STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we have the story of a dead inventor, an online cartoonist, and a librarian who is seeing her dream come true. The inventor once pursued a bold vision on Long Island, New York, but his lab is now a shambles. For years, a local group has wanted to turn that lab into a museum, but has not had much luck raising money. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that this week everything changed.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: One of the greatest American inventors ever was Nikola Tesla. Today he's kind of obscure, but during his time, he was world famous for thrilling feats of electrical engineering. Lighting up the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, harnessing the mighty Niagara Falls for electric power.
JANE ALCORN: He is the developer of the alternating current system of electrical transmission that we use throughout the world today.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jane Alcorn is a retired teacher and librarian. Like many people, she'd never heard of Tesla until her neighbors told her she was living right down the street from Wardenclyffe, the only Tesla lab that still exists. It's in Shoreham on Long Island, behind a six-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Earlier this week, Alcorn looked past the no trespassing and for sale signs to see the brick building. It's windows are boarded up, there's vines and weeds all around.
ALCORN: It looks lost and neglected. It looks abandoned. Its appearance right now is very derelict.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Wardenclyffe was going to be Tesla's crowning achievement. Behind the lab was a tower over 180 feet tall that reportedly shot sparks into the night sky.
ALCORN: Tesla dreamed of having this site be a place where he could transmit messages and pictures wirelessly. This is over a hundred years ago, something we're doing now but that he envisioned way back then.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Tesla's downfall began when Guglielmo Marconi beat him in the race for wireless communication. Marconi sent the first radio signals across the Atlantic and Tesla's funding disappeared. The tower was torn down. Tesla lived out his last years as a recluse in New York hotel, tending to pigeons and getting a reputation as a mad scientist. Wardenclyffe became a processing facility for a photography company. Eventually, it turned into a Superfund hazardous waste site that took years to clean up. Sometimes Tesla fans would make a pilgrimage, like Marc Seifer, who wrote a book called "Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla.
MARC SEIFER, AUTHOR: The first time I was there, I snuck on the property and my heart was beating rapidly because there I was, you know, touching the laboratory, and this man came running out the building and said, get off the property, get off the property. And I said, but - but it's Tesla's property. It's - don't you - get off.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He'd love to see it turned into a Tesla museum. That's been Jane Alcorn's dream for about 18 years. She heads a non-profit that hopes to buy the site. The problem has been money. Wardenclyffe has been on the market for over three years. The asking price is $1.6 million. Alcorn worries that a developer might raze the lab to build retail space or condos. A couple weeks ago, she heard that a potential buyer had emerged and she thought, oh, no.
ALCORN: I posted on our Facebook page that we needed help from whomever could send out the word to celebrities or people with deep pockets or anyone they thought might be able to give us assistance.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Several Facebook contacts sent her SOS to an online cartoonist named Matthew Inman, also known as The Oatmeal. He published a comic about Tesla, declaring him the greatest geek who ever lived. Inman agreed to help, and posted a funny-but-serious plea on his popular website.
ALCORN: And within the first six hours we had raised a quarter of a million dollars. Incredible.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Alcorn and her friends were glued to their computers night and day watching the numbers go up and up on a fundraising site. There's been over 20,000 contributors from more than a hundred countries.
ALCORN: They're everywhere. It's almost like an untapped underground of Tesla fanatics, and I think it's absolutely outrageous and wonderful.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In less than a week they reached their goal, over $850,000. Enough to get a matching grant from the state of New York, which means they could meet the seller's asking price. Yesterday, Alcorn said her group was talking with their lawyer about how to make an offer. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.