It took a cartoonist to re-energize interest in eccentric scientist Nikola Tesla. Matthew Inman recently posted a piece on The Oatmeal, his comic website, explaining "Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived," and it's inspired more than a million dollars in donations to turn one of his labs into a museum. Too bad that lab is on Long Island, not in Colorado Springs, even though Tesla conducted some of his most famous experiments in Colorado.
Tesla set up a lab in Colorado Springs in 1899, lauding the thin, electrically charged dry air there. He said he was going to try to send a signal from Pikes Peak to Paris, and he also tested his Tesla Coil there. In June 1900, Tesla published his Colorado Springs findings in an essay for Century Illustrated Magazine.
But there's not much to commemorate Tesla's time in Colorado Springs, other than a plaque in Memorial Park and a couple of artifacts in the Pioneers Museum. A museum dedicated to Tesla, which had housed photos, documents, artifacts and replicas closed in 1998.
J.W. McGinnis, who started the museum in 1986 and stepped down in 1997, says he saw his efforts go down the drain when the museum went bankrupt six months after he left the organization -- and the collection is missing. "Unbeknownst to me, there were a couple crooks in the outfit," McGinnis says. "They were stealing assets and took the place apart. I blame myself for not really following that. I had great trust in these people, but they were not trustworthy at all."
After staying out of the gray for a decade, McGinnis recently resurrected the International Tesla Society, which now has chapters in Colorado Springs and Los Angeles. And next summer, he plans to hold a four-day conference in Tesla's honor that would focus on the same issues the inventor did more than a century ago, including the hunt for clean, unlimited energy.
And the Colorado Springs Science Center Project also wants to remember Tesla -- if it ever gets off the ground. "It's a project right now...more an idea than anything else. It's an effort to create a science center in the Pikes Peak Front Range region," says Steven Rothstein, the project's president. "A modernized version of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. It's a $50 million to $60 million vision right now."
If that vision becomes a reality, it will honor Tesla and his work in Colorado Springs. But it will also approach the subject with caution, Rothstein notes, since Tesla, his research and his followers are "a fringe kind of thing."
Adds Rothstein, "We're very interested in honoring that heritage, and rolling that heritage into whatever program we do if we can, but we want to do it in a very scientific and legitimate manner, and really stay away with a ten-foot pole from all the eccentricities that go with it."
That doesn't worry McGinnis. "I was tempted to go mainstream," he says. "But if I should do that, I can no longer be the critic of the very people I'm saying are not going in the right direction. They're going in the direction of profit and not of making life a little better." And they're not doing anything fast enough, he adds: "I think we're just getting a spoonful of technology at a time, and we should be getting a flood."
A page from Inman's "Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived."
In the meantime, the Tesla Science Center, which has been trying to raise funds to open a Tesla museum on Long Island, has been getting a flood of support since Inman signed on to help the cause.
For the past fifteen years, the TSC has been trying to save the Wardenclyffe Tower, which housed Tesla's laboratory after he left Colorado Springs. But recently, other companies have shown an interest in buying the building, which has created a new sense of urgency, says TSC president Jane Alcorn.
So museum supporters turned to social media, asking Twitter followers if they knew of any celebrities who could help. The Twitter Tesla lovers suggested The Oatmeal, and Inman responded.
"He put a post up on Reddit asking for a response for whether or not he should help, and he got a good response, so he e-mailed me," Alcorn explains. "He offered very kindly to promote it on his webpage. People found out and it spread like wildfire."
In a matter of days, 27,000 people from more than 150 countries had contributed to the cause. The fundraiser is hosted by Indiegogo, and the original goal amount was $850,000 -- which the State of New York will match. So far, the website has raised more than $1.2 million, and the campaign will continue until September 29.
"This was Matt's second successful Indiegogo campaign, and he definitely chooses interesting and unique campaigns to get people rallied around," says an Indiegogo spokesperson. "Creating a successful campaign on Indiegogo takes effort, and because Matt spent time creating his campaigns, making them compelling and tapping into an audience that cares, he was able to generate a lot of national and international interest."
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The result has gone far beyond anything Alcorn could have imagined. "I was stunned and gratified," she says. "This is going to give us the opportunity to make an offer on the property, and we hope that it will lead to a successful purchase."
But buying the building is only the first step. Any extra funds will go toward the costs of creating the museum itself. "It's going to take years to make it worthy of Tesla, and we're going to start with his laboratory and make that the focus," says Alcorn. "We take our responsibility to make this happen very seriously.
Colorado Springs has been a hotbed of Tesla interest over the years -- and parts of The Prestige, starring David Bowie as Tesla, were even filmed there. Read more in "Tesla Shocks the Springs."