By W. Bernard Carlson
Leonardo da Vinci’s studio in Milan. Thomas Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Jobs and Wozniak in the family garage in Los Altos, California. Although we tend to think about creativity as an abstract, cerebral process, invention actually takes place in specific locations that inform the design and content of a device. For Nikola Tesla, nearly all of his creative work took place in Manhattan, and where he worked, lived, and played profoundly shaped his inventions.
Tesla landed in New York in June 1884. Having lived in cosmopolitan Budapest and Paris, Tesla was initially shocked by the crudeness of New York. As he wrote in his autobiography,
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What I had left was beautiful, artistic, and fascinating in every way; what I saw here was machined, rough, and unattractive. A burly policeman was twirling his stick which looked to me as big as a log. I approached him politely, with the request to direct me [to an address]. ‘Six blocks down, then to the left,’ he said, with murder in his eyes. ‘Is this America?’ I asked myself in painful surprise. ‘It is a century behind Europe in civilization.’
Fortunately, Tesla helped dig ditches for the installation of cables connecting the headquarters of the Western Union Telegraph Company with stock and commodity exchanges and he came to the attention of Alfred S. Brown who was supervising the work. Brown took a liking to Tesla and introduced him to Charles Peck, a lawyer who had just made a fortune by forcing Jay Gould to buy his Mutual Union Telegraph Company. Looking for a new high-tech venture, Peck and Brown decided to back Tesla in 1886.
To put his motor into production, Tesla moved briefly to Pittsburgh to work with the engineers at Westinghouse but he soon returned to Manhattan in 1889. Having learned that the German physicist Heinrich Hertz had detected radio waves, Tesla eagerly rented a new laboratory at 175 Grand Street in what is today Little Italy. There, Tesla perfected a high-voltage, high-frequency transformer that is now commonly called a Tesla coil.
To show how his high-frequency coil could be used for wireless lighting, Tesla lectured at the spring 1891 meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. In a lecture hall at Columbia University, [then at 49th Street between Madison and Fourth Avenues] Tesla offered a breathtaking demonstration. Two large zinc sheets were suspended from the ceiling and connected to a Tesla coil. With the lights dimmed, Tesla took a long gas-filled tube in each hand and stepped between the two sheets. As he waved the slender tubes, they glowed, charged by the electrical field set up between the plates.
To display his growing celebrity, Tesla now moved uptown. For his lodgings, Tesla chose the Gerlach Hotel on 27th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Built in 1888 at a cost of $1 million, the Gerlach was an imposing eleven-story fireproof building featuring elevators, electric lights and sumptuous dining rooms.
the fruits of ten years of toil and research were swept away. The web of a thousand wires which at his bidding thrilled with life had been twisted by fire into a tangled skein. Machines, to the perfection of which he gave all that was best of a master mind are now shapeless things, and vessels which contained the results of patient experiment are heaps of pot sherds.
Fortified by his friends and electroshock treatments from his coils, Tesla overcame his depression. In July 1895, he rented a new laboratory at 46 East Houston Street. There he employed
a clerk who attends to visitors, keeps away cranks, keeps a scrapbook, and sees that everybody who has real business with the inventor is provided with the latest copy of some scientific paper until Mr. Tesla is disengaged. He also has a dozen or more mechanics who are as loyal to him as Edison’s men are to him; but . . . the problems he sets for himself to solve do not permit their rendering him the same sort of assistance that the Wizard’s [i.e., Edison’s] men furnish to their employer.
Satisfied with these results, Tesla returned triumphantly to New York and to new rooms in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He also began courting investors for his wireless power scheme, and met with J.P. Morgan in his library in his home at 36th and Madison Avenue.
In response, Tesla proposed to Morgan that they manufacture receivers “no bigger than a watch” that could receive news, telephone messages, and telegrams from Wardenclyffe, but the financier refused to invest any more money. Meanwhile, Tesla discovered how difficult it was to pump oscillating currents into the earth. Distressed that he could not square physical reality with what he could see so clearly in his mind, Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown in 1905.
Over the next thirty-five years, Tesla worked on several more inventions, including a compact bladeless steam turbine that he hoped would be used in airplanes and automobiles. To attract investors, Tesla maintained offices first in the Metropolitan Life Tower and then the Woolworth Building, each of which at the time was the tallest building in Manhattan. As his fortunes declined, Tesla was moved to modest offices at 8 West 40th Street. Since he often fed the pigeons in nearby Bryant Park, the City has designated one corner of the park as “Nikola Tesla Corner.”
* Bernie Carlson is Professor and Chair of the Engineering and Society Department at the University of Virginia. A historian of technology and business, he has published widely on invention and entrepreneurship, and his newest book Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, has just been published by Princeton University Press.
 Nikola Tesla, Testimony in Complaint’s Record on Final Hearing, Vol. 1: Testimony, Westinghouse vs. Mutual Life Insurance Co. and H.C. Mandeville , Item NT 77, Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade Serbia, 195. Hereafter cited as NT Motor Testimony.
 William B. Nellis testimony; NT Motor Testimony, 122-3 and 132.
 Joseph Wetzler, “Electric Lamps Fed from Space, and Flames that Do Not Consume” Harper’s Weekly, 35 (11 July 1891): 524 in Iwona Vujovic, comp., The Tesla Collection: A 23 Volume Full Text Periodical/Newspaper Bibliography (New York: Tesla Project, 1998), 3:104-106. Hereafter cited as TC.
 “Mr. and Mrs. Gerlach Assign. Owners of Hotel Unable to Carry Heavy Debts Any Longer,” New York Times, 3 June 1894 and Moses King, King’s Handbook of New York City, 1893 (Boston: Moses King, 1893; reissued New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972), 1:230.
 Lately Thomas, Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967).
 Arthur Brisbane, “Our Foremost Electrician,” New York World, 22 July 1894, in TC 9:44-48.
 Walter T. Stephenson, “Nikola Tesla and the Electric Light of the Future,” The Outlook, 9 Mar. 1895, 384-386 in TC 9:116-118.
 Both quotes from “Fruits of Genius were Swept away.” New York Herald, 14 March 1895, in TC 9:119.
 George Heli Guy, “Tesla, Man and Inventor,” New York Times, 31 March 1895 in TC 9:140-42.
 “Nikola Tesla’s Work,” New York Sun, 3 May 1896 in TC 11:64-65.
 “Tesla Would Use Air as Conductor,” New York Herald, 27 Oct. 1897 in TC 13:129.
 “Nikola Tesla Dies: Prolific Inventor,” New York Times, 8 Jan. 1943.