Monday, 10 July 2017

Nikola Tesla - Tech Hero

Nikola Tesla was an inventor from Serbia who moved to America to take his ideas forward. Telsa was an electronics pioneer, much of the technology we use today can be traced back to him. Some of his ideas haven't been fully developed even now.

Tesla was born on July 10th, 1856. Legend has it, he was born in a lightning storm. I think it's fair to say that Nikola Tesla was a genius.

Who was Nikola Tesla?

Nikola Tesla was an inventor in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His contributions were recognised at the time and he won awards and was famous. In later life he slipped into obscurity and his contributions weren't widely acknowledged for several decades. Now he has become better known again. 

Kids should definitely know about Tesla.Tesla is a magnet for conspiracy theories so be careful when looking for information about him.

Tesla's Inventions

Tesla had a long career and developed many amazing inventions as well as seeing how they might be applied in the future. His ideas were ambitious and not all were successful. We're just going to take a look at a few of his key inventions that have shaped modern technology.

Alternating Current

One of the things Nikola Tesla is most famous for is his work on alternating current. He didn't invent or discover alternating current (AC) but he recognised that it was the best way to get power across large distances and he developed and patented a number of ideas that made the whole end to end system work. 

There was a public battle between Thomas Edison who was working on providing DC power stations and Tesla backed by George Westinghouse who realised the practicality of AC power. 

One of Tesla's contributions was an AC induction motor which doesn't require commutators (conductive brushes that make physical contact) and is therefore more efficient and much easier to maintain. 

Tesla Coil and Inductive Power

The Tesla Coil is a still a staple of live science shows today because it looks (and is) incredibly cool. 

A Tesla coil creates high voltage (but low current) electricity which generates amazing arcs that look like lightning. 

A Tesla coil transmits electricity wirelessly. Tesla noticed that he could light up Geissler tubes (similar to modern flourescent lights) that were close to a Tesla coil but not connected. He gave impressive public demonstrations of the phenomenon.

Tesla felt that wireless power transmission way the way of the future but didn't manage to make a commercial success of the idea.

Wireless power transmission has been slow to develop considering where Tesla's work got to. Wireless inductive charging of electric toothbrushes and phones is now common place and the Sphero robot is an early application of practical inductive charging.

Tesla's Remote Control Boat

Tesla invented a remote controlled boat which he demonstrated in 1898. The remote control transmitted radio signals that controlled the boat which had an electric motor that controlled a propeller, steering was achieved by moving the rudders. 

Now kids regularly use a program remote control robots and it can all be traced back to Tesla's toy boat. 

He didn't just pioneer the technology, he saw what could be achieved with electronic automatons and predicted the field of robotics. 

Tesla Motors Electric Cars

Tesla's name is now familiar as the name of the Tesla Motors electric car company founded by Elon Musk. The company is named after Nikola Tesla in recognition of his far-reaching and futuristic ideas. 

Tesla Quotes

Tesla wrote articles and spoke in public. 

Tesla made some very accurate predictions about the future of technology. The future we are living in now. 
  • Tesla predicted robotics and developed technology that brought it closer to reality. "Long ago I conceived the idea of constructing an automaton which would mechanically represent me, and which would respond, as I do myself, but of course, in a much more primitive manner to external influences. Such an automaton evidently had to have motive power, organs for locomotion, directive organs and one or more sensitive organs so adapted as to be excited by external stimuli.... Whether the automaton be of flesh and bone, or of wood and steel, it mattered little, provided it could provide all the duties required of it like an intelligent being." 
  • In 1915 Tesla wrote an article called The Wonder World to be Created by Electricity he wrote: "Another valuable novelty will be a typewriter electrically operated by the human voice. This advance will fill a long-felt want, as it will do away with the operator and save a great deal of labor and time in offices." Voice recognition is now widely used in voice assistants and voice recognition software. 
Tesla dedicated his life and money to science, writing:

  • "Money does not represent such a value as men have placed upon it. All my money has been invested into experiments with which I have made new discoveries enabling mankind to have a little easier life."
  • "The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention."
He also had a long relationship with Thomas Edison  first as an employee and then as a rival.

  • "If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of a bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search ... I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.” - For context, Thomas Edison is famous for the quote "[invention] is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."

A Tesla Project

We made a fun light-up Tesla project where Tesla's moustache acts as a switch. 

Tesla Books for Kids

This biography of Tesla tells his story as a picture book suitable for readers aged 8-12.

Don't expect a detailed chapter book, this is a quick read but packed with interesting information about Nikola Tesla's life and achievements.

Tesla in the Movies

There are several movies and documentaries about Tesla but a lot of them aren't very good or are now very dated.

There is a fairly recent PBS documentary Nikola Tesla: Master of Lightning which is probably the best option.

Tesla, played by David Bowie makes an appearance in The Prestige (12 / PG-13 rating) and excellent movie about rivalry between two magicians in London set in Tesla's era.

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