Nikola Tesla was one of the most radical rule-breakers of science and is considered by many as the greatest inventor in human history. Science enthusiasts remember the engineer and physicist as one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, blending brilliance with the bizarre to give us free wireless energy, death rays, earthquake machines, remote controls, and green power.
But when Tesla relocated his lab to Colorado Springs, many locals feared that he was a danger to the community.
In 1899, Tesla was a curious 43-year-old with a monumental idea: Transmitting unlimited amounts of power to any place on Earth using wireless electricity. But to test his theory, he would need to become the first man to create electrical effects on the scale of lightning, and for that he needed money and space. As detailed in “Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla” by John Joseph O’Neill, Tesla moved from New York City to Colorado Springs with $30,000 from well-known businessman and Titanic traverser John Jacob Aster.
He also moved to the Springs specifically because the air was thinner and therefore more conductive, and because of a deal to receive free power from the El Paso Power Company. Here, with elevation and energy combined, he could realize his dream of transmitting electrical power without wires at high altitudes, and eventually to the entire world.
According to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, “Tesla arrived in Colorado Springs on May 17, 1899. His lab was located east of downtown Colorado Springs in a place called Knob Hill.” It was there that Tesla took a once-in-a-lifetime risk, all in the name of pursuing curiosity. According to O’Neill, the inventor constructed a large wooden experimental station, from which protruded a 140-foot metal mast bolstering a giant copper ball. Inside the station, and standing at nearly 50 feet in diameter, hid the largest Tesla coil ever created.
Outside of the lab, signs hung at the front door warning any inquiring watchers to “Keep Out. Great Danger,” along with a quote from Dante’s “Inferno,” “Abandon hope, all who enter here.”
For nine months, the station was energized with experimentation. In one test, Tesla set up rows of light bulbs in a field surrounded by wire. He was able to transmit power from the station through the air, creating an electrical field that lit up the bulbs using wireless electricity.
During Tesla’s time in his Springs laboratory, he attracted attention, particularly from residents who worried that he was meddling with God’s work.
His revolutionary Tesla coil could produce more than 123 million volts of power, creating artificial lightning around the laboratory and understandably alarming his neighbors. People walking in the area would see sparks flashing between their feet and the ground. Butterflies were electrified, seemingly disoriented and flying in circles. Light bulbs in the vicinity of the lab glowed with no visible power source, and it was not uncommon for sparks to jump forth from nearby water lines when touched.
The question became what would happen when this type of wireless electricity was sent across a huge area. Tesla tried this in the field by his laboratory, and nearby horses began to skip about because their horseshoes were reacting with the ground, further underlining safety concerns. According to reports from the time, the electrical discharge sounded like a huge thunderclap that could be heard 15 miles across the Colorado landscape.
It was crude, and it was dramatic, but Tesla created working wireless electricity. Unfortunately, this experiment also knocked out all power to Colorado Springs and severely damaged equipment at the El Paso Electric Company. Because of this, his free power came to an end.
Tesla’s electrifying lab in Colorado Springs was torn down to repay outstanding debts in 1904. But the scientist remained adamant that his experiments in Colorado Springs had proven that he could transmit electric power to anywhere on the planet. Did Tesla accomplish what he set out to? The jury is still out, but curious science enthusiasts can learn more by visiting the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum Archive Collection for more information and to view the collection of Tesla materials.