Homeschool Heroes: Nikola Tesla for Kids

Too often schools get caught up teaching to the test. And sadly, that means that some of history's most influential people get cut from the curriculum. This series, Homeschool Heroes, tries to right that wrong so that kids grow up "standing on the shoulders of giants", with real-life role models that drive them towards greatness. Because what would childhood be, really, without a hero or two?

Today's lesson plan? Nikola Tesla!

Ever wonder what historical geek invented the system of electrical currents that powers the whole planet, the neon lighting that powers the Vegas strip, the concept of remote control and the first hydroelectric power plant? Did you know it was the same geek who pioneered x-rays, radar, radio, transistors, electric motors, and wireless communications, most of which he received little credit for?

If you thought Tesla was simply the name of an expensive electric car, think again. It’s time to get to know… Nikola Tesla:

A Man from the Future

In 1856, Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia to an intellectual Serbian family: His mother was an inventor of household items and his father a priest. Nikola followed in his mother’s footsteps by studying as a scientist, but he had a hard time gaining support for his ideas in Europe. In 1884, he moved to New York City and worked for Thomas Edison.

At the Edison Machine Works, Tesla was charged with the task of redesigning Edison’s direct current generators, which required a power plant on every block because direct current can only travel short distances. Tesla solved the problem by creating alternating current, a long-distance power generation system. When Edison refused to pay Tesla fairly for this monumental discovery, the two parted ways.

Tesla’s alternating current system and the induction motor that powered it led to the creation of the Tesla Electric Company, which put his electricity system in direct competition with Edison, his former employer. Although Edison created a powerful smear campaign to dissuade people from using Tesla’s system, alternating current eventually won out and we still use it to power the planet today.

In spite of a number of other scientific achievements, Tesla suffered from asocial, hallucinatory and obsessive-compulsive habits and disorders. In his later years, this led to him spending much of his free time in New York City’s parks feeding pigeons, including one that Tesla claimed shot laser beams with her eyes.

At the age of 86, Nikola Tesla died in his New York City hotel room. Despite 300 patents, his handsome figure and well-liked (although shy) personality, and the relentless drive to enhance human knowledge, Nikola died penniless and alone. His life is both inspiring and cautionary.

Inventions and Ideas

In between his contentious battles with Edison, Nikola made time to create the first hydroelectric power plant in the world, at Niagara Falls, harnessing the power of rushing water to power a nearby city. Many of his other ideas, designs, and successful experiments were patented many years later by other inventors, including x-rays, radar technology, batteries, and remote controls.

But his most important invention, known as the “Tesla coil,” is an important piece of what makes all other wireless technology possible. It is still used in radios today. Through this, Tesla’s fascination with wireless electricity and technology became the obsession that finally led to his downfall, an unfinished tower in New York that aimed to create wireless energy to power the entire world.

Many of Tesla’s ideas and inventions were ahead of their time, and thus not accepted by the scientific community or the culture at large. Tesla’s ongoing feud with Edison, who was a better businessman and marketer, also contributed to Tesla’s financial ruin and business failures.

Tesla recorded radio waves from outer space, unsuccessfully pitched radar technology to the US Navy during World War, and created ball lightning in a laboratory experiment, all without receiving much credit.

Learn more about Tesla by reading the biography Nikola Tesla, the Genius Who Lit the World or watching Christopher Nolan’s film based on Tesla, The Prestige.

Celebrate Tesla

Since most of us will never be able to flourish into the truly tortured genius that Tesla was, the best way to remember him is to celebrate his genius, which helps most of us live our lives every day in comfort. Here are a few ways to do that:

Celebrate Nikola Tesla Day. Tesla’s birthday, July 10, is now celebrated in Croatia and parts of New York City where the Tesla Society hosts events and honors scientific achievement. Spend the day coming up with wild ideas and yes, doing experiments. Or… you could just feed the pigeons.

Visit the Nikola Tesla Museum. True, you’ll have to find your way to Belgrade, Serbia, to do it, but once you’re there, you can ogle over exhibitions of Tesla’s life work and diaries, examine 3D models, and explore the archives.

Support the Tesla Science Center. The Long Island facility where Tesla dreamed of creating a wireless electrical transmitter to power the world has changed hands many times. The Wardenclyffe Project, as it was known, had funding from several high profile investors, but Tesla was unable to finish it and the money eventually dried up. Today, the Tesla Science Center has purchased the property and plans to make it into a museum of Tesla’s achievements and a technology and innovation center for young geniuses. It’s a little closer to home, thankfully.

Triumphant and Tragic Life

Nikola Tesla’s monumental achievements and epic failures are a great teaching tool and an inspiration for all young inventors to keep trying, testing, pushing boundaries, and leaning in to their relentless geekiness.

Who are some of your heroes that you’d want your kids to look up to? Share with us!

Cover image via Lira

Tags : homeschool heroes   science   Nikola Tesla   

No Comments.