The gang of 7 to 12 year old urchins we used to hang around with in the early 1960s in the Northwood section of Frankford, between Castor Avenue, Wakeling Street, Oakland Street, and Harrison Street, were definitely all “scientists.” We formed a science club which met in the basement of Nicky Macko’s house once a week. Nicky was the President — it was his family’s house, after all. Each of us would go to Frankford library at Frankford Avenue and Overington Streets whenever we could and borrow as many books as we could on how to do interesting science experiments at home. We’d study the books with rapt attention. Mostly we’d look for ways to turn junk into science experiments — much cheaper!
Electronics was the most fascinating science. Those were the glory days of vacuum tube technology. I was fascinated to discover that magnets, held close to the vacuum tubes filled with ionized gas emitting blue light, attracted the ionized gas to the magnet. I brought my AM radio, cover removed, to the next meeting of The Science Club, after I discovered that the ionized cloud in vacuum tubes was attracted to magnets, and plugged it in, and everyone “oooooooooooo’d” and “aaaaaaaaaaah’d” as they moved their magnets close to the vacuum tubes and saw the ion clouds in them move toward the magnet.
We discovered static electricity. If it was Fall or Winter, so that the air was very dry, we would recover the fluorescent tube-type bulb from someone’s trash (being careful not to break it — they explode), put on our best shoes, turn off all of the lights in the house, and walk across the room, shoes sliding on the rug, while we carried the fluorescent bulb in our hands. Lo and behold, the bulb would flash, all of the way across the room!
Then one of the guys — I forget who — discovered “exothermic reactions.” If you go into a closet with a roll of garden variety masking tape and close the door behind you, after your eyes get used to the darkness if you pull a piece of tape off the roll you will see light coming off the roll at the point where the tape separates from the roll as you pull it off.
In you similarly take Wintergreen Life Savers into a dark closet, and snap one of them in half with pliers, you will see the Life Saver give off a tiny flash of light.
The really annoying productions of The Science Club, from our parents’ perspective, were the ones requiring that strings or wires be strung between houses or trees outside.
We built “foxhole radios,” a kind of AM radio anyone can make out of junk. It uses a piece of wood, thumb tacks, insulated copper wire, a #2 lead
pencil, a safety pin of the type used for a baby’s diaper, a rusty razor blade, and the cardboard tube from the inside of a roll of toilet paper. The only non-junk item needed was a pair of headphones.
We would construct the radio, hang a 50 foot copper wire antenna between trees or homes (so that the ends of the antenna did not actually touch the trees or homes, but instead were held by string connected to trees or homes), run a lead from the antenna to the “radio,” run a separate wire from the “radio” to a pipe in the house, and hear 1210 AM in the headphones. No battery was needed — the antenna itself generated enough voltage for us to hear the radio program in the headphones.
We also connected houses with the tin can walkie-talkie sets — just ordinary tin cans in each house, with taut strings running from tin can to tin can, set up so that the strings touched nothing but the cans, and we would shout massages to each other through string. The vibrations of the sounds of our voices were conveyed through the string from one house to another.
And I guess the most annoying thing of all to our parents was our discovery of the home made telegraph. We’d run telegraph lines between houses, and telegraph Morse code to one another at night, and then run to the telephone to confirm the meaning of the message.
As we entered our pre-teen years, much to our parents’ dismay we became more skilled got at collecting junk for science.
Once I brought home a TV from someone’s trash.
My father sternly warned, “Don’t you DARE plug in that TV — it’s dangerous.”