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No. 1301:
The Boy Mechanic

Today, a boy's world, a century ago. 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 year is 1913 -- a decade after the Wrights first flew, and a year before WW-I. Ford has just begun mass-producing Model-T's, and you power your telephone with large dry-cell batteries from the hardware store. That year, 1913, Popular Mechanics magazine put out a book titled The Boy Mechanic: 700 Things for Boys to Do.

The frontispiece shows a boy stepping off a cliff in a glider built according to instructions on page 171. The glider is rather like the ones that flight-pioneer Otto Lilienthal had flown until 1896, when he fell to his death in one. There were few lawsuits and no OSHA in 1913. If you read this wonderful old book and then killed yourself, it was your carelessness, not the publisher's. You'd better make the joints secure when you built the wing.

So what else have we for a boy to do? Electricity looms large. You can rig a device that'll ring a bell when fish strike the line you've dropped through the ice. Or you can rig magnets below an Ouija board and compose your own spirit messages.

We read how to counterfeit pennies. Make a wax impression of the penny, coat the wax with black lead, then electroplate the penny into the wax mould. The trick is to make a battery cell from a strip of zinc in an electrolytic solution. The authors talk, not about pennies, but about replicating small objects in copper. Still, the implication is clear enough. The book is full of electrochemistry. It tells how to generate hydrogen or acetylene.

It's also long on things that explode. My favorite is the Fourth-of-July Catapult. This is nothing less than a pipe bomb that flings a life-sized mannequin a hundred feet into the sky. The mischief goes on for 460 pages: how to play magician and levitate a lady; how to make an object roll uphill.

Oh, the other stuff was there -- how to make a lamp or a tie rack or a coin purse. But that's not why we young boys read books like this back when the world was young. We read them because they told us how to engage all that delicious danger. We read them because they spoke to boys for whom risk-taking was a rite of passage. And we all had friends who were hurt fulfilling those rites.

The book has 800 pictures, and it shows only one girl. She's busy making a decorative lampshade, not a pipe bomb. So this surely is a story about gender. Girls had plenty of manual ability a century ago, but this book speaks the language of boys.

Today, crime rates among males in their late teens is skyrocketing. I wonder if that isn't because we've so stripped socially acceptable risk-taking from their lives. I remember, with such clarity, those murderous urges to leap across the eaves, to climb a tree, to ride my bike too fast down a hill. And then I wonder if books like this didn't actually save more boys than they harmed.

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

(Theme music)

The Boy Mechanic: Book I: 700 Things for Boys to Do. Chicago: Popular Mechanics Co., Publishers, 1913.


For full-size images from The Boy Mechanic, click on the thumbnails above.