Wardenclyffe Tower (1901–1917), also known as the Tesla Tower, was an early wireless transmission station designed and built by Nikola Tesla in Shoreham, New York in 1901-1902. Tesla intended to transmit messages, telephony and even facsimile images across the Atlantic to England and to ships at sea based on his theories of using the Earth to conduct the signals. His decision to scale up the facility and add his ideas of wireless power transmission to better compete with Guglielmo Marconi‘s radio based telegraph system was met with the project’s primary backer, financier J. P. Morgan, refusing to fund the changes. Additional investment could not be found and the project was abandoned in 1906 and never became operational.
In an attempt to satisfy Tesla’s debts, the tower was demolished for scrap in 1917 and the property taken in foreclosure in 1922. For 50 years, Wardenclyffe was a processing facility producing photography supplies. Many buildings were added to the site and the land it occupies has been trimmed down to 16 acres (6.5 ha) but the original, 94 by 94 ft (29 by 29 m), brick building designed by Stanford White remains standing to this day.
In the 1980s and 2000s, hazardous waste from the photographic era was cleaned up, and the site was sold and cleared for new development. A grassroots campaign to save the site succeeded in purchasing the property in 2013, with plans to build a future museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla.
Design and operational principles
Tesla’s design for Wardenclyffe grew out of his experiments begun in the early 1890s. His primary goal in these experiments was to develop a new wireless power transmission system. He discarded the idea of using the newly discovered Hertzian (radio) waves, detected in 1888 by German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz since Tesla doubted they existed and basic physics told him, and most other scientists from that period, that they would only travel in straight lines the way visible light did, meaning they would travel straight out into space becoming “hopelessly lost”. In laboratory work and later large scale experiments at Colorado Springs in 1899, Tesla developed his own ideas on how a worldwide wireless system would work. He theorized from these experiments that if he injected electric current into the Earth at just the right frequency he could harness what he believed was the planet’s own electrical charge and cause it to resonate at a frequency that would be amplified in “standing waves” that could be tapped anywhere on the planet to run devices or, through modulation, carry a signal. His system was based more on 19th century ideas of electrical conduction and telegraphy instead of the newer theories of air-borne electromagnetic waves, with an electrical charge being conducted through the ground and being returned through the air. Tesla’s design used a concept of a charged conductive upper layer in the atmosphere, a theory dating back to an 1872 idea for a proposed wireless power system by Mahlon Loomis. Tesla not only believed that he could use this layer as his return path in his electrical conduction system, but that the power flowing through it would make it glow, providing night time lighting for cities and shipping lanes.
In a February 1901 Collier’s Weekly article titled “Talking With Planets” Tesla described his “system of energy transmission and of telegraphy without the use of wires” as:
- “(using) the Earth itself as the medium for conducting the currents, thus dispensing with wires and all other artificial conductors … a machine which, to explain its operation in plain language, resembled a pump in its action, drawing electricity from the Earth and driving it back into the same at an enormous rate, thus creating ripples or disturbances which, spreading through the Earth as through a wire, could be detected at great distances by carefully attuned receiving circuits. In this manner I was able to transmit to a distance, not only feeble effects for the purposes of signaling, but considerable amounts of energy, and later discoveries I made convinced me that I shall ultimately succeed in conveying power without wires, for industrial purposes, with high economy, and to any distance, however great.”
Although Tesla demonstrated wireless power transmission at Colorado Springs, lighting electric lights mounted outside the building where he had his large experimental coil, he did not scientifically test his theories. He believed he had achieved Earth resonance which, according to his theory, would work at any distance.