When Nikola Tesla arrived in the United States in 1884, he didn't have much money, but he did have a letter of introduction to renowned inventor Thomas Edison. The working relationship between the two men was short lived, though, and the two scientist-inventors became harsh competitors. One of the most influential scientists of all time, Nikola Tesla is celebrated for his experiments in electricity, X-rays, remote controls, and wireless communications. His invention of the Tesla coil was instrumental in the development of radio technology.
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Who Was Nikola Tesla?
Nikola Tesla was seven years old on the day the people of Gospić, in what is now modern-day Croatia, received a brand-new fire pump. The town had organized a fire department for the very first time. The firefighters trained hard to learn to work together. But it was the fire pump that everyone wanted to see. It was a really big deal. The pump let firefighters move water from the local river and direct it onto flames, in order to put out fires quickly.
The leaders of the town organized a celebration to show off the fire pump. Everyone in Gospić (say: GAH-spich) put on their best Sunday clothes. They gathered around when the machine was brought down to the river. There was a ceremony, and several people gave speeches. Then came the big moment: a demonstration to show how the pump could spray water.
The new machine was painted black and red. It needed sixteen men to work it. They took their positions, turned on the hose, and . . . nothing! No water came out. The pump didn’t work!
None of the grown-ups was sure what to do. But young Nikola (say: NEEK-oh-la) had an idea. “I know what to do, mister,” he told one of the men in charge. “You keep pumping.” Nikola jumped into the water and felt for the hose. There was no pressure. He tried to picture the reason in his mind. He thought something might be blocking it.
Quickly, Nikola found the problem. The hose had bent sharply in one spot and stopped the pressure from pushing the water out. He straightened out the line, and water surged through the hose! The crowd cheered. Many of the people got wet! But they didn’t mind. Nikola was a hero. They carried him on their shoulders.
Before Nikola jumped into the river that day in the early 1860s, he didn’t know anything about fire pumps or water pressure. He just knew there was some reason the machine was not working properly—and he knew he could figure out a way to fix it.
Nikola never lost his gift for figuring things out. He grew up to be one of the most important inventors in the history of the world! He helped create the technology that led to radios and remote-control devices. He imagined cell phones and the Internet many years before anyone heard of such things. He created a motor that helped power machines around the world. And he is most famous for helping to bring electricity into homes everywhere.
Nikola had a talent for picturing a problem in his mind and figuring out a way to fix it. Luckily for us, he loved to develop new and better ways of making things work.
Chapter 1: Learning Experiences
Young Nikola Tesla was a very smart boy who one day did something not very smart: He tried to fly. He went out to the barn at his family’s farm carrying an umbrella. He climbed to the roof of the barn, opened the umbrella, and jumped off. Not surprisingly, Nikola fell directly to the ground with a thud. Fortunately, he didn’t break any bones. He spent several weeks recovering from the fall. Then he was as good as new.
Nikola wasn’t even six years old at the time. There was no such thing as an airplane then. He didn’t know about gravity or lift or the forces that allow things to fly. He didn’t know it was not possible to fly simply by holding an umbrella in the air! The only thing Nikola knew was that he could picture himself floating through the air with his umbrella. And if he could picture something in his mind, he believed he could make it work.
The Tesla family farm where Nikola tried to fly that day was in a village known as Smiljan. That’s where Nikola had been born in 1856. Smiljan is in what is now known as the country of Croatia. But Nikola’s family was Serbian. Serbia is a neighboring country.
Nikola’s father was Milutin (say: mil-YOU-tin), the priest in the local Serbian Orthodox Church. Orthodox priests can be married and have children. Milutin wanted Nikola to be a priest just like he was. Nikola’s mother was named Djouka (say: DYOH-kah). She ran the family farm and had never gone to school. Djouka had never even learned to read or write. Her mother had become blind when Djouka was still a young girl and—as the eldest daughter in the family—she took over running the household. There had been no time for school.
But Djouka was a very intelligent woman who had an incredible memory. Word for word, she could remember stories from the Bible and poems she had heard. Her husband was an educated man who wrote poetry, owned many books, and spoke German and Italian in addition to his native Serbian-Croatian language. Milutin probably recited many of his books to her.
Djouka worked tirelessly from dawn until dark around the farm. She often used tools that she invented herself, such as a mechanical eggbeater. “I must trace to my mother’s influence whatever inventiveness I possess,” Nikola once wrote.
Nikola had two older sisters, Milka and Angelina, and one younger sister, Marica. He also had a brother, Dane, who was seven years older. Tragically, he was killed in an accident involving the family horse when he was only twelve years old. Like Nikola, Dane had been very smart.
Nikola’s birthday was July 10. Most accounts say he was born just as the clock struck midnight, turning July 9 into July 10. Outside, a thunderstorm flashed lightning in the sky.
The flare of lightning at his birth was appropriate, because electricity soon fascinated Nikola. When he was three years old, he loved to play with Macak, the family cat. One cold, dry day while he stroked Macak’s fur, he saw little sparks. Nikola was amazed! He didn’t understand what the sparks were at the time, but he knew he wanted to find out. “It’s electricity,” his father explained. “The same thing you see through trees in a storm.”
Nikola followed his mother’s example by experimenting and coming up with his own ideas. When he was four, he developed his first “invention.” One day, the other boys in the village went fishing, but they didn’t take Nikola with them. Determined not to miss out on all the fun, Nikola made his own fishing line with a hook on the end of a string. He didn’t have bait to tempt the fish. His homemade line didn’t work. But while Nikola was trying to figure out what went wrong, a frog leaped at the hook. Nikola grabbed him. It turned out that his fishing line was really a frog-catcher! He returned to the farm with nearly two dozen frogs that day. All the boys in the neighborhood liked to play with frogs. His friends hadn’t caught a single fish! But they were happy to learn Nikola’s secret for catching frogs.
When he was five, Nikola began going to school in the village. He studied math, religion, and German. Outside the classroom, he was always learning, too. Once, when Nikola was playing down by a stream in the village, he noticed a small slice of a tree trunk shaped like a circle. Nikola cut a hole through the center of the wood. He found a tree branch and pushed that through the hole. Then he rested the ends of the branch on the opposite banks of the stream. The slice of the tree trunk was partly in the water. The wheel began to spin! The force of the water made the wheel turn round and round. Nikola had taken energy from nature (the stream) and generated enough power to spin the wheel around!
Table of Contents
Who Was Nikola Tesla? 1
Learning Experiences 7
Scientific Mind 17
His Own Path 28
School Days 39
Coming to America 47
Fame and Fortune 61
War of the Currents 77
Wireless Dreams 89