Edmund Scientific – The Heyday of Science DIY

In various bio sketches, I’ve mentioned my early discovery of science. It began with an older brother’s microscope when I was in elementary, followed by a Porter Chemistry set (#608, if anyone’s keeping notes) acquired when I was 10, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on summer vacation (my saved allowance over the previous many months).

The big expansion came in grade 7, Junior high School, when, golly-bob-howdy, SCIENCE was a stand-alone subject from Mr. Anderson (don’t let his one wonky eye fool ya, the man saw everything). We captured protozoa from pond scum and watched them twitch and move under a microscope; we learned about osmosis with a hollowed-out half potato and maple syrup; we marveled at the explosive wonder of spontaneous combustion courtesy of flour, a drinking straw and a candle: I built dry-cleaner bag and birthday candle hot-air balloon UFO’s. Reading Popular Science Magazine led to those great advertisements from Edmund Scientific. “Space Conqueror Telescope” for the lofty (to me) price of $29.95. Unobtanium. But the catalogs were free.

Digest-sized, 100+ pulp pages of optics, science toys, chemistry and lab equipment, electrical gizmos of all descriptions, war surplus componentry, the singular Spilhaus Space Clock and more, it was the burgeoning mad scientist’s one-stop shopping venue.

The semi-annual catalog changed in small increments. The first task each six months was to determine what was new, and what had gone up in price.

The telescope pages were the highlight for me. The 3″ Space Conqueror reflector; the 4 1/4″ Palomar; the 6″ Space Challenger with choice of manual or clock drive equatorial mount. The refractors, elegant in their classic design.

By the summer between grade 10 and 11, I’d saved enough from my paper route for my first motorbike (Honda S65, used) and the mighty F/10 3″ Space Conqueror. I’ll give to Edmund, they may have skimped a bit on the wobbly wooden tripod ‘semi-equatorial’ mount (if you lived on the 40th parallel) and the 3X finder scope, but they tossed in a whack of literature. A wheeled star-finder, a paperback copy of The Handbook of the Heavens, various how to use your telescope booklets. And the telescope worked. My first backyard explorations of lunar craters, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter and its 4 most visible moons, Venus’ changing disc to crescent, M31, M15, M57, double stars in the Big Dipper, Orion’s nebula. My sense of wonder never went away, even after moving on to bigger scopes (Edmund supplied the mirror kit and Foucault tester I used to grind, polish and perfect an 8″ F/8 mirror. With the help of their literature, old Mechanix Illustrated Amateur Telescope Makers’ pages and ideas of my own, built a very usable ‘scope).

As all things from our youth, Edmund Scientific changed from that cornucopia of evil genius delights to laser shows for would-be rock concert promoters. The company founded by Norman Edmund in the 1940’s and carried forward by son Robert, still exists under the Scientificsonline website. Ordering from Canada became complicated in the 1980’s by the emergence of an associated company, Efston Science, based in Toronto. Canadians had to order from them (at much higher cost, I believe), rather than the New Jersey home.

I wish I’d kept some of those old catalogs of wonder (last time I checked on Ebay, they go for outrageous sums), but they went in the recycler with the Estes and Centuri model rocketry catalogs, the Autoworld model catalogs, and the gum cards.
Norman W. Edmund passed away in 2012 at 95. Pretty neat combination of entrepreneur, science educator and inquiring mind.

Some links:

Writing What I Like To Read

This is a guest post I did for The Fictorian Blog. http://www.fictorians.com/

“Write what you know.” One of those pieces of advice intended to get you focused. Or, to keep you from writing. I mainly write speculative fiction, so in my case, it’s “write what you don’t know, but wish.” Then add another layer. I write what I like to read. Sounds simple; but what do I like to read?

What draws me in and what authors do I return to and why? How do I know the experience and invested time will be worthwhile?

I like to be immersed in a world which the author has taken time to know. It doesn’t have to be detailed excruciatingly but one can tell if the author has worked it all out so that the setting, (physical, economic, social, political, etc.) works, in the background. This provides the stimuli for the characters to act and react realistically.

So we begin with a consistent, believable setting. The effort to create this in mystery and even conventional horror genres is different than SF or fantasy. The setting must be no less contradictory to what the reader knows or expects. Now, I’m immersed in the author’s world, my disbelief is suspended, what’s next?

Character and plot arcs which intersect, in conflict. Goals which matter; inaction will be fatal. Big points for originality.

I desire characters who exhibit psychological realism. The protagonist may be flawed, may be damaged beyond retrieval, but I want to see their actions and motivations portrayed believably. Their flaws are often the main reason they are in conflict with their environment. They find themselves in conflict willingly or not, but inevitably. Now the writer shows his or her talent by solving the issue through exploiting the character’s weaknesses but building on their strengths as well. And I believe the protagonist should have some strength, otherwise why should I care about them? Making me care about them is the tough art. Put them in a familiar quandary, something universal for the reader to identify with (broken relationship, loss of a loved one or thing, financial hardship, disease, injury, injustice).

I read for entertainment. I write to entertain. I read to learn, not to be converted. I write to teach, not preach. The best writers let me take away their interpretation of an issue of importance. Not necessarily to convince me, but to stimulate my own thoughts on the subject.

The other lure for me is the book containing a ‘big idea’. Hard to define in absolutes but some authors consistently produce a concept and character(s) which transcend the genre; epic in design and originality. Think “The City and The City” by China Mieville.

So much for ‘critical reading’. Sometimes I read for sheer brain candy. Reading to decompress from life. These are the books with no hidden message but I still have my standards. Natural storytellers (Robert E. Howard, William Campbell Gault, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson) can create a setting and characters in conflict in a dozen strokes of their writer’s brush; like a pen artist creating a portrait or landscape in the simplest of lines. They make it look easy but like the artist, it took many false strokes and many wrong words before it became ‘natural’. They apprenticed under the gun of a penny or less per word in the pulps. They learned quickly because they had to eat. I don’t read them critically, as I would the aforementioned China Mieville, William Gibson or Peter Watts (three of the more consistent and original writers working in spec fic) but I do analyze passages which work well. Again the fewest strokes of the brush technique to paint the picture before getting on with the action, which is why I dropped by in the first place.

Summarizing, I appreciate and look for: a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict; psychological realism where the characters behave consistently within their limitations and strengths and use both to resolve the conflicts; and originality. I hope I succeed at some level incorporating these attributes in my own writing.