New York wouldn’t be the city that never sleeps if it weren’t for one individual. A Serbian immigrant born in a lightning storm, proclaimed by his mother to be a “child of light”, who dared to defy the giants of industry. That man of course was Nikola Tesla.
To most of the world Paris is known as the “city of lights”, but before Paris or any other city glowed in the darkness with electric light, New York City was the first city to shine amongst the stars.
There are many people to thank for this wave of new technology: Thomas Edison and Lewis Lattimer to name just two, but it’s Nikola Tesla who dared to imagine bigger than any of his colleagues.
Let’s retrace the moments of Nikola Tesla’s life in New York!
Currently many of the following places don’t look like they did 100+ years ago, but like Tesla let’s use our imagination.
Location: 5 Randall Rd, Shoreham, NY
To truly understand Tesla let’s see his biggest ambition: providing wireless electricity to the world.
It sounds like a bonkers idea from a mad scientist, but Tesla had sound scientific reasons as to why this would work.
He once said: “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
1898 in Shoram, Long Island with a $150,000 investment from industrialist J.P. Morgan, Tesla built an 187-foot tower connected to a series of underground tunnels. To Morgan this was supposedly a wireless communication tower to send signals across the Atlantic to Europe, but in actuality Tesla intended this to send electrical impulses matching our planet’s resonant frequency into the Earth’s mantle. Which would enable anyone across the world to access nearly limitless electricity from connecting into the ground. Basically turning the entire planet into a massive generator!
But in December 1901, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless transmission from England to Newfoundland. Morgan lost interest in Tesla’s follies. His investment was pulled. Tesla poured in whatever money he could muster, but to no avail.
In 1917 the tower was raised to the ground. This is where it stood.
Tesla was quoted saying ”It is not a dream, it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!”
Tesla wasn’t a dreamer, following faint fleeting moments of inspiration. No. He knew exactly what he was constructing. For he visualized every project in his mind in immense detail.
Pearl Street Station: Edison First NYC Headquarters
Location: 255 Pearl Street
This area has changed significantly since 1884 when at 28 years old Nikola Tesla arrived from Europe with a sealed handwritten letter from his employer in Europe Charles Batchelor addressed to his own former employer: Thomas Edison.
The letter apparently said one thing: “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!
Immediately Tesla was hired to work for Edison at his New York headquarters which used to stand here at 255 Pearl Street.
Thomas Edison was figuring out ways to provide electricity to the masses, so far this area of downtown Manhattan was one of the first neighborhoods to be lit up. But it required bulky direct current generators to be right next to the buildings. Thus he offered a challenge to his young bright engineers, if they solve this problem he would give that person a $50K bonus!
Tesla quickly went to work! But not through tinkering and slowly iterating like his boss Edison. Here’s Tesla explaining his process:
“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.
“The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.”
That first electric motor was his “alternating current induction motor” or simply known as an AC motor, as opposed to Edison’s method of direct current. This was a game changer because this could send power across wire at much larger distances!
Tesla went to Edison with a working AC motor, he was pleasantly stunned! Tesla then asked for his $50K bonus and Edison belt out laughing saying “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.”
A running motor, but a broken promise. Tesla sought to take his inventions elsewhere.
Tesla’s 1st Lab
Location: 89 Liberty Street (now Zuccotti Park)
After digging ditches for Western Union Telegraph Company in order to make some money to sustain himself, he teamed up with lawyer Charles Peck to rent out 89 Liberty Street, set up his first official lab and to perfect the AC motor.
These innovations caught the eye of George Westinghouse, which through their collaboration would rocket Tesla into superstardom.
Tesla’s 2nd Lab
Location: 175 Grand Street
After briefly heading to Pittsburgh to work for Westinghouse, he returned back to NYC in 1889 and set up shop at 175 Grand Street. Here is where he invented the high-voltage and high-frequency transformer known as the Tesla Coil.
He showcased this new invention at Columbia University’s campus that was located around current-day Madison Square Park. This blew away the engineers and scientists present, Tesla became an overnight sensation! Joining the ranks in fame with Edison and Alexander Graham-Bell (the inventor of the telephone).
Gretsch Hotel (now the The Radio Wave Building)
Location: The Radio Wave Building 49 W 27th St.
Taking advantage of his new celebrity, he set himself up in new digs to match. The Gretsch Hotel–the building still stands here today–was the height of luxury in NYC at the time. Built in 1888 for a whopping $1 million at the time, it boasted electric lights and elevators.
Today this building was renamed in Tesla honor: The Radio Wave Building. Since Tesla was officially recognized as the inventor of radio shortly after his death.
On the ground level you’ll find a coffee shop called Patent Coffee, also in honor of Tesla and his patents that changed the world. But come here after 7:00pm, because through the secret backdoor of the coffeeshop is a speakeasy called Patent Pending with cocktails themed after Tesla’s inventions.
Location: The Players 16 Gramercy Park S.
Speaking of drinking, he had many drinks here in The Player’s. He became a member of this legendary club by Gramercy Park, started by the most famous actor of his time Edwin Booth. Here he hung out with the likes of Stanford White–renowned architect who later built his lab in Wardenclyffe–and Mark Twain–who is most famous for the novel Huckleberry Finn.
Tesla’s 3rd Lab
Location: 33 South Fifth Avenue (now LaGuardia Place)
Tesla invited Mark Twain one day over to his new lab at 33 South Fifth Avenue (now LaGuardia Place). Apparently Twain complained about suffering from constipation. Tesla had the solution, he asked Twain to step on his oscillator which jolted Twain’s body with vibration. In two minutes flat Twain rushed over to the bathroom, thus curing his constipation.
Here he made the biggest discoveries with wireless lighting.
But in 1895 disaster struck! Tesla came rushing from the Gretsch Hotel down to his lab, only to find it lit up in a fiery blaze.
The New York Herald reported:
In a single night the fruits of ten years of toil and research were swept away. The web of a thousand wires which at his bidding thrilled with life had been twisted by fire into a tangled skein. Machines, to the perfection of which he gave all that was best of a master mind are now shapeless things, and vessels which contained the results of patient experiment are heaps of pot sherds.
Tesla was distraught. Sleeping in his room for days, immersed in a deep depression. His life’s work was destroyed, who knows what life-changing inventions were lost in that inferno.
Tesla’s 4th Lab
Location: 46 East Houston Street
But a fire wasn’t going to stop this immigrant turned famed inventor. He used electroshock equipment to jolt himself out of depression
And moved to 46 East Houston Street.
Here Tesla experimented with the so-called Earthquake Machine, which was a mechanical device that was tuned to the resonant frequency of his lab. He turned it on and it violently shook the lab! Tesla quickly turned it off, but if it left it on for any longer it could have leveled the entire building.
At his 79th birthday in a room filled with 20 journalist he recounted what happened:
I was experimenting with vibrations. I had one of my machines going and I wanted to see if I could get it in tune with the vibration of the building. I put it up notch after notch. There was a peculiar cracking sound.
I asked my assistants where did the sound come from. They did not know. I put the machine up a few more notches. There was a louder cracking sound. I knew I was approaching the vibration of the steel building. I pushed the machine a little higher.
Suddenly all the heavy machinery in the place was flying around. I grabbed a hammer and broke the machine. The building would have been down about our ears in another few minutes. Outside in the street there was pandemonium. The police and ambulances arrived. I told my assistants to say nothing. We told the police it must have been an earthquake. That’s all they ever knew about it.
New Yorker Hotel
Tesla’s annual birthday press conferences took place right here at the New Yorker Hotel. Room 3327 is where he lived the final 10 years of his life, you can still book this room today!
This was one of the few hotels in the city that had its own generators, in the basement. Did he choose this location on purpose? What other secrets lay underneath? Who knows.
However on January 7th 1943 Nikola Tesla was found dead by natural causes in his room. He was 86 years old and apparently he kept on working till his last breath.
But things get even weirder, because shortly after his body was discovered the United States Office of Alien Property (not Alien as green men from mars, but alien as a foreigner) seized most of his documents pertaining to his work.
The confiscated documents were handed over to the FBI where they hired an Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by the name of John G Trump (yup the uncle of the current US president) to assess whether it was worth developing any of Tesla’s final inventions. A portion of his files remain classified to this day.
Nikola Tesla Corner
For the final years of Tesla’s life he developed an affinity for feeding pigeons. He would walk over here to the southwestern corner of Bryant Park to feed pigeons.
But he fell in love with one particular pigeon, here’s exactly what he recounted:
I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me.
I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.
Then one day the albino pigeon landed in his bedroom window, which he said:
As I looked at her I knew she wanted to tell me—she was dying. And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes—powerful beams of light. It was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.
When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. I knew my life’s work was finished.
Cathedral of St. John the Divine
His funeral was held at Cathedral of St. John the Divine in uptown Manhattan. 2,000 people attended including many Nobel prize winners. The then-mayor of NYC Fiorello LaGuardia gave his eulogy and proclaimed: “Telsa is not dead!”
LaGuardia was right. Every device we own, from our phones to the camera I’m filming this video with, to the street lamps that light up our city streets, to the cars that speed on our highways, to the very devices you’re watching this video on right now. Tesla is very much alive, lighting up our world!
Watch the full video:
- Wardenclyffe (now the Tesla Science Center): 5 Randall Rd, Shoreham, NY
- Site of Edison Electric Headquarters: 55 Pearl Street
- Site of Tesla’s 1st Lab: 89 Liberty Street
- Site of Tesla’s 2nd Lab: 175 Grand Street
- The Radio Wave Building: 49 W 27th Street
- The Players: 16 Gramercy Park South
- Site of Tesla’s 3rd Lab: 33 South Fifth Avenue (now LaGuardia Place
- Site of Tesla’s 4th Lab: 46 East Houston Street
- New Yorker Hotel: 481 8th Avenue
- Nikola Tesla Corner: 41st Street & 6th Avenue at Bryant Park
- Cathedral of St. John the Divine: 1047 Amsterdam Avenue
Google Maps of the locations: https://goo.gl/maps/81NPQWRgCNQXQFZQ6