Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison had a scientific and personal rivalry that became legendary. Both were geniuses, both became world famous through their many, many inventions, both were a titch odd.
Edison died in 1931; Tesla, born in Serbia and an immigrant to the United States, died 12 years later.
The American bromance with Edison is on display in the 1898 book, Edison’s Conquest Of Mars (by Garrett Putman Serviss, it can be found at Gutenberg.org; readers should be prepared for racial stereotypes that are intolerable today). It’s a sequel of sorts to H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds (published in the same year, and also available online), with Edison having the foresight to realize that the Martians are likely to return, and so must be destroyed first.
Tesla, whose star later dimmed in the popular imagination, has recently seen a renaissance — in comic books, science fiction, and on screen (he featured in the pilot for the CBC hit Murdoch Mysteries and in the 2006 Hollywood movie The Prestige, where Tesla was played by David Bowie), and of course, he has his own electric car.
The latest homage is a children’s book, Nick And Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab (by “Science Bob” Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith, 2013, a new arrival filed with an orange dot, suggested ages 9 to 12). Nick and Tesla are 11-year-old twins, although Tesla (a girl!), will always be 12 minutes older.
While their parents are in Uzbekistan, watching soy beans grow for science, the kids have been left in the care of their dotty California uncle, Newt, a “self-employed inventor.”
The ditzy genius stores “this side up” boxes upside down, keeps orange goo in the coffee pot and has a basement filled with petri dishes, blinking lights, “things that go ping”, and garbage – er, make that as-yet-unused material for inventions.
And inventing is what Nick and Tesla do. With soda bottles, glue, Christmas tree lights, batteries, Mentos candies and plastic sandwich bags. The recipes – I mean instructions – for making rockets and an intruder alert system are enclosed.
Wrapped about the gadgets and toys is a story about vicious guard dogs, a strange little girl in an upstairs window, and creepy neighbours who might not be on the up and up.
Do your kids love this kind of stuff? Give them more lab work, with Kitchen Science Experiments (by Q.L. Pearce, 1999, filed with a green dot at 500). It takes three days to peel a raw egg without touching it!
These scientific procedures use vinegar, balloons, sandwich bags, baking soda, ice cream.
Parents, ask your kids what they used up, or you’ll be unhappy the next morning when there’s nothing to put in your dry cereal. In fact, read through the afternoon’s proposed undertakings, to make sure you have everything (or there will be long faces). You can even test these together, and when all’s done, you can make dinner together – another mixing of chemicals and heat to create something new….
If science enchants your youngsters, offer Science Detectives: How Scientists Solved Six Real-life Mysteries (by the editors of Yes magazine, 2006, filed with a green dot at 501). It’s not for the squeamish (in the Case Of The Vanishing Vultures, the carrion-eaters chomp down on carcasses, and dead critters are autopsied to try to find the nasty thing that’s killing the scavengers).
There’s the quest for Typhoid Mary, in 1906, as a group of summer guests at a cottage died of a disease with no seeming origin. (Proposed study: Stand outside your school washroom and survey how many people wash their hands on the way out.)
Or follow the search for diamonds in the Northwest Territories, or The Case of The Curious Corpse, which turns out to be 5,300 years old!
Older folk who love tinkering will enjoy the award-winning Charlotte Gray’s 2006 biography, Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life And Inventive Mind Of Alexander Graham Bell (filed in non-fiction at 920). Bell’s childhood games grew into an adulthood of scientific breakthroughs. Gray mixes in a profile of the late 19th century, insight into deaf culture (Bell began his professional life as a teacher to the deaf), and ends with a portrait of the relationship between the inventor and his supportive spouse and partner in every way, Mabel Hubbard. It’s a great read.
And of course, Bell and Edison were contemporaries. Thomas Edison pops in and out of these pages, an important player in Bell’s life. But of Tesla? Not a peep.
– Eleanor Brown, January 31, 2014