One of the important books in the middle part of my life was entitled All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten (Robert Fulghum). I have read it several times and learned much with each perusal. In fact, one of his truisms sort of guided my life, especially in my youth: It wasn’t in books. It wasn’t in a church. What I needed to know was out there in the world. So, from a very young age I was out in the world looking, engaging and learning.
Growing up in a small town in Kansas in the 1950’s was a pretty amazing experience---there I said it. Most readers probably now believe that senility has really fogged my mind, but let me explain. Television was almost non-existent, one or two black and white channels came later, and the closest things to video games were the pin ball machines in the local pool hall. However, machines cost 5 cents per play and who wanted to waste a nickel? So, kids needed to invent projects and games and pick up rocks and collect leaves and study insects and therefore my fascination for science and nature began-- What I needed to know was out there in the world.
I grew up in a very non-wealthy family---certainly poor by today’s standards but not unlike 95% of the other families in town (400 people maybe counting some dogs). Therefore, my purchased toys were often of the least expensive variety. For example, I wanted a metal “erector set” but received wooden “tinkertoys.” I never did receive an electric train that ran circles on a small track nor a “chemistry set.” Therefore I went out into the world and improvised. One of my favorite “toys” was the generator/magneto secured from the old crank telephones. Today these old wooden phones are found in antique shops and are fairly expensive. “Back then” I simply looked behind the telephone office and pulled out a generator/magneto from a discarded phone.
Western Electric Five Bar Magneto. Photo courtesy of the Old Phone Man who has an absolutely wonderful web site located at www.oldphoneman.com.
These generator/magnetos had a permanent set of horseshoe magnets (usually 2-5) and produced alternating (AC) current when the crank was rotated. The faster I cranked, the higher the volts produced. One could get a hundred volts or so by really “cranking her up”!
In the actual telephones the hand cranked generators/magnetos caused the bell to ring. With the addition of fairly large zinc-carbon batteries a signal was transmitted to the local telephone office (Central) and an operator answered and then connected you, via switchboard, to another number. I still remember our home phone number—119—and my father’s place of business—33. So, I cranked the phone and Bertha the operator answered “Central.” I said “Bertha, what is the temperature today?” She imparts that information and then I stated, “Give me 33 please” and I am connected to my father’s phone.
But, there were other kid uses for the generator/magnetos. These gadgets were powerful little things and could impart a painful shock so one had to be careful. My favorite use was attaching wires to the positive and negative terminals and then clamping these wires to slender steel rods. I inserted the rods into a damp area of soil a few feet apart and gave her a crank. Like magic, earthworms (fishing worms) appeared on the surface available for scooping up and using for bait.
Another exercise involved using the same device to fish for denizens residing in the local Saline River. By tossing the rods into the water and cranking up a shock the fish were stunned and came to the surface and one could net them. Now, this was not a legal means of obtaining fish in Kansas and I am not claiming responsibility.
I also used the generator/magnetos to power a small light bulb. This was nothing spectacular but when sticking the light bulb next to a neighbor’s window and cranking away, nifty results were often achieved---and we ran like crap for home. Once I attached the wires to fences around the local baseball field and waited for unsuspecting victims---but only gently cranking for a mild shock. It was a great way to learn about electricity “on the cheap” and certainly whetted my curiosity for science.
I also loved to fool around with DC power and collected the old zinc-carbon batteries from telephones and from lanterns used, and discarded, by the local railroad work crew. These batteries still had some juice left and were used for a couple of projects. One was simple and involved powering flashlight bulbs in small wooden houses we built to make a Christmas Village. OK, not as fancy as the commercial villages available today but never-the-less an entertaining and a learning project. I also constructed a variety of electromagnets by wrapping copper wire around a nail or an iron core and attaching the opposite ends to the positive and negative battery terminals. A lesson in physics at its finest.
I also recycled the zinc-carbon batteries by tearing them apart and extracting the zinc shell. I really don’t know how I learned the shell was zinc or that inserting the zinc into sulfuric acid produced hydrogen—it was just learning out in the world! Anyway, I went down to my father’s gasoline station, found some discarded car batteries and extracted the sulfuric acid---without my father’s knowledge. Then it was out to the back yard with the acid, some dish soap, the zinc and a “firecracker punk.”
Later in life I learned about the chemical equation: Zn + H2SO4 --> ZnSO4 + H2. So, hydrogen is a very flammable gas and effervesces from the solution and produces bubbles (the dish soap) that can explode when touched with a lit punk! I also learned that one could eliminate the dish soap, put the solution and zinc into a soda bottle, quickly cap the bottle with a weak balloon so that the hydrogen gas offered inflation, tie off the full balloon and carefully remove it to another location. One then attached the punk to a “long” stick (ten feet or so) and popped the balloon with a loud explosion and a fireball. An even larger explosion would occur if you used your breath to further inflate the balloon as a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen is very explosive. Wow, that is a real chemistry lesson.
For my experiment in geology I went meteorite and gold mining with my electromagnets. Somewhere I learned that iron minerals were often associated with gold flakes and the trick was to locate iron minerals. So, off I went to the sand pits and outcrops of the Dakota Formation with my magnets. I only located a few small particles of magnetite and my magnifying glass did not locate gold. Then it was off to look for iron meteorites. Those finds turned out to be pieces of metallic slag used for ballast along the railroad tracks. But it was a learning experience.
The second geology project involved making a compass although I did not have the slightest idea of how to transport it to the deep woods. But I took one of my mother’s sewing needles and magnetized it on my handy-dandy electromagnet by running it back and forth across the coils maybe 50 times. I had a small cork floating in an old plastic pan and gently laid the magnetized needle on the floating cork and watched it slowly turn and point North. Well actually it was magnetic north but at that point in life I knew nothing about magnetic declination.
All of these little projects whetted my longing for “real” science courses where I would be exposed to a variety of laboratory experiments. However, I learned very quickly that Imagination is more important than information. Einstein said that, and he should know (Robert Fulghum). I was very slow in physics classes since my skills with a slide rule were lacking—cross off that college major. In third semester chemistry the breakage of numerous titration burets broke my budget---scratch off that major. But wait, all was saved with a course in Physical Geology and I never looked back. If the dream is held close to the heart, and imagination is applied to what there is close at hand. Everything is still possible (Robert Fulghum)!