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.
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