What Happened at Nikola Tesla's Secret Experimental Station?
Science and technology enthusiasts remember Nikola Tesla as one of the quintessential American inventors, blending brilliance and dedication with just a touch of crazy. Born in modern-day Croatia in 1856, he would later become a naturalized American citizen, and it was in America where he invented an induction motor based on alternating current and spearheaded the use of alternative current to electrify the world.
While Nikola Tesla is a fond memory now, in 1899 he was an ambitious 43-year-old with a grandiose idea. To develop that idea, he left his bustling New York City home and headed west to Colorado. There, with $30,000 in cash from the prominent millionaire businessman John Jacob Astor (who would later famously perish on the Titanic), he set about creating "cold light" light bulbs – essentially forerunners of fluorescent bulbs -- to replace incandescents. Or that's what he told Aster, at least...
In reality, Tesla thought he could transmit wireless electricity over great distances with essentially no loss, even through the Earth itself! He had traveled to the high-altitude haven of Colorado Springs, where the air was thinner and more conductive, with the promise of free power from the El Paso Power Company, to realize his dream.
Once there, Tesla erected a wooden experimental station ringed with a fence adorned with ominous "KEEP OUT" signs. Jutting from the station was a 142-foot metal mast supporting a large copper ball. Inside, was the largest Tesla coil ever built, an electrifying monstrosity 50 feet in diameter.
For roughly nine months, the station was alive with experimentation.
"He set up an experiment where he had some light bulbs in a field. And they were surrounded in a 50-foot square of wire. And he transmitted power so that an electrical field was created within that wire and the bulbs lit up," Jane Alcorn, President of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, told PBS.
Within the confines of his grounded, wooden station, Tesla attempted to tune his magnifying transmitter and Tesla coil to Earth's supposed resonance frequency, which he thought would permit worldwide wireless power transfer. It apparently was not uncommon for ball lightning to flit about the laboratory. One night, he even thought he picked up radio signals from outer space through his transmitter.
Outside, Tesla produced artificial lightning from the station's metal mast. The largest bolt was 135-feet long and its thunder was reportedly heard fifteen miles away. It also knocked out power to all of Colorado Springs, and severely damaged equipment at the El Paso Electric Company. Afterwards, his free power came to an end.
In January 1900, Tesla concluded his experiments in Colorado Springs, claiming that he could transmit electric power abundantly and cheaply anywhere on the planet.
"When the great truth... is fully recognized, that this planet, with all its appalling immensity, is to electric currents virtually no more than a small metal ball and that by this fact many possibilities, each baffling imagination and of incalculable consequence are rendered absolutely sure of accomplishment... humanity will be like an ant heap stirred up with a stick: See the excitement coming!"
Alas, there is little to no evidence that Tesla succeeded, not even in his own meticulous notes.
"He really thought he was on to something," Peter Fisher, head of MIT's Department of Physics, told PBS. "I think he fooled himself. Tesla is of the school that once he believed he had some evidence for something he was very quick to promote it, expound it to the world and not at all interested in challenging it."
Tesla's mysterious lab in Colorado Springs was torn down in 1904. His idea for worldwide wireless power never came to fruition.