by Al Williams July 29, 2016
Like a lot of engineers, I spent a lot of time in libraries when I was a kid. There were certain books you’d check out over and over again. One of those was [Raymond Barrett’s] Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory. That book really captured my imagination with plans for things as simple as a funnel to as complex as an arc furnace (I actually built that one; see diagram above), a cloud chamber, and an analog computer (see below). That book was from 1963 and that did present a few unique challenges when I read it in the 1970’s. It presents even more difficulty if you try to reproduce some of the projects in it today.
The world of 1963 was not as safe as our world today. Kids rode bicycles with no protective gear. Dentists gave kids mercury to play with. You could eat a little paint or have asbestos in your ceiling, and no one really worried about it.
That means some of the gear and experiments Barrett covers are difficult to recreate today or are just plain dangerous. For example, he suggests getting sulphuric acid at the drugstore. I don’t suggest you call your local Walgreens and ask them for it. The arc furnace — which could melt a nail, as I found out first hand — used a salt water rheostat which was basically an AC power cord with one conductor cut and passed through and open glass jar containing salt water! Fishing sinkers kept the wire from moving about (you hoped) and I suppose the chlorine gas probably emitted didn’t do me any permanent harm.
I was delighted to see that [Windell Oskay] has revised and rebuilt this great old book into a new edition. As much of the original as possible is still present, but with notes about how to work around material you can’t get any more or notes about safety.
The book still doesn’t pull any punches, though. On the section for the salt water rheostat, the author notes that there is value in building the device to learn about it, but if you want to use it for projects like the arc furnace, you should use an isolated variac. In fact, he suggests you really ought to use isolation when building the rheostat, too. He even tells you about specific eye protection I should have had with the arc furnace (unfortunately, some 40 plus years too late; fortunately, I got lucky and didn’t have any serious problems).
There’s tons of interesting projects and techniques in the book. Need to drill glass? Use a file and turpentine. Want to build a vacuum pump or a vacuum pressure gauge? ([Oskay] cautions about using mercury for the latter.) Want to build a microscope like Leeuwenhoek used? While it would be satisfying to get an old copy of the original, you’d spend a lot of time researching modern sources and replacements.
Although the book is aimed at kids, and possibly school use, it’s still fun for adults and most modern schools would ban a lot of the more interesting items in it anyway. You can always say you are buying it for your children. Or you can claim you are a prepper and you want to know how to build your own lab after the collapse. Either way, we won’t tell.
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