When Kids REALLY had Fun with Science

August 2, 2011
Analog aficionado Kendall Castor-Perry found nice article about how old science kits for kids really used to have some fun (spell that dangerous) stuff in them. To show how far we have degraded as a society, how far the collapse of American experiment is along, I will reproduce the picture of a “modern” chemistry set, with a reassuring CPSC approved “no active chemicals” label.I guess this would have stopped my life-science experiment where I dumped some potassium permanganate into my brother’s fish tank. (Conclusion, potassium permanganate is lethal to guppies.) It also is pretty pathetic to a guy like me that used to make gunpowder by going down to the drug store and buying a big jar of saltpeter. From that same web link, here are real science kits that Barrie Gilbert even did a little Photoshop on them so you can make it desktop wallpaper.Kendall had sent this website link to Analog Devices fellow Barrie Gilbert, who was nice enough to include me in his response. I think Barrie sums up my feelings with more eloquence than I could muster through the disgust and anger of seeing American kids turned into wimps. Barrie notes:

Two ‘ What If ?’ experiments which I “conducted” as a teenage kid were hugely dangerous. One was to make a solution of common salt in a jam jar – after removing the original contents – and then ask: “What If? I put a couple of copper plates into this solution, and connect them to the power outlet?”. The plates as I recall were each about 5 by 3 cm, and they were probably spaced by 2 cm. Note that UK outlets deliver a hearty peak jolt of 340 times 1 International Volt.

The solution immediately started fizzing and churning neurotically; and very soon, the jar became too hot to handle. As I put in down on the floor, just inches from the roar of the National Grid, I noticed a green sludge forming. Curious, I leaned over the broiling pot, to more closely examine its suddenly-transformed fluids. While thus proximal to its gaping maw, I sniffed the Sludge.

It’s not far from miraculous that the jar didn’t explode and I didn’t lose my sight that day, to pass through the rest of my life as Blind Gilbert. Or, that I simply killed myself by chlorine poisoning, leaving someone else to overturn the pebbles I later found, generously strewn along the intellectual shoreline. I can only surmise that the salt concentration, that day, was blissfully weak…

The other – and treacherously similar – example of a  “Slightly Too Daring What If?” exercise happened like this. My one school-pal Mark Dore and I hooked up a  beautiful transformer, designed to power a ham radio transmitter. It weighed about 10 kg and the secondary winding we chose to use in this particular experiment (it served nobly in many others) provided 700-0-700 V, that is, 2 kV peak AC from one end to the other; and it was rated to supply enough mean current – and I mean mean – to illuminate the neighbourhood with one or two kilowatts of CW. The manufacturers of this transformer had uniformly applied a dull, coffin-black paint. Better they should have used bright blood red.

In the summer, we often did our Saturday Experiments in the tool shed, at the distal end of the garden which ran down from the house in a narrow swath. In those days (1950s) our mums did all their clothes-washing by hand; then they took the sheets and shirts in a basket into the back garden and “hung them out on the line”,  where the sun and the breeze “spun-dried” them. Some folks’ lines were rope: this one was twisted steel.

Now, our “Slightly Too Daring What If?” objective was to determine how readily the Electrick Fluide might flow in common garden soil.  So  we connected one terminal of the full 2-kVpk windings to a copper rod, just outside the shed; the other terminal was connected, through a couple of metres of hook-up wire, to the clothes-line, which terminated on a hook at a high edge of the shed.

We switched in on.

Lacking any really useful AC voltmeter with which to probe – and later map this flow on gridded paper – we could only use our bodies as rudimentary voltmeters. The methodology was beautifully simple: as one hand grasped the clothes-line, the other held a long copper fire-poker (by no means an antique at the time) and just pushed it “as far as possible” into the willing soil; and the intensity of our inner stirrings at various locations along the line was then supposedly to be noted.

So the experiment began: I eagerly volunteered to be  The Voltmeter for a while and Mark was the scribe. It would have been prudent to have started at the house end of this stretch of venerable Dorset soil – as far from the dark and Darth-like device secreted in the shed. But from what I recall of those days, we just stepped outside, into the sunshine, and, for no special reason I decided to start prodding the earth somewhere near the centre of this roughly 30 metres of clothes-line.

A superficial touch was enough to detect the tingling flow of the Electrick Fluide within one’s being; and with about 10 cm of the sooty poker penetrating the earth, its presence was undeniable. By the time I had 40 cm of the copper rod immersed in the soil, my musculature was pulsing rather too painfully. I realized then that we had a way to quantify the volume of this ephemeral fluid that surged around my heart: it was to note – as well as our rude rod allowed – the penetration depth required to attain the “undeniable” level of sensation.

We did this, for a while, he and I, frequently alternating (if that’s not an apt expression, let me know) in the much less entertaining role of note-taker.

But, it was Saturday and the air was warm all around us; so the noble, formally-declared Project Objectives de jour quickly evaporated.  Instead, they morphed into a novel game (hmm… perhaps something to develop and sell as such, in kit form, maybe). The rules of this game were basically those of “Chicken” and it was to be played by poking into the earth at the garden end of line, near the shed, where the “field” strength (so to speak) was greatest. He who that day could push the poker the deepest, at a marked spot, er… won.

The irony, of course, was that the rules were reversible.

Well said Barrie. I do remember almost burning down the house when the mortar full of sugar-saltpeter admixture got touched off by an errant spark from the test batch. Then there was the time the other kids were putting rat-tailed files in the shear in shop class the piece that snapped off whizzed by my eye. My brother and I used to routinely play with lead pipe-stuffing- melting it down and hammering penny impressions into the surface. And the explosives, and rockets made by explosives stuffed into ½ copper pipe that we would bash flat over a nail and pull the nail out to make a nozzle. The head of the missile was bashed flat and bent over. It gave some interesting aerodynamic effects, like chasing us around the yard. I count my 10 fingers every day. Please add your own dangerous science recollections below.

For stories of engineers reliving near-death experiences, illuminating experiences, and what got them hooked on technical stuff, see EDN Magazine source.  (Note to mothers:  Everything requires risk, it’s what you balance against the benefits)

About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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2 Responses to When Kids REALLY had Fun with Science

  1. Barbara says:

    Ah yes, had my own chemistry set as a child. Tho I was not as daring as the above. My experimentation usually moved rather quickly from the tests in the booklet to seeing which chemicals combined to make the best stink bomb…
    I remember wondering, at about 8 years of age, what would happen if I pulled the light plug out half-way and laid a bare copper wire across it. The resulting flash of bluish light was inspiring, although my mother wasn’t pleased by the blackened area on the wall above the outlet.
    We won’t mention my sister and me sitting behind the Christmas tree, taking out a light bulb and each seeing who could stick their finger in the socket the longest (I believe we were about 5 and 7?). She won when she stuck her tongue in the socket. I wasn’t quite as daring in those days…

    • carlos says:

      Ah yes, I know. One of my early rockets wound up taking out an 8-ft section of cinder block wall. Of course, when you’re 4 or 5 sticking a screwdriver in a socket was almost as much fun as locking my 65-yo German refugee babysitter in the closet. our sister is impressive. I use my tongue as a voltmeter but the max range is 9 Volts.

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