Nikola Tesla for Kids: His Life, Ideas, and Inventions, with 21 Activities

Nikola Tesla for Kids: His Life, Ideas, and Inventions, with 21 Activities

by Amy M. O'Quinn
Nikola Tesla for Kids: His Life, Ideas, and Inventions, with 21 Activities

Nikola Tesla for Kids: His Life, Ideas, and Inventions, with 21 Activities

by Amy M. O'Quinn


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Finalist for the 2020 AAAS / Subaru SB&F Excellence in Science Book exemplify outstanding and engaging science writing and illustration for young readers

Nikola Tesla was a physicist, electrical engineer, and world-renowned inventor whose accomplishments faded into oblivion after his death in 1943. Some considered this eccentric visionary to be a “mad” scientist, but many of his ideas and inventions that were deemed impossible during his lifetime have since become reality. He is now acknowledged to have invented the radio ahead of Marconi. Tesla was undeniably eccentric and compulsive. Among other things, Tesla developed generators, fluorescent tubes, neon lights, and a small remote-controlled boat. He also helped design the world’s first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls. 
Nikola Tesla for Kids is the story of Nikola Tesla’s life and ideas, complete with a time line, 21 hands-on activities, and additional resources to better understand his many accomplishments.Kids will:
  • Construct an electric circuit
  • Explore Tesla's birthplace online
  • Investigate the nature of electromagnetic waves
  • Mix up batch of fluorescent slime
  • "Visit" the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition 
  • Build a soda bottle submarine
  • And more!

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780912777214
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/09/2019
Series: Chicago Review Press For Kids Series , #72
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.30(d)
Lexile: 1210L (what's this?)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Amy M. O’Quinn is a former teacher and the author of Marie Curie for Kids. She is also a freelance educational writer who has contributed to Jack and Jill, Learning Through History, Guideposts for Kids, Highlights for Children, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, and Homeschooling Today. 

Read an Excerpt



A child of light. — Duka Tesla

On the stroke of midnight between July 9 and 10, 1856, a newborn's cry echoed through the Tesla farmhouse near the small hamlet of Smiljan, in what is today the country of Croatia, near the Bosnian border. According to family legend, thunder rumbled and lightning flashed as a violent summer storm coincided with the baby boy's entrance into the world. The frightened, superstitious village midwife turned to the infant's mother and lamented, "He'll be a child of the storm."

"No," Duka Tesla replied. "A child of light."

Little did the baby's mother realize how prophetic her words would be. The child born during the fierce storm that night was Nikola Tesla, and his inventions and ideas would one day electrify and revolutionize the world.

The Teslas

The Teslas had moved to the area about a year before Nikola was born. Nikola's father, Milutin, was a Serbian Orthodox priest who'd been assigned to the church near the village of Smiljan, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When they first arrived at their new home in 1855, Milutin and Duka already had one son and two daughters — Dane (pronounced DAH-nay), Angelina, and Milka. Nikola was the fourth child and second son in the family, and his youngest sister, Marica, was born in 1858. The family lived in a home next to the church, and life was full and busy with church duties, farmwork, and exploring the beautiful countryside.

Although they lived in Austrian Croatia, the Teslas were proud of their Serbian ethnicity and heritage. In fact, Nikola's paternal grandfather was an army officer who had served under Napoleon during the Serbian Revolution. Nikola's father, Milutin, had ambitions to join the military as well, but he found that philosophy, literature, and poetry were far more to his liking. Moreover, while enrolled in a military academy, he'd taken offense to being criticized by an officer for not keeping his buttons polished.

At the time, the two most respected professions for educated Serbs were either military or church related, so the disillusioned Milutin decided to follow in the footsteps of other esteemed Tesla relatives instead and become a priest. This decision also meant that he would have the opportunity to continue his education and use his influence to call for social reform. According to Nikola, Milutin, using the pen name "Man of Justice," published editorials in local newspapers in the early years of his priesthood that called for "social equality among peoples, the need for compulsory education for children, and the creation of Serbian schools in Croatia."

Milutin's intellect and actions impressed many people, especially those who were educated themselves. The young priest also caught the attention of Duka Mandic, a daughter from one of the most prominent land-owning Serbian families in the area. (Translated, the name Duka means Georgina.) The two married in 1847, moved to a parish at Senj near the Adriatic Sea, and started their family.

The Mandíc Family

Like the Teslas, Duka's family tree also included several distinguished ancestors. Her maternal grandfather, a priest named Toma Budisavljevic, was presented with a French merit award called the Legion of Honour from Napoleon in 1811. Toma was recognized for his leadership when Croatia was occupied by France. One of his daughters, Soka, married a Serbian minister named Nikola Mandic, who also came from a notable military and clerical background. They had eight children, and Duka, who was born in 1821, was the eldest.



The Tesla family lived in Croatia, yet they were ethnically of Serbian descent. But when Nikola was a child, Croatia was part of the massive Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbia, which is farther east, was part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, Croatia and Serbia became part of a new country called Yugoslavia. But in the 1990s, Yugoslavia began separating into self-governing countries, and both Croatia and Serbia regained their names and independence.

Examine the map to see how the boundary lines of Europe and the Balkan Peninsula looked in the 1800s. Map and label how the same areas look today.

You'll Need

* Library or internet access

* Current map of Europe showing the Balkans

* Paper * Pen or marker

1. Print a current map of the Balkans as they look today. Find one online, such as the PDF at

2. Use an online source to identify and label the countries of Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, and Slovenia, as well as the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas. Label the following cities: Belgrade, Budapest, Gospic, Graz, Karlovac, Maribor, Sarajevo, Smiljan, and Zagreb.

3. Use this map as a reference when learning about Tesla's life and travels in southern Europe.

One of Duka's brothers, Pajo, became a field marshal in the imperial Austro-Hungarian Army. Another Mandic ran an Austrian military academy. A third brother, Petar, entered a monastery and eventually became the regional bishop of Bosnia.

Unfortunately, the Mandics' mother, Soka, lost her eyesight when Duka was still quite young, and all the household duties fell upon the oldest daughter's shoulders. Because of her many responsibilities at home, Duka was unable to go to school, and she never learned to read or write. However, she was gifted with an amazing memory, and she could recite long Bible passages and epic Serbian poems. As an adult, she became a supportive wife to her priest husband, a tireless mother to her five children, and a skilled and artistic home manager. But Duka was also a talented inventor.

According to Nikola: "My mother descended from one of the oldest families in the country and a line of inventors. Both her father and grandfather originated numerous implements for household, agricultural, and other uses. She was a truly great woman, of rare skill, courage, and fortitude, who had braved the storms of life and past thru [sic] many a trying experience."

Almost everything in the Tesla home was a product of Duka's hands and hard work. She was an excellent needlewoman and was well known in the area for the beautiful tapestries she embroidered. An even more unusual accomplishment was that she invented many time-saving tools to help her with her daily work, including a mechanical egg beater. According to her son, Duka's fingers were nimble enough to tie three knots in an eyelash, even when she was past 60!

In his autobiography, Tesla credited his own inventiveness to his mother's influence. He also said, "My mother was an inventor of the first order and would, I believe, have achieved great things had she not been so remote from modern life and its multifold opportunities."

Escapades, Exploration, and Early Inventions

All the Tesla children delighted in playing outside and roaming the countryside. In many ways, Nikola and his siblings had an idyllic childhood. There was always something to do and an adventure to be had. Nikola enjoyed animals, and in fact he often seemed to interact better with animals than people. The family cat, Macak (the pet's name was also the Croatian word for "cat"), brought him special joy, and many years later he referred to Macak as "the fountain of my enjoyment."

Macak also provided young Nikola with his first experience with static electricity as he stroked the cat's back one cold, dry evening. "Macak's back was a sheet of light and my hand produced a shower of erupting sparks loud enough to be heard all over the place. My father was a very learned man, he had an answer for every question. 'Well,' he finally remarked, 'this is nothing but electricity, the same thing you see in the trees in a storm.'" Nikola Tesla never forgot this early episode, and it triggered his imagination and lifelong fascination with electricity.


All matter is made up of atoms, which are the smallest particles of an element. An atom is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The negatively charged electrons orbit around the nucleus, or the center of the atom, which is made up of positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. These negative and positive charges attract to hold the atom together.

Sometimes, however, something will happen to cause an electron to break away from the atom, and this separation can create a current or flow of electricity. In fact, if the movement of electrons is controlled in a circuit, and it's powerful enough, it can do fantastic things.

For example, with millions and trillions of electrons moving along a good conductor (such as copper), they can power trains, service factories, or even light up the lamps in your home. Good conductors of electricity allow the electrons to flow easily, with little resistance. Poor conductors of electricity, such as glass, plastic, rubber, or wood, are called insulators.

There are two types of electric current — direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC).

How are they different?

The electrons in direct current flow continuously in one direction. Batteries, cell phones, and computers are all examples of items that use direct current.

The electrons in alternating current flow in both directions, alternating back and forth, many times per second. The result is that they don't actually move with the current flow. Instead, they sort of wiggle one way and then the other without really going anywhere. Most household appliances, power distribution systems, and electric and lighting circuits in homes and businesses run off alternating current.



Static electricity is the buildup of an electric charge on the surface of an object. The word static means stationary or still. The electric charge stays in one place rather than moving or flowing to another area. Static electricity can even build up on you! For example, have you ever rubbed your feet against carpet, then touched a doorknob? Zap! That's static electricity being transferred from one object to another.

See if you can spark some static electricity with this experiment.

You'll Need

* 2 balloons (12-inch [30-centimeter] work well)

* 1 string, 36 inches (91 centimeters) long

* 3-inch (8-centimeter) square of 100 percent wool fabric

* 1 sheet tissue paper, torn into 1-inch pieces

* Plastic comb

1. Inflate and tie off two balloons.

2. Tie one balloon to each end of a 36-inch (91-centimeter) string.

3. Rub woolen fabric against one balloon and then the other.

4. Hold the string in the center, so that both balloons are hanging down, side by side. What happens?

5. Now try rubbing one of the balloons back and forth against your hair. Then slowly pull it away. What happens?

6. Now place torn tissue paper pieces on a flat surface. Run a plastic comb through your hair or rub it with woolen fabric to charge it with static electricity. Hold the comb near the tissue paper pieces.

What happens?

Rubbing the balloons against the wool or your hair gives them a negative charge. Since like charges repel each other, and both balloons have a negative charge, they will push away from each other.

When you pull the balloon away from your hair, it will make your hair rise up toward the balloon. The balloon took some of the electrons away from your hair, leaving it with a positive charge. Since opposites attract, your hair will lift up in the direction of the negatively charged balloon.

The same explanation goes for the comb and tissue paper pieces. When you pull the comb through your hair or rub it against the wool, it becomes negatively charged. The tissue paper pieces have a positive charge. Opposite charges attract, so the tissue paper pieces jump up toward the comb.

It's not magic — it's static electricity!

Nikola had his share of excitement and escapades. He had a vivid imagination and great curiosity, which got him into trouble many times as a young boy. Once he became lost and was accidentally locked up in an old country church all night, while family and friends looked for him. Another time, he fell into a vat of hot milk, which luckily had not reached a temperature high enough to scald him.

During one impassioned game, Nikola attacked his mother's cornstalks and battled them to the ground with a wooden sword, pretending to be a Serbian hero conquering his enemies. Upset that Nikola had needlessly destroyed some of the family's food sources, Duka spanked her son and quickly ended the game. He also figured out that it was unwise to take apart his grandfather's clocks when he did not know the secret to putting them back together again. More punishment followed when he broke several farmhouse windows while firing his homemade cornstalk popgun.

Due to his interest in the barnyard chickens and other birds, Nikola became fascinated by the idea of flight and decided to try it out for himself. He took an umbrella and climbed to the top of the barn. Believing that the umbrella would work like a parachute and allow him to gently drift down to the ground, he jumped. The disastrous experiment resulted in a fall that shook him up badly. Although no bones were broken, Nikola spent the next six weeks in bed recovering from his bruises and the bad experience.

Nikola also liked to tell a humorous family story about two of his elderly aunts. They both had wrinkled faces, but one had "two teeth protruding like the tusks of an elephant which she buried in my cheek every time she kissed me." Nikola did not care for his aunts' displays of affection at all, preferring instead to stay in his mother's arms. Once when asked which was the prettier of the two aunts, he thought for a moment, then pointed at one of them, saying, "This here is not as ugly as the other."


A village boy had received a hook and fishing tackle, and all the boys, except Nikola, who'd quarreled with the hook's owner, started out to catch frogs. Tesla described the excursion later in life:

I never had seen a hook ... but, prompted by necessity, I got hold of a piece of soft iron wire, bent it, and sharpened it by means of two stones. Then I attached it to a strong string, cut a rod, gathered bait, and went to the brook, where the frogs were innumerable.

In vain I tried to capture the frogs in the water; and I was humiliated to think what a big catch my playmates would bring home with their fine tackle. But at last I dangled my empty hook in front of a frog sitting on a stump, and I can see now in my mind's eye what happened as vividly as though it were yesterday.

First, the frog collapsed, then his eyes bulged, and he swelled to twice his normal size, made a vicious snap at the hook — and I pulled him in. ... I went home with a fine catch, whereas my playmates caught none. To this day I consider my frog-hook invention quite remarkable and very ambitious.

At age four, Nikola constructed a smooth wooden disk and made an axle out of a twig. When he lowered the disk into a stream, he was delighted when it began to turn with the current. This would be the same principle behind his future invention of the bladeless turbine.

He also came up with the idea to build a propeller powered by four live June bugs (or May bugs as Nikola called them). He glued one June bug to each of the four thin wooden blades, which were arranged on a spindle in the form of a cross. When the insects tried to fly away, the power created by the whirling of their wings caused the propeller to turn rapidly.

Nikola was thrilled with his discovery — at first. Then the son of a visiting retired Austrian military officer pulled the bugs off the propeller blades one by one, popped them into his mouth, and began to chew. Nikola was appalled. Later he said, "That disgusting sight terminated my endeavors in this promising field and I have never since been able to touch a May-bug [June bug] or any other insect for that matter."

Nikola began attending the small village school when he was five, and he loved to read. Milutin had a large home library, but he did not allow young Nikola to touch his books. But such was the boy's passion for reading that he snuck into the forbidden room every chance he got. Then, when his parents worried that reading by candlelight at night might damage his eyesight, he secretly took candles to his room without their knowledge. When Milutin found out, he hid all the candles. Undaunted, Nikola found a way around the problem. He covertly gathered up all the necessary supplies and made his own candles! Each night while everyone else slept, he plugged the keyhole and cracks around his bedroom door to block the light, lit a candle, and often read until dawn.


Excerpted from "Nikola Tesla for Kids"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Amy M. O'Quinn.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Time Line,
1 Electrified Beginnings,
Explore Nikola's Birthplace,
Make Static Electricity,
Build a Simple Electric Circuit,
2 Moving to America,
Create an Electromagnet,
See a Magnetic Field Pattern,
Research or Reflect: Write About an Immigrant's Experience,
3 Roadblocks and Victories,
Make a Patent Drawing,
Mix Fluorescent Slime,
"Visit" the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition,
4 From Waterfalls to Wardenclyffe,
Build a Waterwheel,
Make a Soda Bottle Submarine,
Explore Earth's Magnetic Field,
Make a Wave,
5 Trials, Successes, and Sadness,
Design a Flying Machine,
Communicate with Morse Code,
6 Through the Years: 1914–1931,
Write Your Autobiography,
Design a Magazine Cover,
7 Quiet Departures,
Solar Oven S'mores,
It's a Bust,
How Does a Maglev Train Work?,
Explore STEM Careers,
Resources to Explore,
Selected Bibliography,

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