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Joseph Sikorski

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Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi are the subjects of Joseph Sikorski's newest documentary. Image courtesy of Apple TV

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Award-winning filmmaker Joseph Sikorski’s works include Arbor Day (1990), The Return of the King? (1993), Tower of Babble (2001), and Tower to the People: Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe Continues (2015). The subject of the last—Tower to the People—plays an integral part in his newest documentary, Invisible Threads: From Wireless to War. Co-written with Michael Calomino, Invisible Threads takes an intriguing look at the early days of wireless technology and the conflicts between inventors Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi. Central to the story is a mysterious radio station erected in West Sayville, New York, by the German-based company Telefunken in 1911.

At the outset, local residents had the impression the site was to be a chocolate factory. Changing its name to Atlantic Communications Company, Telefunken built its radio tower with little public knowledge. The Suffolk County News editor Francis Hoag investigated, revealing the organization’s actual purpose. From here, the film follows the rise of wireless communication and the conflicts between Tesla and Marconi. Eventually, World War I becomes central to the narrative.

Marconi focused on developing a method to send Morse code through long-distance wireless communication. In contrast, Tesla had broader aspirations: He wanted to send sound, pictures, power, and electrical lighting by the same means. Thus came the Marconi-Tesla wireless race. 

The Wardenclyffe Laboratory in Shoreham. Photo courtesy of Apple TV

Tesla’s interests lay in the process, and concerned himself less with the applications. Marconi became a brand, with early telegrams being dubbed “Marconigrams.” As wireless technology grew, its impact and uses expanded. In 1912, wireless messages sent from the sinking Titanic saved lives. This alone boosted the value of Marconi’s system. The friction between Marconi and Tesla led to accusations and eventual wrangling over patents and lawsuits that dragged on for years.

But the heart of the story is Telefunken, who shipped the component parts from Germany to Long Island, assembling the tower in near secrecy. The company quickly demonstrated the ability to send a message from Sayville to Germany—four thousand miles—without a relay station in between. Telefunken’s process refinement even surpassed Marconi, leading to the U.S. government expressing concern that a foreign power had this control.

An “instrument of peace, commerce, and goodwill” changed in 1914 with the outbreak of the European war. The fear that Telefunken exploited the station to aid the German war effort proved true. Even with government oversight and surveillance, Telefunken used the system to communicate with Berlin: Telefunken was a major cog in the spy network. 

Conspiracies, subterfuge, and disinformation were all part of the complicated situation that even involved the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania. The tale is rife with saboteurs, cryptography, and Secret Service involvement, swirling with disinformation, assassinations, and labor unrest. All led to America entering World War I and taking over Telefunken. 

The film touches on the growing anti-German propaganda inflaming the American populace, particularly directed towards immigrants. Sikorski states that the majority of German-Americans were pro-American in the rising anti-German atmosphere but were subject to a wide range of persecution.

One of the most fascinating chapters involves the “Nauen Buzz,” a puzzle centered around coded messages accidentally solved by amateur radio enthusiast Charles E. Apgar. Sikorski presents Apgar through actual audio interviews recorded in 1934.

Another intriguing section explores Telsa’s remote-controlled boats outfitted with weapons. After a demonstration, government representatives dismissed its value—losing the earliest example of drone warfare. 

Invisible Threads masterfully mixes interviews with historians, authors, scientists, and other experts (and even a descendant) with hundreds of photographs and newspaper clippings. Restored historical images and 3D models for new perspectives were created from existing 2D photos. In addition, Sikorski nimbly weaves archival footage and dramatic recreations. He eschews dialogue with the latter but presents them with voiceovers, ambient sounds, and compelling underscoring. Additionally, the film details architectural challenges and scientific innovations.

Sikorski wisely chose the rich, evocative tones of Tony Todd for the narration. Todd, best known as the titular villain in the Candyman series, conveys a perfect blend of interest, insight, and a hint of menace.

With Invisible Threads: From Wireless to War, Joseph Sikorski presents a detailed, intriguing chapter in the world of communication—“So much creativity, so much destruction.”— and Long Island’s place in that history.

The documentary is now streaming on Apple TV and a special 4K edition with exclusive extras is streaming on Vimeo On Demand.

The Wardenclyffe site in Shoreham. File photo by Erika Karp

“A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart,” reads one of many quotes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust” contained in “Tower to the People.” If this is so, Tesla’s heart must have been ablaze with electrical impulses and potential for change.

By Talia Amorosano

On Friday, people of all ages congregated at Shoreham-Wading River High School to celebrate a very special occasion: Nikola Tesla’s 159th birthday.

They came bearing monetary gifts in the form of ticket purchases to see filmmaker Joseph Sikorski’s “Tower to the People” Long Island premiere at the school, which is located a little more than a mile and a half away from Tesla’s Wardenclyffe laboratory. The proceeds from the event will be used to fund the continued restoration of the site — Tesla’s last.

Using bold, mixed media visuals, color saturated re-enactments and original photographs from the early 1900s, the film documents the history of Tesla’s work at Wardenclyffe, a former potato farm, where the inventor planned to complete what he anticipated would be his greatest invention and contribution to mankind — a 187-foot-tall tower capable of transmitting free wireless energy to the entire world.

“A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart,” reads one of many quotes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust” contained in “Tower to the People.” If this is so, Tesla’s heart must have been ablaze with electrical impulses and potential for change. Among the literal highlights of Tesla’s career documented in the film are his successful attempt to wirelessly illuminate incandescent light bulbs from three miles away, creation of the Tesla coil and introduction of alternate current electricity, reception of transmissions from stars and ability to produce artificial lightning that author and Tesla scholar Jack Hitt described as being “so powerful that the thunder of it was heard miles away.”

"Tower to the People" filmmaker Joseph Sikorski speaks at Shoreham-Wading River High School on Friday, July 9. Photo by Talia Amorosano
“Tower to the People” filmmaker Joseph Sikorski speaks at Shoreham-Wading River High School on Friday, July 9. Photo by Talia Amorosano

Unfortunately for Tesla, his brilliant moments are dimmed by disappointment during his later life. The film portrayed Tesla’s persistence when, among other negative events, former funder J.P. Morgan, refused to pay for the completion of the tower and even dissuaded other potential investors from financing him. After writing pleading letters and attempting to come up with the money himself, in an emotion-wrought scene, Tesla’s Wardenclyffe tower is destroyed by dynamite explosion, as ordered by the U.S. government.

However, “Tower to the People” does end on an uplifting note with the story of Wardenclyffe’s salvation through Internet crowd-funding; explorations of the modern-day property that is now owned by the nonprofit group, Tesla Science Center; and volunteer efforts to clean up Tesla’s run-down laboratory and turn it into a science center.

“As a kid, my parents could never get me to do yard work, but if you ask me to mow Tesla’s lawn, how awesome is that?” said a volunteer on the cleanup crew in the film.

Throughout the event, the crowd was clearly electrified, erupting into applause several times during key moments of the film, and afterwards honoring Sikorski’s homage to Tesla and Wardenclyffe with a standing ovation.

Most of the audience also stayed for a question and answer session with Sikorski and Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center, during which Sikorski expressed his belief that there are tunnels under Wardenclyffe and Alcorn revealed hopes to potentially excavate these tunnels after the primary grounds-cleaning goals are achieved, “as time and money permits.”

Finally, a special guest and distant relative of Tesla, Dusan Stojanovic, of True Global Ventures, took the podium to donate $33,000 to the Wardenclyffe project effort. He also gave money to three young inventors whose innovations were inspired by Tesla; most notably, giving $15,000 to a young man involved with creating clothing with his invention, the Electroloom, a 3-D fabric printer.

Alcorn hopes the completed science center will be open to the public in a few years, and in the meantime, plans to continue fundraising efforts until the property is fully restored.

If you are interested in donating to the science center, getting involved with grounds cleanup, or learning more about the Wardenclyffe property, check out www.teslasciencecenter.org.