Crowd funding campaign for Tesla museum goes viral

This building was Tesla's laboratory in the early twentieth century. Today, lack of upkeep has left the property in disrepair. But thanks to a donation campaign that went viral, this building will someday host the Tesla Science Center. (Image: Tesla Science Center)

If Nikola Tesla only knew the extent of his popularity today, he would scarcely believe it. In life, though he was well known, he didn't receive all the credit he deserved for his inventions. Besides his many other accomplishments, the Serbian-born Tesla is known for the Tesla coil and for inventing alternating current, which was used to light up the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. He worked at one time for Thomas Edison. Later, with George Westinghouse, he harnessed the power of Niagara Falls with the world's first hydroelectric plant.

In 1901 he began construction of a laboratory he called "Wardenclyffe" in Shoreham, New York. The site included a 187-foot tower designed for early wireless transmission, and which he hoped would also transmit electricity to the entire world. He lost his funding, then the site was sold and left to ruin. The tower was demolished in 1917. Today the property is abandoned and in disrepair.

Enter Jane Alcorn, president of the nonprofit organization Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe. Alcorn has been trying for years to raise funds to buy the site, restore the laboratory, and turn it into a science center and museum. It looked like that effort was about to fail, however, when the property was offered for sale recently and another buyer emerged. She had to raise $850,000 to buy the site along with a matching grant from the State of New York, and she had to do it quickly. She put out a call for help.

Enter web cartoonist and blogger Matthew Inman, also known as "The Oatmeal," who answered the call. Together they established an Indiegogo fundraising campaign. Helped by Inman's huge fan base, within a week they not only had the necessary funds to buy the property, but additional money is still coming in that will help the nonprofit move forward with the science museum.

AAASMC caught up with Jane Alcorn to ask about the project.

AAASMC: It seems like thousands of Tesla fans worldwide have come out of the woodwork to contribute to your campaign. What do you think is behind the popularity of Nikola Tesla today?
Jane Alcorn, President of the Tesla Science Center:
I think that many people are beginning to identify with Nikola Tesla. He was a person who worked hard, often alone, and wasn't properly acknowledged for his work. Many people today can understand that: working hard and not being recognized. So they identify with this unsung hero. And now we are beginning to understand the depth of his contributions to modern society, so people are interested in giving him the recognition he deserves.

AAASMC: How did you come to pair up with Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, who helped to launch the Indiegogo campaign?
Alcorn:
I put out a plea on our museum Facebook page: "Friends: please Tweet, text, e-mail any of your favorite celebrities who you think might be able to offer support to #Save Wardenclyffe." I got some responses that suggested I contact Tesla Motors, or Elon Musk, or Tesla the Band, and others. One or two mentioned The Oatmeal. We had tried to contact some of those people in the past, without success.

So I sent out another post: "Great suggestions. Now if all of you and your friends contact those people and send them our way, they might take notice and help. #SaveWardenclyffe with your donations, and by sharing the importance of the site with the celebrities and your friends!"

Some of our friends contacted Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal) via e-mail and/or Twitter, and he took notice. After asking on Reddit if he should help us, and getting a strong positive response, he e-mailed me. We had several e-mail and telephone conversations, and agreed to set up an Indiegogo campaign. He was wonderful to support us this way, since he has such a strong and loyal following. That really got the crowd funding going.

AAASMC: You've raised over a million dollars and you still have nearly a month left in your campaign. Given that you've already raised enough money to buy the property, what specific plans do you have for the science museum in terms of displays and exhibits?
Alcorn:
We have many, many ideas for the museum. The goal is actually to have a science center, not just a museum with things to look at in display cases. We want people to be able to interact with what they see, and to be able to learn by doing. Among the attractions we hope to have are a physics playground, interactive exhibits, replicas of Tesla's inventions, Tesla coils, a lecture hall/auditorium, classrooms, space for people to learn from experts in a variety of fields, mentorship programs for students, and more.

AAASMC: I understand you intend to have programs as well; can you talk a little more about those?
Alcorn:
We are still in a very formative stage in this, and I can't really comment on specific programs. We want to support Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, and have programs that enrich the science curriculum in our schools. I imagine robotics and electronics will be the focus of some of the programs, but there will be other types of programs as well.

AAASMC: How much of Tesla's original laboratory remains, and are there plans to preserve and display it?  Are there any plans to recreate his tower?
Alcorn:
The original structure, a 94 ft. x 94 ft. brick building, is still there. It was designed by Stanford White, who was one of the most prominent architects of the time, and a friend of Tesla's. The building and the foundation of the Tesla tower are the most important structures on the property. We would like to restore it as much as possible, and it will be the first place that we work on. As for the tower, it is doubtful that we could reconstruct it, especially in light of current zoning laws, but we would like to have a scale model to show, and perhaps some other parts of it can be constructed for display.

AAASMC: You've been working on this project yourself for many years. How satisfying is it to finally be realizing your vision, which is apparently being realized just in the nick of time (as another buyer was poised to buy the property)?
Alcorn:
It is very gratifying to see the outpouring of support for this project. We've been overwhelmed with the worldwide response. It is also quite humbling to accept these contributions which represent the confidence of so many people that we can realize the dream. As of today, over 27,000 people from more than 100 countries have sent contributions to us. We are taking very seriously our responsibility to do the best we can to save and restore this property.

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