2003-08-13 / Editorials


Wireless Electricity Offers Choice
By Howard Schneider

The heat and humidity of summer elicit discomfort, distress and the inevitable public clashes between the energy industry and environmentalists over the construction of new electricity generation and distribution networks. These rows are particularly significant for those of us who live in Queens because, as a June 26 Gazette article pointed out ("Power Plant Protection Bill Passes"), northwest Queens contains a large number of power plants. Many people, I suspect, believe that each group has at least some justice on its side. New York City’s energy needs are very real and growing. But unfortunately, the air pollution discharged by the power grid is also quite real—and pernicious.

I have the solution to the concerned citizen’s ambivalence, a solution rooted not far away, in Shoreham, Long Island, when it was the site a century ago of a remarkable display of extravagant, outrageous ambition (and grandeur) engendered by yet another electricity-conveyance crusade. In 1901 the great inventor Nikola Tesla obtained financing from J. Pierpont Morgan to build an extraordinary tower on 200 acres of land in Shoreham, near Long Island Sound. Morgan thought he was funding an instrument that would broadcast radio signals over extremely long distances. Tesla didn’t tell the redoubtable financier that there was another, wildly audacious facet of his project: to disseminate wireless electric power. Designed by Stanford White, the wooden tower and its metal dome eventually rose 187 feet into the sky. Photos exist of the edifice, to my eye, it resembles a marvelous commingling of a Babylonian ziggurat and the Coney Island parachute drop. (The New York Times of March 27, 1904 described the structure as "very picturesque.")

Tesla (1856-1943) was a genius, among many other achievements, he played a vital role in the decipherment and implementation of alternating current, but he was also highly eccentric, a spendthrift and ingenuous in his dealings with tough businessmen. The Shoreham tower was bedeviled by chronic money problems, mostly because Morgan fairly quickly developed an antipathy toward the inventor and his undertaking. Though the tower was erected, Tesla was never able to initiate any of his bold electrical enterprises. By 1906, the venture was all but dead. In 1917, the tower was destroyed by Tesla’s creditors so that they could sell the fragments.

A strange, sad story. But it has persuaded me that Con Edison and its brethren ought to abandon the dicey dogmas they currently cherish and energetically (as it were) rebuild and activate, as quickly as possible, Teslas’s tower and its mechanism for the wireless—and environmentally congenial—distribution of electricity. Teslas’s impudently imaginative designs and blueprints are readily accessible in book form—you can check them out at Barnes & Noble.

At this point, the reader might be wondering if the author of this essay is as nutty as Nikola Tesla was reputed to be.

To that, gentle reader, I would reply: is my brainstorm any more bizarre than the schemes of the electricity establishment, schemes that involve the creation of funky, feckless power purveyors that could conceivably lay waste to what remains of New York City’s natural resources—and that will, in the end, do all too little to rectify the city’s energy problems?

Let’s construct Tesla’s enchanting apparatus right here in Queens.

Howard Schneider lives in Rego Park, where he follows the energy generating situation closely.

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