Today, toys for us kids to play with. 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.
The extent of the toy aisles is daunting near Christmas.
As the shelves go on and on, they set me to thinking about life back in my Paleolithic
past. The 1930s often found me walking aisles looking for toys. But they were aisles
of hardware and drug stores.
That's where I spent my allowance on the sulfur, saltpeter, and carbon needed to make
gunpowder -- on solder, glue, twine, alcohol and acetone. But, even before I was old
enough to haunt those stores, my personal toy factory supplies had lain in the corners
and crannies of my own home.
I've just rediscovered my first book of things-to-make, and it brings back Christmas past.
This was my constant companion in the 1930s. Much of it frayed away during the long hours
it spent at my elbow in our basement workroom. Cover, end pages, title page, and index --
all gone. Only the brown and flaking pages inside remain.
The materiel for my toy-making enterprises consisted of wooden spools, discarded patches
of silk; paper clips, lumber fragments; rubber bands, paper, several kinds of glue; linen
thread, matches, and old inner tubes. Everything had some use.
And what was on our minds to make? How about parachutes? The army was still developing
parachute tactics. Smoke jumping lay five years in the future.
But parachutes were regular fairground entertainment -- a daredevil's tool. So, let's make
I cut a large circle from that discarded piece of silk. I cut a hole in the center. It lets
some air escape to stabilize the descent. I tie lines of strong linen thread around the edges,
and connect the other ends to a lead soldier. Roll it up tight, soldier on the outside, and
use my slingshot to hurl it into the sky. On the way down, the lead soldier unrolls the pack
until the chute opens and buoys majestically back to earth.
Then there was the spool tractor. I'd cut notches around the flanges on each end of a wooden
spool so they looked like toothed gears. Then I'd carve a washer from soap, fit it over the
hole at one end, tie a rubber band to one end of a matchstick, thread the rubber through the
washer and the hole, and anchor it with a piece of matchstick at the other end. Wind up the
long matchstick, set the spool on the rumpled bedclothes -- and it became a tractor with
powerful ability to climb over obstacles.
We've been told to be careful what we wish for. This old book carries its own implicit warning
against wishing. One November, I found a mechanical tractor in the Ward's catalog for the
then-huge sum of $1.65. But I so wanted it that I prevailed on my parents.
When the tractor appeared at Christmas, my wish promptly crumbled. This shiny store-bought
toy climbed no better than my spool, and its spring broke after a few uses. But the greater
problem was, it held none of myself. What stores offer is fulfillment of someone else's
dream. And, I realized, I had my own dreams to fulfill.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
I cannot reference this book since the cover and title page are gone. But
Click Here for
a large image of one of the things it shows how to make. Two more images below.
This toy airplane is a surprise. You'd think it was meant to fly to the left. It is, however,
a canard design like many of the airplanes by radical designer Burt Rutan. The propeller pushes
it from left to right.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.