We have come a long way in avoiding the classic dangers so present in our youth. But sometimes I still wonder how we got here. We can laugh today at the hapless winners of Darwin Awards, but that is only because the past three generations have regulated us to observe the principles of Charles Darwin.
I recently toyed with the idea of taking a stab at etching, for the purpose of creating an art print. Etching is the ancient science of scratching an image onto a wax-covered copper plate, and dipping the plate in acid. The plate gets engraved in the process, and when it is inked, the plate is pressed onto a paper which receives the image.
To learn more, I could have Googled the subject, but instead, I turned to the Popular Mechanics Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia, published by J.J. Little and Ives in 1955.
In my hometown of Delhi, a small but once influential tobacco-growing community in southern Ontario, the PM DIY Encyclopedia was a bible. Actually, it was a collection of 13 illustrated bibles bound in red and black leatherette, handsomely gold-embossed, and proudly displayed in its own pre-engineered wooden shelf by my father, and countless other DIY-ers at the time. You didn’t have to go far to learn about plumbing, carpentry, automotive repair, sewing machines and gardening when you had these books sitting right there beside the record player.
So I was pleased on picking up volume 4 “EL to GA” and finding the lowdown on etching on page–wait, there are no page numbers–on the pages between “enlargers” and “extension cords”.
Excited now, I read on. The thoughtfully drawn black and white illustrations showed an enthusiastic, friendly looking craftsman decanting fluid into a tray. Reading more closely, I saw that for etching glass, and/or metal, the active ingredients were tallow, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, potassium chlorate, asphaltum paint, glacial acetic acid, sodium fluoride…and washed up with gasoline, before pouring down the floor drain with plenty of water.
I decided some time spent on Youtube was a better idea, and put that off for later.
But thumbing through the book “EL to GA” I was stunned to learn about all the other DIY projects we pursued back in 1955.
“Electroplating With Gold and Silver” was particularly instructive.
A well-drawn and focused craftsman is mixing up a solution of sodium cyanide and caustic soda in a pitcher of water. When dissolved, the reader is advised that rubber gloves and ventilation are a must, to avoid deadly hydrocyanic acid fumes. To this concoction one adds some copper cyanide. The book says to hook the brew up to a six-volt battery, and dunk the target object in for an hour or so, and voila: a silver-plated stapler, shoe horn, ticket puncher, egg beater–whatever suits your fancy.
I felt like I had my hands on a secret, forbidden book– techno-porn is the only way I could describe it.
Now tantalized by this collection of ideas, I thumbed to “Electrical Rotating Contact”.
This gem only took half a page, even with the helpful drawing. Mission: to create a spinning brush-style power source that would rotate as some electrical engine drove around it.
The picture tells a thousand words easily. A pole is positioned in the middle of a backyard wading pool. At its top is the ingenious electrical rotating contact which is attached to an electrical cord plugged into the engine of a child’s model boat, floating in the pool. The pole is cleverly hooked up to an extension cord plugged into the house, drawing from the 120-volt line. Two excited kids stand by the pool, gleefully cheering as their model racing boat circuits the water, leaving them smiling in its frothy wake. One can only imagine the hours of joyful entertainment as the craft orbits the sparky contraption.
The book is filled with helpful suggestions for mixing your own weed killer, building a forge, a blast furnace, and simply maintaining your home coal furnace.
Thinking back, we were, if not fearless, certainly adventurous. In our house, we were frequent users of gunpowder. Simple chemistry would be put to use with benign, parental encouragement, and a helpful smiling assist from the local druggist.
A typical exchange was,
“Hi Mr. Taylor! Can I have half a pound of potassium nitrate and another half of sulphur please?”
With a wry smile, his response, “Heheh, okay, and don’t blow yourselves up.”
When I consider that discussion, and our brazen, guileless approach, I should have added, “and a dozen prophylactics too, please.” It would have thrown him off course, I am sure.
Somehow, the ingredients were mixed with a third, which I will omit for current security concerns, and we would enthrall and impress our friends with carefully rolled fireworks, stink bombs and countless rocket duds that never made it off the launch pad.
Through all of these semi-innocent shenanigans, we never paid a serious price, but I am sure that there were others not so lucky. In any event, today, 65 years later, these escapades are pretty much eliminated from the experience of young kids, and I am thankful.
Back then it was just part of growing up. But Darwin was right.
Still, I have to see Volume 3, CO to EL. I can only imagine.
Thanks for reading! I hope you are thankful for all the precautions and safeguards we now have in place today. Still, you have to wonder how we made it this far.