Friday, 27 July 2012

Activities of Yesteryear

One of the interesting things about reading books from the past is the occasional surprise they provide. One book of ‘make and do’ activities, The Boy Mechanic, has making a glider for its first project. When I first read that I pictured a small boy with a toy glider, throwing it into the air and watching it fly away. No, no, no. The plans given were for a full size glider that a child could sit in, while someone else pushed it downhill to aid it take flight. I wonder how many parents today would allow their ten year boy to build his own wooden glider and try to fly in it?

A  book on chemistry, to be done by children at home, explained how to make chlorine gas and instructed the readers to sniff the gas to prove that it was odourless. That’s not something that would be encouraged today because it’s now known that inhaling chlorine gas causes brain and lung damage. Someone once told me that chlorine gas was one of the ingredients experimented with during World War One, when both sides were trying to find a deadly gas to send across trenches.

Thankfully, not all the activity books were dangerous. Professor Hoffmann’s Puzzles Old and New is an interesting read. Like modern books some of the puzzles are mathematical but more interestingly, there are sections on physical Victorian puzzles – some of which I’m tempted to make if I find time.

One that caught my interest is The Electric Ball. As with the salesmanship involved in a lot of Victorian products, the name is misleading; no electricity is involved. Here is Professor Hoffmann’s description:

“This … is a French importation. It is more of a game than a puzzle, though it may be presented in either shape. It consists of a hollow elbow piece, A B B, to which is attached a sort of miniature gallows, C C. From the middle of this projects a ring, D, and suspended from its upper arm swings a little piece of strongly magnetised iron wire, E.  A gilt cork ball, F, into which are thrust six little iron pins with their heads projecting, completes the apparatus.

The ball being placed on the open end of BB, the operator brings A to his lips and blows through the tube, endeavouring to force the ball upwards through the ring, and bring one or other of the pinheads into contact with the magnetised wire, E, when the ball will remain suspended.”

I immediately recognised this gadget when I saw the picture. During my childhood, a friend of mine had been given one of these by an elderly relative. When he showed the puzzle to a group of us, although we considered ourselves too old to bother with such childish trifles, we lost about an hour taking turns trying to succeed in getting the cork ball up through the hoop and attached to the upper section.

Some of the puzzles are still available as very cheap products. Some even are found in Christmas crackers. Somehow, even before the age of the home computer or hand held game consul, they lost their popularity. I think this is mainly to do with the fact that, along with being cheaply made which reduces their working quality, every single one I’ve seen is seldom provided with any written instructions – and those that do are usually lacking in description and sometimes are just inaccurate. Another factor which puts off a modern customer is that when they are well made and do have complete instructions, they’re made as a luxury item (usually of the finest wood) with a ridiculous price comparable to a computer game.

Such is life.

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