Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1936:
ELECTRIC TOY MAKING

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we make electric toys. The University of Houston's college of engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

1891: T. O'Conor Sloane's book, Electric Toy Making for Amateurs came out just as early electric motors were coming into use. Telegraph was established and electric lighting had a foothold. Telephones were in their infancy and electric trolleys were quickly displacing cable cars. Radio was not yet on our horizon and we wouldn't see electric cars for a decade. But electricity was the exotic force on everyone's mind. Now the young experimenter is being encouraged to take this new tiger by its tail.

Before we do anything, we need a battery and they aren't yet for sale in hardware stores. We need to make our own, and the easiest way to do so is from an old tomato can: Place a narrow iron tube down the center, pack the space in between with iron filings, fill the tube with a caustic soda solution and a zinc plate. Once it's properly wired together, it'll produce just under a volt.

To get more useful voltages, we need to make a sulphate-of-copper battery. That's harder to make, and not without its dangers. In a rare safety warning, the book tells us, "Great care should be taken in pulverizing ... bichromate to inhale none of the dust, as it may cause ulcers." Danger was there, no doubt. In 1911, humorist Hillaire Belloc wrote, not completely in jest,

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!

But no matter the dangers. Once we have our battery, we are not to be stopped. We can magnetize iron and do tricks with homemade magnets -- moving objects about in fascinating ways.

platinum lamp With magnets we can make an electric motor for an electric train, built from scratch. We can make an alarm system to protect our treasures with an electrically powered bell. We can make a dancing doll, a magic drum that plays itself, an electric cannon, our own incandescent electric light, or a spark coil.

Here is a great garden of delights -- a playground that you and I would deem unsafe and off-limits for our own children. But our grandparents lived in a world marked by remarkable human energy and a far less well-honed sense of self-preservation.

One telling line in the Preface says:

It is hoped that the work will prove fertile in the suggestive sense. Many things are presented which are susceptible of almost any quantity of modifications.

He's saying, throw away the manual, go your own way, invent. And young people who read this stuff went on to create the wildest, most intemperate, explosion of new technology ever seen.

Electricity was the special essence within this upwelling of human energy. A few years before, Emily Dickinson captured the new symbiosis between us and our mystical new force of nature, when she wrote,

Indebtedness to oxygen
        the chemist may repay,
but not the obligation
        to electricity.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


T. O'Conor Sloane, Electric Toy Making For Amateurs. 7th ed., New York: Norman W. Henley & Co. 1899. (The first edition was issued in 1891, and the Preface gives no indication of serious revision in between.)

electric train
electric dragon flies

tomato-can battery

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.