On March 18, 1916—one hundred years ago today—the New York World ran an article with the headline: “Tesla No Money Wizard; Swamped by Debts, He Vows.” The news followed a court filing that revealed the great inventor, Nikola Tesla, had no assets and owed thousands in back rent to the Waldorf Astoria, where he lived.
This moment in Tesla’s life marks a turning point: his great discoveries in alternating current, radio, telerobotics and other fields were all behind him. Tesla had been pursuing several projects, including the development of his bladeless turbine and marketing medical devices. But his company suffered from high overhead, and he was paying continuing legal fees in a fight to declare that his radio patents had precedence over those of Marconi. To have his financial difficulties aired so publicly must have been extremely painful for a man who made a point of living at the highest standards of Old World elegance.
Tesla’s financial trouble would also lead to the final destruction of his massive Wardenclyffe Tower. The domed tower, built at the eastern tip of Long Island, had been part of Tesla’s grand plan to beam information and ultimately, electric energy around the planet. By 1916, with the project stalled, Tesla signed over the Wardenclyffe property to the Waldorf Astoria. A year later, the hotel had it demolished, and its materials sold for scrap—a sadly anticlimactic end for a project that embodied a far more ambitious vision for radio broadcasting than Marconi’s.
Many inventors deal with terrible disappointments, and many find themselves swamped by investments in their own dreams. But Tesla’s ups and downs seem to have an epic sweep. While he continued to come up with large-scale ideas after 1916—including his “death ray” antimissile system—none would come to fruition. Instead, he became a sort of future-science seer, making predictions that were welcomed more as science fiction than as real-world technologies.
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Link to Violet Fire, the opera about Nikola Tesla I worked on as librettist: