Tesla in Bankruptcy

Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower under construction
Tesla’s War­den­clyffe Tow­er

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.

See more posts on Tes­la:

Nikola Tesla

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link to Vio­let Fire, the opera about Niko­la Tes­la I worked on as libret­tist:

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola Tesla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Tesla in Bankruptcy”

  1. That’s as sad as it is beau­ti­ful. What a life, what a soul. Imag­ine if his ideas had come to fruition. Maybe not the death ray, but free elec­tric­i­ty for the whole world. 

    Thanks for your inter­est, research and cre­ative out­put around Tes­la. He was a remark­able man.

    1. Thanks so much, Louis! Yes, his life sto­ry has such res­o­nance, deep feel­ing, and those what-if moments when we start to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties Tes­la lived with. <3

  2. Thanks Miri­am.

    This is a sad but not uncom­mon sit­u­a­tion, espe­cial­ly for eyes and minds that meld into the future.

  3. Tesla’s ambi­tions were as grand as his ideas, and cap­i­tal­ism isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly hos­pitable to peo­ple like that. Unless they are colos­sal mega­lo­ma­ni­ac frauds, like a cer­tain con­tem­po­rary politi­cian.

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