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Nikola Tesla: Imagining the Future

“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success… such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.” – Nikola Tesla

Quoted by Cleveland , ‘A Talk With Tesla’, Atlanta Constitution (7 Jun 1896)

 Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla is being rediscovered in pop culture and celebrated as a man before his time and for distinctly imagining the future: devices and technologies we use today such as mobile phones, wireless internet and renewable energy.

“It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages around the world so simply that any individual can carry and operate his own apparatus.” – Nikola Tesla 

From “WIRELESS OF THE FUTURE” Popular Mechanics October 1909 (Nikola Tesla in The New York Times.)

Tesla’s father Milutin Tesla

Tesla’s father Milutin Tesla

Tesla’s mother Georgina Djuka

Tesla’s mother Georgina Djuka

STEMist, Nikola Tesla, was born in Smiljan Croatia, which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. Ironically, the time of his birth was at the stroke of midnight between July 9th and 10th while a fierce electrical storm raged that very night in 1856. The fourth of five children, Nikola’s family lived on a farm and his father, Milutin Tesla, was a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. Sadly, his older brother, Danilo, was killed in a riding accident when Nikola was only 7 years old.

Place of Birth of Nikola Tesla Smiljan, Croatia

Place of Birth of Nikola Tesla Smiljan, Croatia, which was then part of Austria-Hungary.

Tesla's house where he was born in 1856

Nikola Tesla’s house where he was born in 1856.

Serbian Orthodox Church where Tesla was baptized

The Serbian Orthodox Church where Tesla was baptized and his father served as a Serbian Orthodox Priest.

After this tragedy, Tesla began to see visions and developed other quirks. For example, he was obsessed with the number 3, doing odd things such as circling a building 3 times before going in and insisting on 3 napkins next to his plate at every meal.

Graz University of Technolog

Graz University of Technolog

In 1877 Tesla studied mathematics and physics at the Graz University of Technology in Austria. He also studied natural philosophy at the Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

Charles University in Prague

Charles University in Prague

Today people might find it odd for one person to study both science and philosophy, but in the past university students often learned many different things rather than just one specialty. Philosophy is the study of knowledge and thinking – skills we certainly use when we solve problems in math and science! The Greek Aristotle was a philosopher who also made many scientific observations. Tesla’s education probably made him better at thinking up groovy new ideas.

In 1882 Tesla was walking and admiring a sunset.  Suddenly, he saw a vision of a motor that used a rotating magnetic field to produce what we now know as alternating current

Alternating System (AC). Alternating electrical current changes directions 50 to 60 times per second.  Tesla drew this motor in the ground while a friend watched and wondered at the strange diagram.  According to the experts of the time, the motor Tesla had seen in his vision was impossible and would not work.  Fortunately, Tesla did not forget his motor.

Dynamo Electric Machine - US Patent 406,968

Dynamo Electric Machine Nikola Tesla – July 16, 1889.

US Patent 406,968

A model of Tesla's first induction motor

A model of Tesla’s first induction motor, in Tesla Museum, Belgrade

On June 6th, 1884, at the age of 28, Nikola arrived in New York City (later becoming a naturalized American citizen) in search of people who would believe in his unusual ideas about electricity. He became an engineer working on improving dynamos for Thomas Edison.  Edison and Tesla did not get along well, though.  One thing they disagreed about was the use of DC or AC power.  Edison wanted the nation powered by DC, while Tesla recognized that AC could provide more power, better power, and cheaper power.  AC eventually won, but Edison put up a fight.

Nikola Tesla & Thomas Edison

Nikola Tesla & Thomas Edison

Later Tesla worked for Westinghouse.  His greatest accomplishment at Westinghouse was the invention of the high-voltage transformer we now call the Tesla coil.

Tesla Coil

This Tesla coil shut down the power in Colorado Springs when this photo was taken. Photo by Dickenson V. Alley, photographer at the Century Magazines via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1891 Tesla worked with General Electric to install AC generators at Niagara Falls in New York – creating the first modern electrical power generating plant. The Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company (NFHP) was located on the lower river north of Niagara Falls.

Niagra Falls - first modern electrical power generating plant.

Niagra Falls – first modern electrical power generating plant.

Unfortunately, Nikola Tesla had some hard times in his life.  In 1895 his New York laboratory burned along with most of his lab notes and equipment.  The famous banker, J.P. Morgan, helped him rebuild.  After a time, however, Morgan grew tired of Tesla’s grand and imaginative ideas and stopped providing his support.  Thomas Edison and other rivals sometimes used Tesla’s work without giving him credit.

“I don’t care that they stole my idea . . I care that they don’t have any of their own” – Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

Tesla died alone in his apartment with no riches or fame.  He did befriend the pigeons in a nearby park, even bringing injured birds home so he could care for them.  He was not recognized enough in his lifetime for his amazing ideas and inventions.  The world we live in today, however, would be very different if Nikola Tesla had not lived.

“Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine” ― Nikola Tesla

You can honor Nikola Tesla and other STEMists who have given you the modern world by creating your own electrical projects.  Check out the “It’s Electric!” groovy box – building a paper circuit with LED lights, resistors, and a battery will be one way to practice the science you are learning.  You can go on to build a buzzing door alarm and design a new kind of groovy dance pad.  Tesla was often called a man ahead of his time because he saw how useful electricity could be.  You are living in the world he imagined!

“The world, I think, will wait a long time for Nikola Tesla’s equal in achievement and imagination.” Edwin Armstrong

Failure Is A Groovy Way To Learn

How do you learn?  More than likely, learning from your mistakes is one of the ways you learn. Sometimes STEMists go through school afraid to make a mistake, but we’re here to tell you that failure is a groovy way to learn. Failure is how we all get better; it’s how we succeed.
Failure Is A Groovy Way To Learn

Failure also teaches you about resiliency and grit:

  • Resiliency is how you bounce back from adversity
  • Grit is how you persevere through challenges

As you learn and fail, you’ll need to bounce back and hang in there when things get tough. Remember, this is an important part of the learning process.

Scientists, inventors, and engineers are constantly battling failure. They also must be resilient and have a lot of grit to make it through their challenges. These STEMists confront failure and use it to their advantage.  In fact, these failures help them learn how to do their projects better the next time!

So, the next time you fail, remember these stories of how failure can turn into success:

Elon Musk and SpaceXElon Musk

Elon Reeve Musk is an entrepreneur, engineer, inventor and investor; he is the founder of the company that became PayPal; CEO and chief product architect of Tesla Motors; and CEO of SpaceX, the maker of launch vehicles and spacecraft.

Musk’s goal through SpaceX is to revolutionize space technology with reusable rockets so people can live on other planets.

When SpaceX’s latest rocket landing missed the mark, the company tweeted, “Close, but no cigar. This time.” Musk tweeted, “Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event. Ship is fine minor repairs. Exciting day!”

His attitude is like that of a great inventor—accepting of failure, sometimes even excited—ready to apply what his team has learned to the next launch.

Jack AndrakaJack Andraka

Jack Andraka is a STEMist not much older than you! Born in 1997, Andraka is an inventor, scientist and cancer researcher. When a family friend was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Andraka wanted to find a way to test for cancers – similar to how diabetics check their blood sugar levels every day.

He contacted 200 research labs and universities about his idea – and received 199 rejections. Finally, a professor at Johns Hopkins University agreed to work with Andraka. Thanks for Andraka’s resiliency and grit, he developed a fast, easy way to detect increases in a certain protein, which often indicate early stages of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers.

J.K. RowlingJ.K. Rowling

Imagine the world without Harry Potter!

After 12 rejections from publishers, author J.K. Rowling sold her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for only $4,000.  Rowling is now worth an estimated $1 billion and has had great success with the Harry Potter series and films.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, inventor and businessman, had many failures that led him to great inventions.  For example, in 1889, Edison created Edison Portland Cement Co. because he believed everything could be made out of concrete.  Thomas Edison and the light bulbHe made cement cabinets, pianos, and houses; however, people did not purchase many of his products.  Edison realized the public would not pay for his costly cement products.  And, although the idea was not widely accepted, it was not a total failure.  Edison’s company was hired to build Yankee Stadium in the Bronx!

His most notable failure, however, is the light bulb.   Edison created 10,000 prototypes before getting it right.  He said, “I have not failed 100 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Silly PuttySilly Putty

James Wright was an engineer at General Electric when he failed at making a substitute for rubber during World War II.  Wright was hoping his silicone substitute would help the U.S. Government make airplane tires, boots for soldiers, and other items that used rubber during manufacturing at wartime.  These items and other materials were being produced at a faster rate, causing a decrease in the availability of rubber. One of Wright’s experiments included adding boric acid to the silicone oil.  It did not work to replace rubber, but his invention gave children hours and hours of playtime with his Silly Putty invention!

Dr. SeussDr. Seuss Books

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, the first book written by author Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, was rejected by 27 publishers.  This means 27 companies did not think Dr. Seuss knew how to write children’s books! Later, Dr. Seuss’ friend helped him find a company to publish the book, and since then, Dr. Seuss wrote more than 60 books and sold over 600 million copies.  In fact, Dr. Seuss continues to be a best-selling author, even after his death in 1991.

Post-It NotesSpencer Silver, the inventor of the Post-It Note

In 1968, 3M Laboratories researcher and scientist, Spencer Silver, was tasked with creating a strong adhesive. His experiments were not successful, but he did make a less strong adhesive that he learned could be easily removed without leaving a mark on the object or material it was stuck to.  His newest, less strong adhesive was not used by the company.  Nearly six years later, a co-worker took the invention and applied it to scraps of paper to mark his place in his choir hymn book.  Later he applied it to yellow scraps of paper from the 3M Company, and the Post-It Note was born!

Failure is nothing to be ashamed about! In fact, it’s part of your journey to success.  Failure encourages, builds confidence and teaches. It also teaches you to be resilient and have grit.

Groovy STEMists – take notice to what happens when you do an experiment that doesn’t work; check your notes in your lab notebook and learn from them.  Failing to complete one of the Groovy Lab in a Box investigations or engineering design challenges will lead to more successful ones!

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