I’m guessing a number of kids would recognize “Tesla” as the name of a car, but not so many would know the car was named for the engineer Nikola Tesla.
This book, part of the excellent series by Chicago Review Press featuring educational content plus twenty-one related activities, will help remedy that information gap. Tesla, born in 1856, came up with inventions that laid the foundation for many technological advances from which we continue to benefit more than 100 years later.
The author, a former teacher, begins with a timeline of Tesla’s life so kids can situate him in history, and then moves on to “Electrified Beginnings.”
Tesla was born in what is now Croatia to a Serbian family. (If you travel to Croatia, you will get a sense of how the Serbian-Croatian rivalry extends to Tesla and to which country gets to “claim” him. When we were in Croatia, none of the celebratory tributes mentioned Tesla was an ethnic Serb.)
He was a brilliant student; at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz in the Austrian Empire, the list of classes he took his first year is stunning: arithmetic, geometry, physics, calculus, chemistry, mineralogy, machinery construction, botany, wave theory, optics, French, and English. In his “spare” time, he started a club for Serbian students. Then he changed his major and added yet more courses to his schedule. (He reported later “I regularly started my work at three o’clock in the morning and continued until eleven at night, no Sundays or holidays excepted.”) For a while he dropped out of school and turned to obsessive gambling instead, sometimes going for 24 hours straight. (He also counted steps, calculated the mathematical volume of his soup, insisted the numbers of everything with which he was provided was divisible by three, etc. In fact, one of the sidebars explains that historians now believe Tesla had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Oh really? How could they tell?)
Tesla received an advanced education in engineering and physics in the 1870s and gained practical experience in the early 1880s. In 1884 he emigrated to the United States, where he would eventually become a naturalized citizen. One of the many informative sidebars in the book describes what Tesla would have seen upon his arrival in New York City in 1884. (The Brooklyn Bridge had just been completed, and Chester Arthur was president. The cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty was laid that year, and the Washington Monument was completed in Washington, D.C.)
Most notably for Tesla, he would have learned that almost all electrical systems in America were run by direct current (DC), whereas Tesla believed alternating current (AC) held more promise. (Another sidebar explains the difference.)
Tesla worked for a short time for Thomas Edison in New York City. A sidebar lauds Edison as “the Wizard of Menlo Park,” with 1,093 patents to his credit. But Edison’s achievements did not extend to the development of his character. Edison took credit for inventions by Granville Woods, an African-American, because at that time, black inventors had little if any protection for their intellectual property. He also stiffed Tesla, not once, but twice.
Tesla was denied a bonus with Edison’s company in Paris, and he was later denied a bonus promised by Edison himself in 1885. Tesla had tripled the output of Edison’s generators, a feat for which Edison promised Tesla fifty thousand dollars if he could accomplish it. When Tesla asked for his bonus, Edison replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.”
That incident caused Tesla to start his own company, where he was finally able to work on the AC motor he envisioned. He filed his first patent on April 30, 1887, “marking the beginning of Tesla’s successful 15-year inventive streak.”
George Westinghouse attended a lecture by Tesla and was intrigued by his ideas. Westinghouse, a pioneer in the electrical industry, held over 300 patents during his lifetime. But, as the author points out, he was also a savvy businessman, a quality Tesla could not claim for himself. Westinghouse was interested in the commercial potential for alternating current, but knew the associated high voltage was a problem, one that his own engineers could not solve. Westinghouse offered Tesla a consultancy, which Tesla accepted. (As the Tesla Society explains, direct current was inadequate for long distance transmission. Consequently, a DC power station was required at intervals every two miles. If the danger of AC’s high voltage could be minimized, AC would be a better and less expensive choice for long distances.)
Thereafter began “The War of the Currents” between Edison and Westinghouse (with Tesla’s help). Edison realized that if AC systems gained in popularity, his DC empire could be destroyed. Edison employed fear tactics to sway the public, arguing that AC was too dangerous. He and an electrical engineer who had a talent for adverse propaganda electrocuted live animals – including abducted area pets! – to show the dangers of AC. Edison was also adept at coming up with catchy nicknames and sayings to play upon the prejudices of the public. O’Quinn writes, “Edison began to refer to deaths by electrocution as being ‘Westinghoused!’” When the New York prison system voted to replace death by hanging with an electric chair, Edison had his engineer design one for them – using a Westinghouse AC motor.
But thanks to the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) in May 1893, many visitors became aware of, and impressed by, the uses of alternating current. The Fair helped decide the outcome of the War of the Currents, which ended with a victory for Westinghouse and Tesla.
Tesla’s AC induction motor and related AC patents, licensed by Westinghouse Electric in 1888, became the cornerstone of the system used to distribute alternating-current electrical power.
Tesla suffered a serious personal and professional setback when his lab caught fire in 1895. Everything was destroyed, from expensive equipment to notes, models, and plans. Tesla plunged into a depression, and this allowed Guglielmo Marconi to advance in the race for the transmission of radio waves (not surprisingly, known as the “Radio Wars”). Marconi went on to “beat” Tesla, albeit using at least 17 of Tesla’s patents in the process. Nevertheless, Marconi was proclaimed the “father” of radio. Moreover, in 1909, Marconi shared the Nobel Prize in physics for contributions to wireless telegraphy. The author writes: “Not until after his death in 1943 did the U.S. Supreme Court finally rule that Tesla, and not Marconi, was the true inventor of the radio.”
During the 1920s and 1930s, short on cash, Tesla tweaked old inventions, designed some new ones, and worked on an autobiography. He developed an obsession with pigeons, and ran up bills at a series of hotels, being kicked out of them one by one (in part, because of excessive pigeon droppings in his rooms). Finally, the Westinghouse Corporation came to an agreement with the New Yorker Hotel, allowing Tesla to live there rent free for the rest of life.
Like the other books in this series, this one has twenty-one projects for kids that extend the lessons imparted in its history to other subject areas. Readers will learn how to build a simple electric circuit, communicate with Morse Code, make a soda bottle submarine, build a waterwheel, and mix fluorescent slime, inter alia. The activities are fun, easy, and educational.
Evaluation: This book and the others in the series provide an outstanding supplement to school materials for older kids. There is also plenty here to help readers develop an understanding of the importance of “research and development” and adequate funding for it, as well as what “intellectual property” entails and why patents matter so much. The narration is appealing and accessible, and is interspersed with plenty of photos and graphics and to mix it up and keep it interesting.
Published by the Chicago Review Press, 2019