…Ingenuity Circa 1955

Posted on August 31, 2010
Filed Under Technology | Leave a Comment

My colleague Doug’s recent Ingenuity: From Inside Out on the benefits of children learning by taking things apart prompted a recollection from my youth.

I was maybe eight-years-old and my closest friend, Mike, and I loved to play in my father’s garage taking things apart. My dad was a great mechanic who also loved to tinker with old radios and other things he would pick up at junk shops, so there were always lots of interesting projects sitting around on shelves or benches. One day Mike and I found an old farm battery – a big one maybe half the size of a modern automotive battery.  It was old and had a paper (light cardboard) wrap with the manufacturer’s graphics and a very curious inscription on the top, something like: “Strike here with hammer to energize battery.”  I can remember Mike and me speculating on what possible mechanism could be inside that would require one to hit the battery before using it.  We decided to find out.

We took off the cardboard cover but we saw no mechanism – only black gunk that looked like tar.  Now we were really curious, so we peeled off the gunk trying to expose the innards.  We finally decided to simply smack it with a hammer and find out what happened.  We hooked the posts to a flashlight bulb and I drew the straw for smacking honors.

I drew back and hit it a good blow, at which point glass shards flew and clear liquid gushed out and splattered me right in the face.  I ran screaming into the house where my mother quickly rinsed me off – my face was a little red but I was none the worse for wear.

As my father later explained, I was rather lucky because what I was splattered with was sulphuric acid.  It turns out old farm batteries had to have a long shelf life so they put the acid in a sealed glass container that separated it from the anode and cathode, and then coated the whole thing in bitumen to hold the components together and  protect the thin glass container.  When the farmer was ready to use the battery he would strike the battery on top, breaking the glass and releasing the acid into the cell to start the electrochemical process.  What saved me from more serious injury was that the battery was maybe 25 years old and had lost much of its acidity through age and, presumably, reaction with the glass.  That near miss slowed us down a little, but we were soon back in the garage taking things apart.

Notice the kids in the photograph in Doug’s posting – they are all wearing safety glasses. I wonder why Mike and I never thought of that? – Dennis Owen


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