Matthew Inman—the comic illustrator behind The Oatmeal—won a thumping victory against FunkyJunk's lawyer in June and raised more than $220,000 for cancer research and bear preservation. His latest campaign is to raise money to build a museum in memory of legendary inventor Nikola Tesla—and it's an even bigger hit.
Inman says his previous campaign was "more an act of self defense." A compelling story was at hand—a predatory lawyer drawing up a ludicrous suit against a victimized comic artist—so naturally, the Internet was interested. With the Tesla museum drive, there was no villain, and Inman was initially skeptical. "I wondered if people are going to get excited about an inventor who's been dead for 70 years," he says.
He never should have worried. The fundraiser turned out to be hugely popular, and the project crossed its $850,000 goal in six days. Earlier today, after the campaign had smashed the $1 million mark, Inman posted that: "At its peak, the campaign was raising $27,000 per hour, crashing Indiegogo, and probably setting some kind of land speed record in awesomeness."
The Wardenclyffe site in Shoreham, New York, was the location of an enormous tower that Tesla, who died in 1943, tried to build, with the ambitious goal of providing electricity to the rest of the world. When its owners put the land up for sale in 2009, then-assemblyman Marc Alessi agreed to pledge $850,000 in state money towards purchasing and restoring the project—if the Tesla Science Center could raise that money and spend it on the site first. With their window of opportunity to claim the cash expiring in the fall of 2013, the Center was in a bit of a hurry to raise funds, Tesla Science Center president Jane Alcorn wrote in an email to Fast Company. That's when Inman stepped in with his generous online army of Tesla fans.
Inman says the $850,000 goal was made in order to purchase the property, and any money over that amount will be used to build the actual museum.
Inman's fascination with the Tesla project began about two years ago. He felt like his slew of world-changing science projects didn't get the recognition they deserved. "Everyone knew who Thomas Edison was, and no one knew who Tesla was." First Inman wrote an essay-like comic for his book. That was followed by a web comic—Why Tesla Was The Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived. "When I wrote it I was like, it's way too long. This isn't a joke... I thought no one would like it." Inman had underestimated Tesla's power yet again, and the comic practically broke the Faceboook Like button. (To the tune of some 500,000 Likes in a week, Inman estimates.)
Incredibly, nearly 70 years since he died, unsung and penniless in a hotel room at the Hotel New Yorker, Tesla is making a major comeback. Musical Tesla coils are having their moment. There's the Tesla movie starring Christian Bale and Nicolas Cage as his rival, Thomas Edison, in its rumored cast. There are at least two film projects based on his life and work looking for contributions on Indiegogo.
As Tesla's self-appointed champion, Inman recently found himself getting tweets that Tesla's old workspace in New York was for sale, the Tesla Science Center was looking for donations, and perhaps he could do something about it. "With this army of Tesla fans who read my comics, combined with the success I had in June, I thought, we had a pretty good shot at raising some money."
He even wrote to Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX and—here's the money part—Tesla Motors. Musk responded, saying Tesla was a hero of his, and although the Tesla corp funds "need to be preserved for the operation of the business," he would make a made a personal donation to the project. "I will make a donation online and would be happy to talk to Jane [Alcorn]," Musk wrote in an email, after Jalopnik editor Matt Hardigree introduced Musk to Inman and the project. "It is important to make sure that the site is preserved."
Inman also says he was contacted by a group of GE aeronautics engineers who want to pool together and make personal donation. No word from Bale yet.
Inman isn't bothered by the fact that the museum he backs will be the second in the world. He's already visited the first one in Belgrade, where Tesla grew up, (in fact hopes the Serbian government will donate, sells, or lend some of Tesla's effects to the new site). Oddly enough, on the back of his Tesla comic hit, Inman was invited by the U.S. Embassy to go back to the museum to give a talk. (He turned it down, because it clashed with the timing of his book tour.)
Astute Googlers will notice a Tesla museum of a sort already claims to be the only Tesla museum in the U.S. and is located in Colorado Springs. So how does Inman feel about creating a buzz around the second museum on U.S. soil? This Tesla nut has done his homework. "I was in Colorado Springs six weeks ago. There's no museum, it's just a guy in the desert." Tesla had a Colorado Springs lab where he used to do some of his edgier experiments, and the site hosted a museum for a short time after Tesla died. But all that's gone. "Now it's just one guy and he does a traveling Tesla show and will come over to your school and hand out Tesla coils."
Inman is open to backing other public interest projects, and has an idea to do a yearly fundraiser. And it'll likely involve bears. "I use bears constantly," Inman admits, "If I'm having a slow comic day, I'm like, 'Fuck it, let's put some bears and poop in there. I feel like I owe the bears something."