Thursday, January 31, 2013

The storeroom

In 1926, the parish of Saints Peter and Paul opened a new elementary/high school on 8th Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was state-of-the-art. Science lab, cafeteria/gymnasium, library. Staffed by Dominican Sisters of the Nashville motherhouse.

Among the first students of the new high school were my parents, Chester and Margaret. Dad was a few years ahead of Mom. They lived across the street from each other, and got married after university. I followed them to Notre Dame High School in 1949.

By then, the school was not so much state-of-the-art. The neighborhood had gone downhill; the school was a little ratty. The science lab was physically OK, but the science teaching was spotty. Behind the teacher's demonstration table at the front of the room was a storeroom with physics and chemistry equipment, but only the most basic contents were ever used. Still, that storeroom was a source of endless fascination for me.

I was thinking about it yesterday while writing about Thomas Edison. The stuff in that storeroom could have been right out of Edison's lab.

They don't make demonstration equipment like that anymore, all glass, shiny brass and varnished hardwood. Spindles beautifully turned, bases handsomely routed. Induction coils. Hand-operated vacuum pump. Geissler tubes in a dazzling variety of shapes. Telegraph keys. Electromagnet door bells. Bell jar. Pairs of bar magnets in wooden boxes. All that wonderful stuff that probably came with the school, just sitting there mostly unused because no one knew what to do with it.

But not without pedagogical effect. Every chance I got, I slipped into the storeroom and fed my imagination. Then I went home to Dad's basement workshop and wound my own electromagnets, set my own sparks flying. Made motors. Sent signals along wires. Found a dozen uses for a clapper doorbell –- without the bell.

Is that why I went off to study electrical engineering and physics? Must have been part of it. Not just the intellectual stimulation, but also the tactile beauty of the equipment. There was an aesthetic dimension to the fascination. If the demo stuff in the dusty storeroom was so beautiful, what about the hidden beauty in nature itself.