One of my most memorable accomplishments in school was winning the 8th grade science fair. I made an electric motor that I wish I still had. It was quite a beautiful thing and it was something I made with almost no money, some basic tools, and a lot of hard work. My dad was proud that no one believed I made it without his help.
My project was a reciprocating solenoid engine similar to the one shown below.
(Click on it to learn how this one was made).
Mine was actually more homemade and more highly polished. My solenoid wasn’t prefabricated like this one. I made it from an aluminum tube, some magnet wire, and wooden supports. It had a piston made from a tin can wrapped around terminal screws that ran on a rail made from an old coat hanger. The flywheel was made from a Kiwi shoe polish can. And the base was stained and shined like a piece of fine furniture. It was quite a piece of work, museum quality as I remember it.
I always wanted to be an inventor. My favorite toys were Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, chemistry sets, and a Radio Shack 150-in-1 electronics kit.
Lesson learned from an early “invention”
My first attempt to invent something was eye-opening. In a 5th grade class project we were asked to invent something using class supplies like cardboard, popsicle sticks, scotch tape, wires, balloons, rubber bands, straws, and things like that. The other kids did what they were expected to do. One invented a back scratcher. Another invented a stick for pointing at things. Another invented a safety cover for scissors. I wanted to try something more ambitious. To me inventing something was important. It was a challenge to try to make something new and useful.
I set out to make a volumeter! It was to be a device that measured sound levels. It wasn’t very practical, but it was imaginative. It had a clock face and a needle with marks numbered one to ten. A shaft led down to a membrane (a rubber balloon stretched across a loop of wire made from a clothes hanger.) The balloon pressed against a lever that caused a needle to turn. The further the balloon pressed, the further the needle turned. The idea was that a loud sound would turn the needle further than a soft sound. It seemed like it should work. But it didn’t. I know if I had enough time I could have made it work 🙂 Meanwhile the other student’s pointer stick worked perfectly!
I learned a valuable lesson about how people measured success. There would be a high price to pay for trying to do something innovative if it failed. But doing something that was a total waste of time would be praised if done well. I wasn’t going to be the person who invented a stick to point at things. So I knew early on it was going to be a long hard road for me. I hoped I’d have some successes along the way.
The science fair
The eighth grade science fair was a chance to make something that was both functional and innovative. There was a whole school year to work on it. I was determined to build something using electricity. My dad had bought me a model train set and I had discovered that the transformer could be used to power coils that turned metal bolts into electromagnets. It was a mystical invisible force that fascinated me. There had to be something cool I could do.
I found a library book full of designs of simple machines that would make great science projects. The one that caught my eye was an electric motor made from a solenoid, an electromagnet! I knew I could build that.
An obstacle to overcome
But the electromagnets I had been experimenting with were rudimentary and dangerous! All I had was very heavy insulated wire. So my electromagnets were basically short circuits with high current and they only worked long enough to start to smoke and burn up. If I powered them with a battery they were safe but weak. If I used my train transformer they were powerful but a fire hazard. I thought I knew the solution. I just needed to get a lot of that shiny thin magnet wire used in actual motors. But I couldn’t find it in stores.
I convinced my mom to drive me to a factory that made electric motors. I marched in and asked to buy magnet wire. I was a shy kid but somehow I pulled it off. They didn’t even charge me.
My engine turned out great, mostly due to hard work and trial and error. It worked flawlessly and looked great. And for those reasons it got a lot more positive attention than it probably deserved. In hindsight I had shown only that I could be a good engineer. But I was secretly disappointed. I hadn’t managed to do anything innovative beyond a minor improvement to the plans. I think that’s probably why I didn’t keep it.