“The Tesla Coil is Scary!” -Allaying Fears of Magnificent Machinery at MSI


One of my favorite places to visit with Elliot is The Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago. They’re extraordinarily friendly to homeschoolers, even offering special labs and classes for homeschooled students. There’s so much to see and do that I find it best to try and focus visits a little. This time around, we certainly made our regular detours to the model trains, the baby chicks, and the farm exhibit. However, we spent much more time than usual in the Science Storms area of the museum.

Elliot and I have been casually discussing the most basic physics terms recently. Gravity, he knows, is what keeps his feet on the ground. There’s just enough of it here on Earth, less on the Moon, none way out in space. He knows that if he drops a toy, it’s gravity that pulls it to the floor. We’ve discussed acceleration a bit; Elliot knows that when something goes faster and faster, it’s accelerating. He knows that cars do it, that he does it when he runs. He may only be a preschooler, but he’s got a good foundation for some of these terms. And he definitely knows what lightning is.

That doesn’t mean his face looked any less terrified when the twenty-foot Tesla Coil at MSI went off on our last visit. More startled by its jolting light and sound than usual, Elliot gazed upward and declared, “The Tesla Coil is scary!” I patted his back and we found a bench. The conversation that followed went something like this.

Me: Do you know why the Tesla Coil makes so much light and sound?

Elliot: It makes scary lightning!

Me: Lightning can startle us and feel a little scary. It sure can. That Tesla Coil was named after the man who first made it. He was a scientist named Nikola Tesla.

Elliot: Nikola Tesla?

Me: Yup. Do you remember how it is that we can turn on lights and use the TV? What makes them work?

Elliot: Uhhh… oh. Electricity.

Me: That’s right. And the Tesla Coil is one way to make electricity. Let’s go have a closer look. Somethings things aren’t as scary when we know more about them.

We went upstairs to the place where more information is available about the Tesla Coil. Of course, most of it is far too advanced for Elliot’s present level of understanding. Resonant transformer circuits use science a bit beyond the comprehension level of a preschooler. What Elliot did find out is that the Tesla Coil produces “lots of voltage” and that power is what creates the bright lightning and the loud sound. We sat on the benches and watched as the next cycle of the Tesla Coil filled the space with buzzing, vibrating electric wonder.

This time, Elliot didn’t complain about being scared. He grinned and he said, “That’s Nikola’s Tesla Coil making lightning!”

Sometimes things aren’t as scary when we know more about them.



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