Science fiction often presents us with two tropes: the mad scientist and the absent-minded professor. The former performs insane experiments for no discernible reason, and his insanity makes it impossible to tell what of his science is real and what is fantasy. The latter creates brilliant inventions but either loses them, misplaces the blueprints, or engages in some other wacky behavior that prevents the full potential of his inventions and discoveries from being realized.
As it happens, those tropes have some basis in reality. Nikola Tesla was a scientist and inventor who was contemporary and bitter rival of Thomas Edison. Among other things, Tesla created an earthquake machine and ran electrical experiments that created artificial lighting, as well as inventing the earliest radar and a number of other things that became crucial components to other inventions, such as the radio. Unfortunately, Tesla suffered a deep insanity that greatly impaired his personal life and his ability to commercially market his inventions.
This remarkable character was recently rediscovered and became a favorite topic of a web comic, The Oatmeal. The creator of The Oatmeal, Matt Inman, discovered that the site of one of Tesla's old laboratories was for sale and proposed the idea of buying the site and building a museum. (The idea is explained here.)
While the Seattle-based Inman is not your usual wealthy philanthropist, The Oatmeal has been hugely successful, with 2012 revenues of $500,000. And that doesn't include Inman's book deal.
But if Matt Inman clearly has some extra cash on hand, it's certainly not enough to buy a building (much less start a museum.) So he had to work to raise the necessary money. Part of the way he did this was by offering to write a web comic about anyone who gave over $33,000. Greg Tally and his wife, Meredith, owners of the Best Western Denver Southwest donated $35,000. Inman wrote about them, their unique hotel, and their reasons for donating. The hotel in question is located in an area rich in dinosaur fossils and the proprietors are dino enthusiasts. They have worked to make their hotel an educational experience incorporating the prehistoric elements of the region.
It is not clear when the Tesla museum will be up and running, but the fundraising is going well, attracting a number of donors. Not surprisingly, Elon Musk — who made his fortune with PayPal before founding Tesla Motors — kicked in some money. Dusan Stojanovic, an angel investor, put up $33,000.
It's an inspiring story and a fitting tribute to Tesla — inventive, unusual, and a little crazy.