Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 572:
THE BOY SCIENTIST

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 572.

Today, a boy learns science in 1925. 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.

I found a wonderful book the other day. It's called The Boy Scientist. It's a fat red book published in 1925. It has 340 illustrations and no equations. The writing is simple. It's meant for high-school boys. This, of course, was a world where science writers didn't yet know women existed. It was the simple world that I still knew in my own childhood.

It's clear what's really on the author's mind. Einstein is on his mind. Chapter I explains space, time, and the fourth dimension. Chapter II tells about matter, force, and motion.

He gets down to brass tacks in Chapter III. The title is "The Einstein Theory." It is, he tells us, "a subject you ought to know about if you wish to keep abreast of the times."

In 1925, everybody was explaining Einstein. Everyone was dropping balls in moving trains in the vain hope they could make us understand why we age slowly on a rocket ship to Alpha Centauri. Modern was the new catchword in 1925.

But now our brave new author has got Einstein off his chest. We settle down to the real fun. Now chapters wear titles like, "Astronomy in a nutshell" and "Chemistry Made Easy." There are chapters on surveying, photography, crystallography, radio, movies, and flight.

The author fears nothing. He shows you how to make your own spectroscope, radio, or X-ray machine. The X-ray machine is scary. We hadn't connected X-rays and cancer in 1925. He writes,

Now if you place your hand against the cardboard in front of the fluoroscope, then hold it within 6 or 8 inches of the X- ray tube, . . . you will see the bones in your hand . . .
Do that often enough and you'll end up glowing in the dark.

That was a simpler world. I was raised on books like this. I still carry scars that I gained in my own half-informed scientific inquiries. I bear them with a certain pride.

So we read on: "Sulphuric acid and how to make it." Here's a section on experiments you can do with radium. This was a modern, unconstrained world. Suddenly we all drove cars. We went to movies. We saw airplanes in the sky.

This funny off-balance book brings childhood back to me in a rush. I really did learn how things worked from books like this. They shaped me. They taught me rashness and naivete, and I cherish those lessons. I learned that what one fool can do, another can also do. This old book may be intemperate. But it also makes me grieve the passing of spring.

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

(Theme music)


Collins, A.F., The Boy Scientist. Boston: Lothrup, Lee & Shepard Co. 1925. (My thanks to the The Book Gallery in Beaumont, TX, for turning up this source



From The Boy Scientist, 1925

How to build your own X-Ray machine (Do not try this at home)



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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