History of Nikola Tesla for Kids

Tesla Car Company

Have you ever heard of a Tesla car? Teslas are very fast cars, but unlike most sports cars, Teslas are electric-powered not gas-powered. Teslas are becoming very popular because they are one way to prevent carbon emissions and help the environment. Although you may be familiar with the name Tesla because of the famous car, you may not be aware of where the name came from. Tesla cars are named after an inventor named Nikola Tesla. Tonight we’re going to learn more about Telsa and why he became so well known.

Nikola Tesla’s Birth and Early Life

In 1865, Nikola Tesla was born to Serbian parents in what is now known as Croatia. His father was an Orthodox Priest and his mother never went to school but was a very intelligent woman. She was known for inventing her own electrical gadgets to be used around the house. Nikola later said his great intelligence came from his gifted mother.

Growing up Nikola went to school like most kids and studied German, math, and religion. They moved to a new town where his father was a priest and there he attended elementary and middle school. During high school, Nikola had a physics teacher who showed his class the power of electricity. When Nikola saw it he was amazed and wanted to learn more about this wonderful force. It was here that Nikola did so well in his math classes that the teachers thought he was cheating because he could do difficult math in his head, without using paper.

Nikola Tesla’s Education

Not long after graduating from high school, Nikola became very sick and spent nine months in bed, but finally, he got better. His father wanted him to become a priest like he was, but Nikola was more interested in engineering. Engineering is the science of designing and building things. 

Nikola went to the university in Graz, Austria for a time and did very well there. It was there that he first learned about a dynamo, which is used to generate electricity. He started to have ideas about how he could make it work better. Nikola worked very hard while in school. It was said he worked from 3 am to 11 pm and didn’t take breaks on the weekend. His friends and family worried if he didn’t slow down he would become sick from over-working himself.

After university Nikola moved to the country of Hungary and started working for a telegraph company. The telegraph was used to communicate by sending signals along a wire before the telephone was invented. While there, Nikola helped them improve the telegraph equipment! 

Thomas Edison

Nikola Tesla’s next job was in Paris working for one of Thomas Edison’s power companies. Thomas Edison was a famous American inventor known for designing the lightbulb among other inventions. From there Tesla moved first moved to America and got a job working directly with Thomas Edison. He was very poor at the time and arrived in America with only a few cents in his pockets and a few poems he had written. 

Alternating Current

Unfortunately, his work with Thomas Edison didn’t last long. Instead, Tesla took his ideas to Edison’s competitor, George Westinghouse, who bought his idea for the alternating current dynamo. Direct current is what Thomas Edison used and worked by sending an electrical current one way, but Tesla’s idea was to switch the directions in the current was sent. To this day Tesla’s alternating current is used more than direct current. 

Tesla’s Other Inventions

Next, Tesla started his own lab and experimented with ideas that helped pave the way for the x-ray. He also created the Tesla coil, which was later used for sending radio waves through the air or radios and televisions. It was around this time that the World’s Columbian Exposition was to be held in Chicago in 1893. This was an enormous world fair where people from all over the world would visit Chicago to see exciting new inventions and experience new things. This also started a competition between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla over whether AC (alternating current) or DC (direct current) would be used to power the huge world’s fair. In the end, Telsa’s alternating current won the match and it was used to power the World’s Columbian Exposition. 

Telsa went on to create the first hydroelectric power generator at Niagara Falls, New York. Hydroelectric means water power is used to create electricity. 

Telsa’s next big project was a huge electrical tower in Long Island, New York, which he planned to use to send radio waves all around the world. It was called the Wardenclyffe Tower. At this time a different tower was being built by Guglielmo Marconi to do a similar thing. Tesla got started on his tower, but Marconi beat him by sending a signal across the Atlantic Ocean first. This caused the people paying for Tesla’s tower to change their minds causing the project to fail.

Nikola continued to come up with new ideas, but most of his designs stayed in his notebooks and he didn’t get a chance to actually build them. 

For anyone who listened to the last Bedtime History episode about Mark Twain, you’ll be interested to know that Mark Twain and Tesla were friends. While growing up, Tesla read many of Mark Twain’s novels and so he was excited to finally meet him after moving to America. Twain was interested in Tesla’s inventions and often visited his lab and participated in experiments. He also gave him money to help with his new inventions.

Later in Nikola Tesla’s life, he won awards for his past inventions, and in 1937 when he passed away many around the world mourned his death. Someone was quoted as saying that he was “one of the outstanding intellects of the world who paved the way for many of the technological developments of modern times.”


Nikola faced many difficulties in his life, but he continued to learn and apply his mind to designing new things and improving the things around him. Like Tesla, you can be curious about the world around you. In school, he saw the power of electricity and wanted to learn how it worked. He found new ways to use it to improve the lives of people all over the world. Learning how to invent and improve things is a combination of learning how the forces in the world work, like physics, and what things are made up of, called chemistry — and then using creativity to apply that knowledge about the world. This is why it’s a good idea to pay attention in school and take the time outside of school to dig deeper and really understand how the world works.