, Tesla was out of cash. Friend and benefactor John Jacob Astor died in the Titanic. Tesla was stuck with a $20,000 bill for living at the Waldorf Astoria.
To pay, he signed the property over. Until the 1980s, a company produced photo emulsions there.
Jane Alcorn, a now retired librarian who ran a classroom science museum on a local high school, learned from a neighbor and Tesla fan about the old lab.
For almost two decades, the Long Island group worked with limited success to raise $850,000 to buy the property.
The plan is to build the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe like a campus with a Tesla museum in the lab. The surrounding 16 acres will have features for visitors, students, teachers and entrepreneurs: from a physics playground, event hall, “maker studio” and environmental area to science and technology zones. An “innovation station” will give space to emerging technology companies.
The old lab still has to be gutted and outfitted with new windows, plumbing and heat.
“We’re going to need millions,” Alcorn said. “It’s going to be a couple of years at least to get the building in order.”
They got a big financial boost in 2012 from Matthew Inman, who draws millions to his irreverent online comic “The Oatmeal.”
Inman discovered Alcorn’s project after he published the story of the Edison-Tesla feud.
In a post at theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla titled, “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived,” he wrote, “Tesla was known for discovering amazing things and then forgetting to write them down. Edison was known for rushing to the patent office as soon as one of his employees had something.”
At the end, he decided to tack on a plea for donations. About 33,000 people from 108 countries pledged $1.4 million.
“That was the first time Indiegogo had gone that high,” Alcorn said.
Inman went to Twitter last year and asked Elon Musk for help, too. He got $1 million from Musk and a promise of a Tesla car charging station for the grounds.
“It was a fortuitous alignment of circumstance,” Alcorn said.
Niagara Falls may not have the same luck.
“I don’t think that every single place that Tesla lived or worked is going to get an Elon Musk donation,” Alcorn said.
She thinks the quirky inventor’s new popularity could have something to do with the realities of the digital age he imagined long before it happened. People toil in obscurity for long hours alone at their computers. That’s the way Tesla worked in his lab as he thought about things like wireless communication devices that would fit in a “vest pocket.”
“There’s a self-identification with many people with the underdog,” Alcorn said. “Tesla has a way of kind of capturing you once you find out about him.”