Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Lionel-Porter Science Kit

One fall day in 1964 or so, on a Saturday, likely, my sister and I were watching cartoons on TV. It was one of the things we looked forward to all week during school. On Saturdays, the TV played from as early as the earliest cartoons came on (probably around eight) to lunchtime or “My Friend Flicka,” whichever came last. That was my sister’s favorite Saturday-morning show, but I usually made fun of what I considered to be sappy, sentimental music in the background as a little girl dashed across the screen to hug her pet horse. She put up with my watching “Watch Mr. Wizard,” and we both enjoyed most of the cartoons earlier in the morning.

The thing I want to describe is not a TV show, but one of the ads we saw that fall. It began with a closeup of a crying baby in a crib. We saw the baby breathe on some mysterious piece of equipment suspended above her head. Then the scene changed to a nerdy-looking guy with whom I immediately identified, seated at the controls of a fancy-looking gizmo that was connected to the baby sensor, or whatever it was. As soon as the kid howled again, lights flashed, a fan went buzzing on, and the boy was congratulated by his parents, who presumably couldn’t tell the baby was hot and needed the fan turned on without the help of Boy Genius’s inventions.

At this remove, the logic of the ad escapes me, if there was any to start with. But it had me hooked, and I listened eagerly as the announcer pitched the latest Lionel-Porter Science Kit, with over two dozen different experiments! Get yours for Christmas!

And I did. With no independent income or ability to earn money, I was totally dependent on begging to support my research. (It’s not so different today.) By the time I was ten or so, I had honed my nagging skills to a fine point by cautiously steering between the Scylla of insufficient frequency of mentions, and the Charybdis of asking for a thing so many times that my mother finally said, “I told you if you nagged me one more time about that thing, you weren’t going to get it, and you did, so you won’t!” Anyhow, that Christmas, I must have nagged the right number of times, and so under the tree that year (which was one of those ghastly all-aluminum things lit up by a single blue floodlight on the floor—what were people thinking?), I unwrapped a box with the picture of the very same control panel that I had seen on national TV. And now it was mine.

The ad had portrayed the proto-nerd as having altruistic motives, but I was innocent of any such thing. I was much more likely to be the cause of my baby sister’s crying than I was to draw sympathetic attention to her, electronically or otherwise. I wanted the Lionel-Porter Science Kit for the simple reason that I liked playing with batteries and wires and switches, and this thing had plenty of those and more.

It may have been advertised as an “electronics” kit, but with one small exception, there was nothing electronic about it: no transistors or even tubes, which were running about neck and neck in designs around then. Instead, there were three-position switches, incandescent lamps behind red plastic jewels (the light-emitting diode was still about ten years in the future), a Sensitive Relay, a Thermostat, a Photocell, a Humidity Sensor, and a lot of wires connecting all these marvels to a big plugboard sort of like an old-fashioned telephone switchboard—that is, if you had the patience to do all the wiring yourself. It was a kit, after all.

I say “big”—the whole thing was perhaps the size of a small portable manual typewriter, with the same general shape: a perforated plastic project panel taking the place of the keyboard, and where the carriage would be was a more steeply sloped plastic panel that housed the switches, lights, and plugboard. But it suitably impressed me, with its two-tone gray and white molded plastic case. When assembled, it would have looked at home among the knobs and flashing lights of an IBM computer of that era.

But when I opened the box, finishing the assembly was a long way off. Using the white insulated wire they provided, it was my task to mount the various pieces on the project board and run wires to designated spots on the plugboard. Still other pieces of wire, with a quarter-inch of insulation duly stripped from each end, served as patch cords between terminals on the plugboard, allowing you to wire up any desired experiment by plugging wires into the proper holes.

Expecting ten-year-old kids ot read and follow wiring diagrams that were probably more complex than those of some of the cars of that era was perhaps not the wisest business move for Lionel-Porter, which, as I learned recently, went bankrupt a few years afterwards. But not knowing that I was doing anything particularly hard—didn’t all budding scientists have to do stuff like this?—I persisted, fixed my numerous wiring errors, and finally got to the point when it was time to insert the four D-cells in the battery box and see if it would go.

It did. One of the simplest experiments was titled “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” You turned a switch one way, and one light lit up—the other way, and two lit up. One if by land and two if by sea—get it? The lameness of this “experiment” is embarrassing at this remove, and in fact, that one got old pretty quick, but it was a good check of my wiring for the lights and switches.

Another experiment used the Thermostat to light a lamp when it got hotter than a certain temperature. The thermostat was made with a bimetallic spiral spring mounted in an open black plastic frame on which you pasted a temperature scale and poked some wires through at the temperatures you wanted to sense. As I recall, it never worked that well, but you could see the spring move slowly to the right if you warmed it in the sun.

Several of the devices made such feeble currents that you had to use the Sensitive Relay to detect them. The Sensitive Relay used a coil of fine green wire wound on a clear plastic bobbin and mounted on a steel framework that held the relay armature, a spring, and two contacts, all adjustable. If you were patient and tried over and over with small, finicky screw adjustments, you could get the Sensitive Relay to where it would trip at the slightest change of light intensity.

The Photocell was a cadmium-sulfide unit that looked like a large shiny vitamin tablet made of clear plastic, with a piece of reddish stuff inside and two wires coming out the back. You mounted it in a slick-looking housing made of two-toned plastic (black and gray) that looked sort of like a ray gun. I used the Photocell in some of my favorite experiments, including what I called the Logical Contradiction (I didn’t really, but that’s a good name for it now).

Say you rigged up the Photocell so that when it detected light, it would turn off a light bulb, and when it got dark, it would turn the light bulb back on. And what if the light it was detecting came from that very same light bulb??!! What would happen? If the light was on, it would turn off, but if the light was off, it would turn on. Wiring this up, I felt a little like Prometheus sneaking around to steal fire from the gods. I wasn’t following the instructions in the manual. I was asking the machine to do a logically contradictory thing. I’d seen some TV shows with computers that blew up when you asked them to do contradictory things, and I wasn’t sure but what that would happen now.

Tremblingly, I brought the light slowly within the field of view of the Photocell. As soon as it saw the light, it went out—then came back on—then went out. Oscillation! Only I didn’t know the word for it. All I knew is it was flickering, which was totally unexpected. And totally cool. This gave me a new appreciation for trying things that weren’t in the manual.

There were a few other experiments: a Rheostat you had to make by winding nichrome wire around a black piece of cardboard, which I didn’t do neatly enough and so it never worked right; a Humidity Sensor that never seemed to sense humidity, even when you dropped it all the way into a glass of water; and an Electromagnet that lifted small nails and screws but nothing much bigger than that. I think the Lionel outfit was out of New Jersey somewhere, and that might explain why the Humidity Meter may have worked very well with rainwater in the acid-rain-ravaged Northeast of the 1960s, but I was in Texas, where we had pristinely clean rainwater and even very soft tapwater. So unless you cheated and put table salt on the Humidity Meter before getting it wet, it didn’t do a thing.

The big disappointment for me about the whole kit was that it had no Power Relay. The Power Relay was the key that opened the way to all kinds of possibilities, because the Power Relay plugged into a wall socket and would control anything you plugged into it: a TV, a radio, a floor lamp, a fan, you name it. And you could control these big appliances with the Photocell, the Thermostat, or even the Humidity Sensor (if you could get it to work). That was how the nerdy kid on TV had cooled off his baby sister, with the Power Relay.

It was my fate to be born to parents who were too cheap to pay the extra four bucks or whatever it was to get the top-of-the-line Science Kit, the one with the Power Relay. So I swallowed my pride and just had to be satisfied with the experiments I could do.

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Like nearly all toys of mine, the Science Kit later underwent modification, then deterioration, then decimation, and finally incineration (at the garbage dump). I still have the coil from the Sensitive Relay. Its lead wires are gone, its black tape insulation is partly peeled away, but I can still see the two ends of the winding, and if I so desired I could solder a couple of lead wires to it and—what? Figure out what current it actually triggered at? Such information is of no use to anybody now. The rest of the parts have vanished long ago, borrowed for other experiments, or broken, or lost, or something. When I became a man, I put away childish things—sort of. But not as much as you might think.

It turns out that one’s personality is usually pretty solidified at a frightfully early age. I have known engineering professors who chose their specialty based upon the good they perceived it could do for humanity. One such of my acquaintance designs high-tech robotic prostheses for people who have lost their natural limbs, for example. Even at the tender age of ten, however, I never had those kinds of thoughts. I might like to think that if only my parents had splurged on the high-dollar Science Kit with the Power Relay, I might have built something for the convenience or safety of my younger sister rather than some of the things I built that actually teased or tormented her. But I know better. The top priority I had in building and using the Science Kit was my own pleasure—an abstract and obscure pleasure, to be sure, but one just as real and selfish as the more comprehensible pleasures other kids took in winning baseball games, or beating up smaller boys, or any number of other things. Since then, one of the few constants in my life has been the fact that I cannot turn my energy and skills to tasks that I have no intrinsic interest in. And my interest is independent of how important or significant a problem or technology is to the world at large. If I do not see a problem as fun to work on, I can’t get interested in it, no matter how important it is in general. Consequently, I have spent most of my career (once I left industry, where people like me are not welcomed) pursuing private hobby-horses that I find fascinating but lie far afield from current topics of technical interest or importance.

Looking back, I don’t know whether my engagement with the Lionel-Porter Science Kit helped me along my tortured path to technical success or not, such as it was. For one thing, the kit was not exactly cutting-edge technology, even for 1964. Plugboards and switchboards were once used extensively in computer programming, believe it or not, but by the 1960s they were well on their way out. For a company to advertise an electronics kit that contained not a single transistor was bordering on misrepresentation, if not outright fraud. Lights, switches, relays, photocells—this was 1940s technology at best, dressed up in a fancy 1960s-looking plastic cabinet. I have since learned that the Lionel firm—of the famous model trains—was struggling to reinvent itself at the time, and saw science kits as a possible path to a future that never came about. My guess is that they used the same engineers to make these science kits who had designed a generation of electric trains, which also used molded plastic parts to cover electromechanical hardware that was basically out of the 1930s. It is quite possible that the Lionel-Porter Science Kit I received had no transistors, because no on on Lionel’s technical staff knew enough about transistors to design a kit that used one. They were apparently too afraid or cheap to hire a young engineer who could help them design a real electronics kit—but they weren’t too cheap to pay an ad agency to make them a set of fancy TV ads to sell the things. But that’s the way consumer products are sold. Marketing calls the shots, and engineering is regarded as an expensive nuisance overhead item.

Around 1967, Lionel went bust. In the meantime, I discovered Radio Shack, real electronics, and went on to bigger and more sophisticated things. But that Science Kit taught me several things, including feedback, electromagnetics, and probably some other things its designers never intended me to learn, like patience, attention to detail, and the ability to be at least somewhat content with one’s lot in life. Failures don’t always really fail, and successes don’t always succeed.

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