Science Faction: Tesla Partisans Huddle at The New Yorker Hotel

Nikola Tesla.

Nikola Tesla.

On Monday afternoon, the Transom stopped by the Tesla Science Foundation’s “Why Tesla Matters” conference at the New Yorker Hotel, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the inventor’s death—an auspicious milestone marked by the choice of venue. The Serbian inventor spent the final years of his life here—in room 3327, where he died—and the hotel has long served as a place of pilgrimage for Tesla devotees. Just as John Lennon fans come to worship at the Dakota, fans of Nikola Tesla flock to the New Yorker.

“[Tesla’s] spirit is here with us,” said Marina Schwabic, the conference’s chair and executive director of the Tesla Science Foundation, gesturing excitedly around the lobby.

Though he was long neglected by the history books, a reinvigorated following has sprung up around the eccentric genius in recent years, casting Tesla as the unsung hero of modern science, and this enthusiasm was on full display at the conference. Entering the hotel’s second-floor lobby, the Transom was greeted by tables full of Tesla paraphernalia, from oil paintings and mosaics of Tesla’s mustachioed visage to clothes and instruments from the Lika region where he grew up.

We found Fred Immendorfer, vice president of the foundation, sitting behind a table selling posters. Many of the designs, like one with an eye with wings superimposed over a rainbow in outer space, looked like something one might find at Burning Man. For fans like Mr. Immendorfer, Tesla’s allure is more spiritual than scientific, and Tesla’s research has many associations with mystical and new age ideas. “It’s very emotional for me, because it’s all about consciousness, about helping the world and making the world a better place,” said Mr. Immendorfer, who then began to weep.

Tesla inspires a level of emotional intensity unusual at a scientific conference. Gordana Loncar, a Chanel-toting Serbian art dealer whose brother is the founder of the organization, described the night she spent sleeping in Tesla’s former room, after making her way to the top of a long waiting list. “It was a super-exciting feeling; it was magical,” she told the Transom. “I couldn’t quite sleep, to be honest.”

In the grand but fading Crystal Ballroom, the main business of the conference was taking place. We were disappointed to have missed some of the earlier presentations, which might have been more suitable for the Tesla-uninitiated, such as Saturday’s Serbian folk dance ensemble. Instead, when we arrived, a professor by the name of Gary Peterson was giving an impenetrable presentation on something called wireless energy transmission. His slides resembled something Matt Damon might have scribbled on a chalkboard in Good Will Hunting.

While the conference was populated by a fair number of respectable academics and researchers, lack of a Ph.D. was no impediment to contribution. As Ms. Schwabic put it, Tesla is “an inspiration for all the inventors and people who are out-of-the-box thinkers.”

Daniel and Erica Nunez, a husband-and-wife duo of independent researchers with no formal scientific background, were manning a booth demonstrating their system of energy-generating metal coils, which they believe have the capability to revolutionize energy production.

Ronald Patrick Marriott, another self-taught scientist, came over to show us the proofs for a new sphere of energy he had discovered, with which he claimed he could make, among other things, floating cruise ships. “I was born with this destiny,” he explained, showing us ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian drawings that he believes foretell his discoveries. “All my work is backed up with NASA,” explained Mr. Marriott, “I’m just the missing link.”

As the scheduled talks wound down, the Transom took the elevator up to the 33rd floor to visit the room where Tesla died. Our tour guide was Dr. Ljubo Vujovic, Belgrade-born physician and president of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York.

Tesla’s room and adjoining study, tucked away in a dim corner of the 33rd floor, were physically unremarkable from the exterior, save two small plaques celebrating his achievements. Nearby hung a gold-framed collage with photos of the inventor. Regardless, Mr. Vujovic was delighted by the new accoutrements.

“Ah do you see that! Beautiful,” he explained, pointing at the plaques. “They’ve really made it nice.”

Mr. Vujovic explained that it was he himself who was originally responsible for identifying the room where Tesla died. For his years of service to the cause, Mr. Vujovic received a Tesla Spirit Award at this year’s conference, dubbed The Tesla Lifetime Award.

His fellow award winner that weekend? The New Yorker Hotel, which received the prestigious “Tesla Historical Shrine Award.” Both well deserved.

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