How One Guy Raised $1.3 Million for a Tesla Museum

Matthew Inman, creator of the humor site "The Oatmeal," led an online drive that raised over $1 million for a new museum to honor the inventor Nikola Tesla. Inman discusses how to build a successful crowdfunding campaign, and why Tesla is the greatest geek who ever lived.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. If you're listening to our program over the radio today, you have Nikola Tesla to thank. Many of the things we take for granted now - electricity, radar, X-ray technology - come from research done by Tesla about a hundred years ago. But even though he's been come - he's come to be known as the father of the electric age, Tesla died penniless and largely forgotten in 1943.

Skip ahead to present time and enter Matthew Inman, creator of the website The Oatmeal. You may have seen and laughed at his comics, and if you haven't, to get a flavor of them, go to our website at sciencefriday.com to see his one about Tesla. Inman partnered with a nonprofit called the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe on a mission to raise money to buy Tesla's lab in Shoreham, New York, and turn it into a museum. And here's the amazing part: they did it. They raised over $1.3 million from the public to fund a science museum. There's hope yet. Matthew Inman joins me from Atlanta. Welcome to the program and congratulations.

MATTHEW INMAN: Oh, yeah, thanks for having me.

LICHTMAN: Who are these people that gave to your campaign?

INMAN: From what we can tell, they've donated from - I think it was over a hundred countries in terms of geography. It just sort of struck a nerve across the world.

LICHTMAN: Why do you think that is?

INMAN: I think a big part of it was that Tesla as a man is sort of someone that a lot of people, maybe, sympathized with because he's kind of a geek at heart. He's sort of this unsung hero, and he did all of these wonderful things for us and didn't really get much credit during his career. So with this sort of crowd funding campaign, it was almost an opportunity for the world to make it up to him.

LICHTMAN: What drew you to getting involved?

INMAN: I made a comic about him earlier this year, and I sort of rallied this fan base of Nikola Tesla fans. And then I actually was involved in this little lawsuit in June. It was unrelated to Tesla. But as part of this lawsuit, I ended up starting a charity campaign, a crowd funding campaign to raise money for cancer and for the National Wildlife Federation. And it was a huge success. We raised like 10 times the amount of money we needed. Instead of raising 20 grand, we raised $211,000.

So then I heard in August about this real estate in Long Island that was up for sale that was Nikola Tesla's old laboratory, and I figured with my army of Tesla fans on the Internet and my previous experience with crowd funding, I thought I would be the perfect person to come in and see if I could make a difference.

LICHTMAN: Your comic, I think, is titled "Why Nikola Tesla Was The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived." Would you mind making that case for us?

INMAN: Well, you know, in my opinion, a geek is somebody who obsesses, and who tinkers and who tries to kind of take apart the world - whether that's, you know, in a literal way by disassembling things or reassembling them or in a figurative way by being a writer or a musician or something like that. And Tesla was sort of the embodiment of that. He was almost like a - sort of like a Steve Wozniak, in a way, in that he was kind of this brilliant workhorse that maybe early on was a bit naive about money. He wasn't really concerned with that. He was just concerned with seeing what he could do to the world and how he could change it.

LICHTMAN: And didn't quite get the same glory as Edison.

INMAN: He did not, no. He was - he wasn't great at marketing himself, and he wasn't great at making money. He was brilliant. He was a genius, but he was not a businessman.

LICHTMAN: What does this site look like, this old lab of his? Are there things lying around like his tools, or a half-eaten bag of chips or something that could be auctioned off?

INMAN: Actually, you know, the property itself is a mess. It's been broken into by, like, vandals, and it looks like the inside of the Titanic. But I was talking to someone a few days ago, actually, who was saying that when they originally - the new - after Tesla lost the land, a film company came in and took it over and was working there, producing film for like 40 years. And a lot of Tesla's old equipment was still there. So what they actually ended up doing with a lot of it was just burying it. So there's actually some people think that some of his old stuff is still underneath there, including - there's a room and he built some sort of underground resonance chamber. I don't know what that means; it sounds impressive. But it might still be down there like this giant, big, crazy Tesla room. So, you know, I don't...

LICHTMAN: That would be exciting.

INMAN: That would be cool to dig out stuff, but I don't know if it's there or not. But it still kind of gives the property a bit of, I don't know, bit of magic.

LICHTMAN: So what's the plan for the property? I mean, you guys raised enough money to build it, I think with a grant from New York State too?

INMAN: Yeah, there was a matching grant from New York State. The land was listed at 1.6 million and they had a matching grant from New York State for 850 - 850,000. So we needed to raise 850 in order to buy it. And the nonprofit has officially bought it, and there's quite a bit of money left over. So the plan from here is to take the money we have and to renovate the building, the primary Wardenclyffe laboratory that's still there, and clean the property.

And, you know, it's not enough to make a fully, you know, they have this sort of vision of like a fully functional kind of science center with exhibits that are interactive and all that kind of thing, and we don't have enough money for that, but we don't have enough money to at least get it ready and get started.

LICHTMAN: Are you surprised that you could raise this amount of money for a science museum?

INMAN: For a science museum, yeah. I didn't, you know, it's astounding to me to see people, you know, because I work in a medium where my fans and my readers are very eager to click on things and refresh things and like things and post things. But all those things require is a mouse click. So seeing them raise - I think at our peak we were raising like $27,000 an hour or something.

Seeing them raising that money to basically, you know, restore the legacy of an inventor who's been dead for 70 years was astounding, that they would not only act on it and, you know, on Facebook but they would actually like pull out their credit card and donate was really cool to see.

LICHTMAN: I mean, your site gets something like seven million visitors a month?

INMAN: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: Wow.

INMAN: So that, that audience helps too, having those people, you know, kind of at bay, you know, willing to sort of jump in at, like, my command and help out when necessary. And like I said before, a lot of those people who read my site are also Tesla fans, so that's sort of a double reason for them to be willing to commit to a campaign like this.

LICHTMAN: I mean, just given the amount of sort of Twitter buzz about your appearance on our show, I get the impression that you're a cult figure on the Internet. Do you think you might use your powers of persuasion for other things in the future?

INMAN: I would love to. I'm - I've kind of got, you know, I've been watching for some other great campaign to show up that I could kind of dive in and help. There was one recently that I - by the time I caught it, it was already over. But it was this guy who - he built this plastic air gun that you put salt in it. And it's called the BUG-A-SALT. And it shoots salt at high speed, and it can shoot flies instead of swatting them. And it was just like ridiculous but kind of awesome.

(LAUGHTER)

INMAN: And I saw that and I thought that would be kind of a lighthearted, fun one to sort of jump in. We'd be like, hey, I like the BUG-A-SALT. Let's all donate so this guy can get his prototype off the ground.

LICHTMAN: Other than that, do you have any projects that you'd like to do?

INMAN: Me personally, not right now. I'm so busy with, you know, I've got...

LICHTMAN: You're promoting a book, right?

INMAN: Yeah, I've got a book going on, and I'm trying to work on some animation stuff. And, you know, and I don't need a crowd-funding campaign to do most of that stuff. It's just me and a couple cups of coffee at home on the computer. So I'm fairly low-budget with my needs at the moment.

LICHTMAN: Tell me a little bit about this book before we let you go. It's "How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You"?

INMAN: Yeah. It's basically a collection of funny cat comics ranging from how to tell if your cat thinks it's a mountain lion. There is another one that will show ways to identify if your cat is a raging homosexual. So it's this kind of a mixed bag of weird cat...

LICHTMAN: News you can use, in other words.

INMAN: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: Thank you for joining us today, Matthew Inman.

INMAN: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

LICHTMAN: Matthew Inman is a comic artist and the creator of The Oatmeal website. Really do check it out. It's hilarious. He's also the author of a new book called "How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You," which is on shelves now.

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