Did Woodward High School in Toledo once have a real scientific treasure, and if so, where is it? For those of you familiar with the famed inventor Nikola Tesla, you already know that this Serbian-American genius was considered by many to be one of the greatest inventors and most brilliant minds of 20th century physics. His legendary innovations include everything from alternating current, the radio, the induction motor, the neon light bulb and many others. What you may not have known, according to a 1937 Toledo News Bee article, is that Woodward High School in Toledo was reportedly in possession of one of Nikola Tesla’s original Tesla coils that he used in his controversial laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado around 1900. The article from April 20th, of 1937, reports that a Woodward High School electric and radio teacher, Alpheus Bitter, had acquired one of the ten original Tesla coils from Colorado from a “garageman” who was selling them. The high elevation city of Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pike’s Peak, is where Tesla spent a number of years in a laboratory, (now the site of the city’s Memorial Park), developing a system to transmit electricity without the use of wires. It was Tesla’s quest. His long held belief that electric current at high voltages could be transmitted through the air and distributed without the cost of building wired networks. It sounds wacky, but Tesla was not to be taken lightly, he was after all, the man who invented, and is credited with, the development of alternating current and the hydro-electric station at Niagara Falls, New York. He was eccentric yes, but whether he had lost touch with reality with some of his ideas, is still up for debate. Historical records, for example, show that it was Nikola Tesla, and not Guglielmo Marconi who actually invented the radio, even though the latter is usually credited with fathering that major communication breakthrough.
But it was Tesla’s later efforts to find a sort of “wi-fi” system to transmit electric current through the air that brought skeptical attention to him. Many thought he had gone off the deep and had become the prototype of mad scientist, working alone in his laboratory using a system curious looking towers, antennae and large coils to shoot out bolts of lighting across the night skies. The heart of those experiments involved his now famous “Tesla Coil”, which can emit large bolts of artificial lightning by sending current through the air towards a grounding tower at the receiving end. (Every good sci-fi movie of the 1950’s included at least one Tesla Coil scene.)
The coil became the working symbol of Tesla’s concept and his name has been indelibly coupled with the device. By the 1930’s, however, Tesla’s famed laboratory in Colorado has been taken down and Tesla had long since moved away back to New York to continue his experiments there.
It was in the 1930’s that Toledo, Ohio teacher, Alpheus Bitter, is reported to have purchased one of the last remaining original coils from the Tesla lab that could generate up to a half million volts. Bitter, according to the article in the News Bee, brought it to Toledo for use in his electricity and radio classes at Woodward High School. And this particular news clippings says it was being displayed to the public for a special demonstration.
If the Toledo News Bee article is accurate, and Woodward High School did hold in its grasp one of the greatest science artifacts of the 20th century, where is it? I asked a Toledo Public School spokeswoman who says she was not aware of it, but would look into it and see if she could answer just where the large coil may have ended up. “It would be a find, indeed,” says Ottawa County antique dealer, and electronic hobbyist, Ernie Scarano, who owns Mantiques, a specialty antique store in Elmore. The centerpiece of his store, which features antiques for more masculine taste, is a working Tesla coil that he built himself. Ernie says that to his knowledge, no one in the world has an actual Tesla-made Tesla coil. There are thousands of Tesla coil winders around the world who are tinkerers and hobbyists, but he is not aware of anyone who actually owns a “real” Tesla coil. He thinks its value would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Lots of people around the world would want this, museums would want it.” But, once again, the question arises. Where is it? Did it get sold or salvaged, or stolen? Or it is gathering cobwebs in a forgotten closet.
Sadly, we may never find the answer to this mystery, as the historic Woodward High School building was taken down by wrecking crews a few years ago and the answer may have been buried deep in the rubble and carted off for salvage or junk.
As for the teacher who bought the Tesla Coil in Colorado and took it to Woodward High School, I have learned that Alpheus Bitter was not just a hobbyist-teacher who liked to tinker, but that he too was a brilliant engineer of electronic communication and had the credentials to prove it. In his 1992 obituary in the Toledo Blade, It is written that Bitter taught at Woodward High School until 1945 and influenced many young men to enter the field of electrical engineering. And that he was also responsible for helping put many Toledo TV and radio stations on the air, including WOHO, WTOD, WTOL, WSPD and WGTE-TV. Alpheus Bitter’s resume also included a long time stint as a consultant for Willys Motors in Toledo, in the 1940’s and 50’s, in their attempts to build television equipment, and designed the electronic glass cutting process for Owens-Illinois. In his later years, he lectured on electronics at the University of Toledo. Alpheus Bitter was 88 years old when he passed away from cancer at the Golden Haven Nursing home in 1992. he was well known and well respoected, but there was no mention in his obituary of the novel Tesla coil or what may have happened to it. He surely knew its value and perhaps he sold it to someone else who understood that this was, in the science world, as precious as a piece of art from one of the masters. Mr. Bitter may have taken the knowledge of its whereabouts to his grave. We can only hope that someone, somewhere is still holding Mr. Tesla’s holy grail in safekeeping, maybe here in Toledo.