Nikola Tesla performed engineering stunts in Colorado Springs with free electricity from the city.
Nikola Tesla performed engineering stunts in Colorado Springs with free electricity from the city.
Lightning-like discharges are shown from a Tesla coil, surrounding the inventor at his Colorado Springs facility in 1899. The AC induction motor was one of Nikola Tesla’s many legacies. Photo by Dickinson Alley/Century Magazine 1899
Lightning-like discharges are shown from a Tesla coil, surrounding the inventor at his Colorado Springs facility in 1899. The AC induction motor was one of Nikola Tesla’s many legacies. Photo by Dickinson Alley/Century Magazine 1899

Around the turn of the 20th century, Colorado Springs was a national center of technological innovation where entrepreneurs, youthful tycoons and venture capitalists from New York City, London and other European capitals came together. It was a time of extraordinary intellectual and entrepreneurial ferment, especially for a remote little town with a population of less than 30,000.

In that halcyon era its residents included Nikola Tesla, Dr. Gerald Webb, Charles MacNeill, Spencer Penrose, Charles Tutt and Daniel Jackling. Webb revolutionized the treatment of tuberculosis, McNeill, Penrose and Tutt revolutionized copper mining, and Tesla’s discoveries and experiments in electricity changed the world. Local investors, many of whom had made fortunes in Leadville and Cripple Creek, supported and funded any number of wild schemes.

Colorado Springs was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley, a city of 30-something millionaires and fearless risk-takers. Money flowed freely, nourishing the dreams of visionaries and the scams of con artists. The Colorado Springs Mining Stock Exchange was one of the leading stock exchanges in the world, briefly eclipsing the London and New York exchanges in both the value and volume of daily transactions.

MacNeill, Penrose, Tutt, Jackling

Twenty-seven-year-old Spencer Penrose stepped off the train in Colorado Springs in December of 1892. He was broke and without prospects, drawn to the foot of the Rockies by the prospect of partnering with his friend, Charles Tutt, and making a few bucks in the gold fields of Cripple Creek.

It must have seemed like a long shot. Penrose came from a prominent Philadelphia family, but nothing in his past predicted business success. The firm of Tutt & Penrose enjoyed much success, and by 1902 Penrose was a millionaire eager to find mining investment opportunities beyond Cripple Creek.

Jackling, an itinerant mining engineer, had a far-fetched copper mining scheme that he had unsuccessfully pitched to many of the mining magnates of the era. Jackling was convinced that the vast low-grade copper deposits in Bingham Canyon, Utah, could be profitably mined, particularly since the demand for copper was sure to explode in coming years.

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But no one believed him. In late 1902, Jackling returned to the Pikes Peak Region and took a job running a mill in Cañon City that was owned by Penrose, Tutt and their partner Charles MacNeill. Jackling pitched his deal to the three restless young entrepreneurs, who decided to go for it. Even though the prestigious Mining and Engineering Journal had warned investors against “Jackling’s Wildcat,” the three amigos from Colorado Springs weren’t deterred.

Capitalizing the new company with $500,000 in cash, the partners moved quickly. By the spring of 1903, they had acquired the property at Bingham Canyon and begun work on a preliminary pilot plant. It was an immediate success, and the partners set about raising money to begin large-scale mining. The big dogs of the mining industry who had previously dismissed the idea jumped in, eager to be in on the play.

Bingham Canyon pioneered the techniques of open-pit mining, as well as the technology of refining low-grade copper ore. The mine has been in continual production since 1906, yielding billions of dollars in profit to its owners.

Jackling’s Wildcat changed the world, and made the partners rich -— especially Penrose. From 1909 when Utah Copper began paying dividends until his death 30 years later, Penrose’s annual after-tax income from the venture averaged more than $1 million.

Charles Tutt and Spencer Penrose had dreams of riches mined from the hills of Cripple Creek. Photo by Margaretta M. Boas/Courtesy of Pikes Peak Library District
Charles Tutt and Spencer Penrose had dreams of riches mined from the hills of Cripple Creek. Photo by Margaretta M. Boas/Courtesy of Pikes Peak Library District

Dr. Gerald Webb

From the late 1890s until his 1946 death, Webb was one of the most widely known and respected physicians in America. His life work was the study of tuberculosis and he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the popularity of Colorado Springs as a haven for TB patients.

In those days before antibiotics, vaccination and modern health care, Webb was famed for his sympathetic bedside manner and his personal concern for patients. But unlike most of his peers, he was a dedicated research scientist.

He turned the back of his house at 1222 N. Cascade into a laboratory, where he sought to develop a vaccine against TB. It was a futile quest, but one which resulted in major scientific observations and discoveries.

“In experiments there,” wrote Helen Clapesattle in Dr. Webb of Colorado Springs, “he was the first in the United States to recognize lymphocytes as primary agents in inducing immunity.” Webb thereby helped to invent and actually named the new science of immunology.

So powerful was his national reputation as a TB doctor that Colorado Springs historian Marshall Sprague wrote in 1948 that a quarter of the new residents and houses built in the city since 1900 were there “because of the work and reputation of Dr. Webb.”

Webb’s legacy lives in the Webb-Waring Research Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado. It’s the successor to a stand-alone center for TB research first created in 1924 by Webb and Dr. James Waring. Nowadays, scientists at the center work on diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, arthritis and macular degeneration.

Nikola Tesla performed engineering stunts in Colorado Springs with free electricity from the city.
Nikola Tesla performed engineering stunts in Colorado Springs with free electricity from the city.

Nikola Tesla

Rodney Dangerfield’s comic complaint (“No respect, no respect, I get no respect at all!”) could be better applied to the life of Tesla. Dismissed for decades as an eccentric showman and would-be inventor, Tesla’s legacy is now understood and appreciated.

While working for George Westinghouse in the 1880s, Tesla invented the alternating current induction motor. Every one of the hundreds of millions of AC electric motors in use today is based on Tesla’s design. Tesla also invented and patented wireless transmission, but he wasn’t much good at profiting from his inventions; his legacy was obscured by contemporaries such as Westinghouse, Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi who appropriated and commercialized his work. Tesla filed more than 700 patents during his life.

Tesla came to Colorado Springs in 1899, thanks to $100,000 from John Jacob Astor and the promise of free electricity from the city’s privately owned power company. He sought to build a worldwide communications and electric transmission system centered here.

To that end, he built a gigantic modified spark generator — now called a Tesla coil — hooked up the power, pulled the switch and let her rip. Lightning-like discharges lit up the night sky and explosions were heard as far away as Cripple Creek. The power plant shut down and the city was plunged into darkness.

It didn’t work to his specifications, and Tesla left town soon after. His dreams and schemes may have been elusive, but they were hardly make-believe. Today, many historians would agree with Lord Kelvin, who said, “Tesla has contributed more to the science of electricity than any man in history.”

Will we ever again see such a golden age? That’s anyone’s guess, but Tesla would tell us to go for it. Lightning can strike again and again in the same place.

1 COMMENT

  1. Love the theme of this article. Colorado Springs helped to motivate me to leave civil service and go into business for myself in 1991. (That and having a menopausal government supervisor.) But I would hesitate to describe the business or political climate here now as being conducive to starting a business. It is tough to get CS citizens and neighbors to support a local business when they go rushing off to the corporate chain stores at every turn.

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