Do It Yourself

Barnouw, Erik. Handbook of Radio Writing. Boston: Little, Brown, 1939. LCCN  39-030193.
This book is out of print. The link above will search for used copies which, while not abundant, when available are generally comparable in price to current hardbacks of similar length. The copy I read is the 1939 first edition. A second edition was published in 1945; I haven't seen one and don't know how it may differ.

August 2003 Permalink

Christensen, Mark. Build the Perfect Beast. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001. ISBN 0-312-26873-4.
Here's the concept: a bunch of Southern California morons set out to reinvent the automobile in the 1990's. This would be far more amusing were it not written by one of them, who remains, after all the misadventures recounted in the text, fully as clueless as at the get-go, and enormously less irritating had his editor at St. Martin's Press—a usually respectable house—construed their mandate to extend beyond running the manuscript through a spelling checker. Three and four letter words are misspelled; technical terms are rendered phonetically (“Nacca-duct”, p. 314; “tinsel strength”, p. 369), factual howlers of all kinds litter the pages, and even the spelling of principal characters varies from page to page—on page 6 one person's name is spelled two different ways within five lines. This may be the only book ever issued by a major publisher which manages to misspell “Popsicle” in two entirely different ways (pp. 234, 350). When you fork out US$26.95 for a book, you deserve something better than a first draft manuscript between hard covers. I've fact-checked many a manuscript with fewer errors than this book.

January 2003 Permalink

Gershenfeld, Neil. Fab. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 0-465-02745-8.
Once, every decade or so, you encounter a book which empowers you in ways you never imagined before you opened it, and ultimately changes your life. This is one of those books. I am who I am (not to sound too much like Popeye) largely because in the fall of 1967 I happened to read Daniel McCracken's FORTRAN book and realised that there was nothing complicated at all about programming computers—it was a vocational skill that anybody could learn, much like operating a machine tool. (Of course, as you get deeper into the craft, you discover there is a great body of theory to master, but there's much you can accomplish if you're willing to work hard and learn on the job before you tackle the more abstract aspects of the art.) But this was not only something that I could do but, more importantly, I could learn by doing—and that's how I decided to spend the rest of my professional life and I've never regretted having done so. I've never met a genuinely creative person who wished to spend a nanosecond in a classroom downloading received wisdom at dial-up modem bandwidth. In fact, I suspect the absence of such people in the general population is due to the pernicious effects of the Bismarck worker-bee indoctrination to which the youth of most “developed” societies are subjected today.

We all know that, some day, society will pass through the nanotechnological singularity, after which we'll be eternally free, eternally young, immortal, and incalculably rich: hey—works for me!   But few people realise that if the age of globalised mass production is analogous to that of mainframe computers and if the desktop nano-fabricator is equivalent to today's personal supercomputer, we're already in the equivalent of the minicomputer age of personal fabrication. Remember minicomputers? Not too large, not too small, and hence difficult to classify: too expensive for most people to buy, but within the budget of groups far smaller than the governments and large businesses who could afford mainframes.

The minicomputer age of personal fabrication is as messy as the architecture of minicomputers of four decades before: there are lots of different approaches, standards, interfaces, all mutually incompatible: isn't innovation wonderful? Well, in this sense no!   But it's here, now. For a sum in the tens of thousands of U.S. dollars, it is now possible to equip a “Fab Lab” which can make “almost anything”. Such a lab can fit into a modestly sized room, and, provided with electrical power and an Internet connection, can empower whoever crosses its threshold to create whatever their imagination can conceive. In just a few minutes, their dream can become tangible hardware in the real world.

The personal computer revolution empowered almost anybody (at least in the developed world) to create whatever information processing technology their minds could imagine, on their own, or in collaboration with others. The Internet expanded the scope of this collaboration and connectivity around the globe: people who have never met one another are now working together to create software which will be used by people who have never met the authors to everybody's mutual benefit. Well, software is cool, but imagine if this extended to stuff. That's what Fab is about. SourceForge currently hosts more than 135,500 software development projects—imagine what will happen when StuffForge.net (the name is still available, as I type this sentence!) hosts millions of OpenStuff things you can download to your local Fab Lab, make, and incorporate into inventions of your own imagination. This is the grand roll-back of the industrial revolution, the negation of globalisation: individuals, all around the world, creating for themselves products tailored to their own personal needs and those of their communities, drawing upon the freely shared wisdom and experience of their peers around the globe. What a beautiful world it will be!

Cynics will say, “Sure, it can work at MIT—you have one of the most talented student bodies on the planet, supported by a faculty which excels in almost every discipline, and an industrial plant with bleeding edge fabrication technologies of all kinds.” Well, yes, it works there. But the most inspirational thing about this book is that it seems to work everywhere: not just at MIT but also in South Boston, rural India, Norway far north of the Arctic Circle, Ghana, and Costa Rica—build it and they will make. At times the author seems unduly amazed that folks without formal education and the advantages of a student at MIT can imagine, design, fabricate, and apply a solution to a problem in their own lives. But we're human beings—tool-making primates who've prospered by figuring things out and finding ways to make our lives easier by building tools. Is it so surprising that putting the most modern tools into the hands of people who daily confront the most fundamental problems of existence (access to clean water, food, energy, and information) will yield innovations which surprise even professors at MIT?

This book is so great, and so inspiring, that I will give the author a pass on his clueless attack on AutoCAD's (never attributed) DXF file format on pp. 46–47, noting simply that the answer to why it's called “DXF” is that Lotus had already used “DIF” for their spreadsheet interchange files and we didn't want to create confusion with their file format, and that the reason there's more than one code for an X co-ordinate is that many geometrical objects require more than one X co-ordinate to define them (well, duh).

The author also totally gets what I've been talking about since Unicard and even before that as “Gizmos”, that every single device in the world, and every button on every device will eventually have its own (IPv6) Internet address and be able to interact with every other such object in every way that makes sense. I envisioned MIDI networks as the cheapest way to implement this bottom-feeder light-switch to light-bulb network; the author, a decade later, opts for a PCM “Internet 0”—works for me. The medium doesn't matter; it's that the message makes it end to end so cheaply that you can ignore the cost of the interconnection that ultimately matters.

The author closes the book with the invitation:

Finally, demand for fab labs as a research project, as a collection of capabilities, as a network of facilities, and even as a technological empowerment movement is growing beyond what can be handled by the initial collection of people and institutional partners that were involved in launching them. I/we welcome your thoughts on, and participation in, shaping their future operational, organizational, and technological form.
Well, I am but a humble programmer, but here's how I'd go about it. First of all, I'd create a “Fabrication Trailer“ which could visit every community in the United States, Canada, and Mexico; I'd send it out on the road in every MIT vacation season to preach the evangel of “make” to every community it visited. In, say, one of eighty of such communities, one would find a person who dreamed of this happening in his or her lifetime who was empowered by seeing it happen; provide them a template which, by writing a cheque, can replicate the fab and watch it spread. And as it spreads, and creates wealth, it will spawn other Fab Labs.

Then, after it's perfected in a couple of hundred North American copies, design a Fab Lab that fits into an ocean cargo container and can be shipped anywhere. If there isn't electricity and Internet connectivity, also deliver the diesel generator or solar panels and satellite dish. Drop these into places where they're most needed, along with a wonk who can bootstrap the locals into doing things with these tools which astound even those who created them. Humans are clever, tool-making primates; give us the tools to realise what we imagine and then stand back and watch what happens!

The legacy media bombard us with conflict, murder, and mayhem. But the future is about creation and construction. What does An Army of Davids do when they turn their creativity and ingenuity toward creating solutions to problems perceived and addressed by individuals? Why, they'll call it a renaissance! And that's exactly what it will be.

For more information, visit the Web site of The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, which the author directs. Fab Central provides links to Fab Labs around the world, the machines they use, and the open source software tools you can download and start using today.

December 2006 Permalink

Gurstelle, William. Adventures from the Technology Underground. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-5082-0.
This thoroughly delightful book invites the reader into a subculture of adults who devote their free time, disposable income, and considerable brainpower to defying Mr. Wizard's sage injunction, “Don't try this yourself at home”. The author begins with a handy litmus test to decide whether you're a candidate for the Technology Underground. If you think flying cars are a silly gag from The Jetsons, you don't make the cut. If, on the other hand, you not only think flying cars are perfectly reasonable but can barely comprehend why there isn't already one, ideally with orbital capability, in your own garage right now—it's the bleepin' twenty-first century, fervent snakes—then you “get it” and will have no difficulty understanding what motivates folks to build high powered rockets, giant Tesla coils, flamethrowers, hypersonic rail guns, hundred foot long pumpkin-firing cannons, and trebuchets (if you really want to make your car fly, it's just the ticket, but the operative word is “fly”, not “land”). In a world where basement tinkering and “that looks about right” amateur engineering has been largely supplanted by virtual and vicarious experiences mediated by computers, there remains the visceral attraction of heavy metal, high voltage, volatile chemicals, high velocities, and things that go bang, whoosh, zap, splat, and occasionally kaboom.

A technical section explains the theory and operation of the principal engine of entertainment in each chapter. The author does not shrink from using equations where useful to clarify design trade-offs; flying car fans aren't going to be intimidated by the occasional resonant transformer equation! The principles of operation of the various machines are illustrated by line drawings, but there isn't a single photo in the book, which is a real shame. Three story tall diesel-powered centrifugal pumpkin hurling machines, a four story 130 kW Tesla coil, and a calliope with a voice consisting of seventeen pulsejets are something one would like to see as well as read about, however artfully described.

February 2006 Permalink

Gurstelle, William. Whoosh Boom Splat. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. ISBN 0-307-33948-3.
So you've read The Dangerous Book for Boys and now you're wondering, “Where's the dangerous book for adults?”. Well, here you go. Subtitled “The Garage Warrior's Guide to Building Projectile Shooters”, in just 160 pages with abundant illustrations, the author shows how with inexpensive materials, handyman tools, and only the most modest of tinkering skills, you can build devices including a potato cannon which can shoot a spud more than 200 metres powered by hairspray, a no-moving-parts pulse jet built from a mason jar and pipe fittings, a steam cannon, a “snap shooter” made from an ordinary spring-type wooden clothespin which can launch small objects across a room (or, should that not be deemed dangerous enough, flaming matches [outside, please!]), and more. The detailed instructions for building the devices and safety tips for operating them are accompanied by historical anecdotes and background on the science behind the gadgets. Ever-versatile PVC pipe is used in many of the projects, and no welding or metalworking skills (beyond drilling holes) are required.

If you find these projects still lacking that certain frisson, you might want to check out the author's Adventures from the Technology Underground (February 2006), which you can think of as The Absurdly Dangerous Book for Darwin Award Candidates, albeit without the detailed construction plans of the present volume. Enough scribbling—time to get back to work on that rail gun.

December 2007 Permalink

Gurstelle, William. Backyard Ballistics. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1-55652-375-5
Responsible adults who have a compelling need to launch potatoes 200 metres downrange at high velocity, turn common paper matches into solid rockets, fire tennis balls high into the sky with duct taped together potato chip cans (potatoes again!) and a few drops of lighter fluid, launch water balloons against the aggressor with nothing more than surgical tubing and a little muscle power, engender UFO reports with shimmering dry cleaner bag hot air balloons, and more, will find the detailed instructions they need for such diversions in this book. As in his subsequent Whoosh Boom Splat (December 2007), the author provides detailed directions for fabricating these engines of entertainment from, in most cases, PVC pipe, and the scientific background for each device and suggestions for further study by the intrepid investigator who combines the curiosity of the intuitive experimentalist with the native fascination of the third chimpanzee for things that go flash and bang.

If you live in Southern California, I'd counsel putting the Cincinnati Fire Kite and Dry Cleaner Bag Balloon experiments on hold until after the next big rain.

July 2008 Permalink

Herrmann, Alexander. Herrmann's Book of Magic. Chicago: Frederick J. Drake & Co., 1903. LCCN 05035787.
When you were a kid, did your grandfather ever pull a coin from his pocket, clap his hands together and make it disappear, then “find” it behind your ear, sending you off to the Popsicle truck for a summer evening treat? If so, and you're now grandparent age yourself, this may be the book from which he learned that trick. Alexander Herrmann was a prominent stage magician in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this 1903 book, he reveals many of the secrets of the conjuror, from the fundamental sleight of hand skills of palming objects and vanishing and producing them, to the operation of famous illusions such as the disembodied head which speaks. This on-line edition, available both in HTML and Plain ASCII formats, is a complete reproduction of the book, including (in the HTML edition) all the illustrations.

If you must have a printed copy, you may find one at abebooks.com, but it will probably be expensive. It's much better to read the on-line edition produced from a copy found by Bill Walker at a yard sale and kindly contributed to produce this edition.

July 2006 Permalink

Jurich, E. J. Vacuum Tube Amplifier Basics. 2nd. ed. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. ASIN B00C0BMTGU.
If you can get past the sloppy copy-editing and production values, this book is a useful introduction for those interested in designing and building their own vacuum tube audio equipment. Millennials and others who have only ever listened to compressed audio will wonder why anybody would want to use such an antiquated technology, but those of us who appreciate it have a simple answer: it sounds better. The reason for this is simple once you poke through the mysticism surrounding the topic. It is in the nature of audio that peaks in the signal are much higher than the mean value. Solid-state amplifiers tend to be linear up until some signal level, but then “clip”—truncating the signal into a square top, introducing odd harmonics which the human ear finds distasteful. Tube amplifiers, on the other hand, tend to round off transients which exceed their capacity, introducing mostly second harmonic distortion which the ear and brain deem “mellow”.

Do you actually believe that?”, the silicon purity police shriek. Well, as a matter of fact, I do, and I currently use a 40 watt per channel tube amplifier I built from a kit more than a decade ago. It's a classic ultra-linear design using EL34 output tubes, and it sounds much better than the 200 watt per channel solid-state amplifier it replaced (after the silicon went up in smoke).

This book will introduce you to vacuum tube circuitry, and those accustomed to solid-state designs may be amazed at how few components are needed to get the job done. Since every component in the signal path has the potential to degrade its fidelity, the simplicity of vacuum tube designs is one of the advantages that recommend them. A variety of worked-out vacuum tube designs are presented, either to be built by the hobbyist or as starting points for original designs, and detailed specifications are presented for tubes widely used in audio gear.

The production quality is what we've sadly come to expect for inexpensive Kindle-only books. I noted more than 40 typographical errors (many involving the humble apostrophe), and in the tube data at the end, information which was clearly intended to be set in columns is just run together.

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned to it.

August 2013 Permalink

McCahill, Tom. Tom McCahill's Car Owner Handbook. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1956.
The 1950s in the United States were immersed in the car culture, and cars meant domestic Detroit iron, not those funny little bugs from Europe that eccentric people drove. American cars of the fifties may have lacked refinement and appear somewhat grotesque to modern eyes, but they were affordable, capacious, fast, and rugged. Just about anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of mechanics could work on them, and their simple design invited customisation and performance tuning. Tom McCahill was the most prominent automotive journalist of this epoch. His monthly column and reviews of cars in Mechanix Illustrated could make or break a model's prospects in the market. He was known for his colourful language: a car didn't just go fast, but “took off like a Killarney bat”, and cornered “like a bowling ball in a sewer pipe”. McCahill was one of the first voices to speak out about the poor build quality of domestic automobiles and their mushy suspension and handling compared to European imports, and he was one of the few automotive writers at the time to regularly review imports.

In this book, McCahill shares his wisdom on many aspects of car ownership: buying a new or used car; tune-up tips; choosing tires, lubricants, and fuel; dealing with break-downs on the road; long-distance trips; performance tweaks and more. You'll also encounter long-forgotten parts of the mid-century car culture such as the whole family making a trip to Detroit to pick up their new car at the factory and breaking it in on the way home. Somewhat surprisingly for a publication from the era of big V-8 engines and twenty-five cent gas, there's even a chapter on improving mileage. The book concludes with “When to Phone the Junkman”.

Although cars have been transformed from the straightforward designs of the 1950s into machines of inscrutable complexity, often mandated by bureaucrats who ride the bus or subway to work, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom here about automobiles and driving, some of it very much ahead of its time.

This “Fawcett How-To Book” is basically an issue of Mechanix Illustrated consisting entirely of McCahill's work, and even includes the usual advertisements. This work is, of course, hopelessly out of print. Used copies are available, but often at absurdly elevated prices for what amounts to a pulp magazine which sold for 75 cents new. You may have more luck finding a copy on eBay than through Amazon used book sellers. As best I can determine, this publication was never assigned a Library of Congress control number, although others in the series were.

December 2012 Permalink

McGivern, Ed. Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Clinton, NJ: New Win Publishing, [1938] 1975. ISBN 0-8329-0557-7.
This is a facsimile of the 1938 first edition, published to commemorate the centenary of the author's birth in 1874. Earlier facsimile editions of this classic were published in 1945, 1957, and 1965; copies of these as well as the first edition may be found at abebooks.com, but most are substantially more expensive than new copies of the 1975 reprint. Imagine trying to publish a book today which includes advice (pp. 461–462) on shooting targets off an assistant's head!

March 2004 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. New York: Plume, 2009. ISBN 978-0-452-29583-4.
As I write these comments in July of 2011, the legacy media and much of the “new” media are focussed on the sovereign debt crises in Europe and the United States, with partisans on every side of the issue and both sides of the Atlantic predicting apocalyptic consequences if their policy prescriptions are not promptly enacted. While much of the rhetoric is overblown and many of the “deadlines” artificial constructs created for political purposes, the situation cannot help but remind one of just how vulnerable the infrastructure of civilisation in developed nations has become to disruptions which, even a few decades ago, would have been something a resilient populace could ride out (consider civilian populations during World War II as an example).

Today, however, delivery of food, clean water, energy, life-sustaining pharmaceuticals, and a multitude of other necessities of life to populations increasingly concentrated in cities and suburbs is a “just in time” process, optimised to reduce inventory all along the chain from primary producer to consumer and itself dependent upon the infrastructure for its own operation. For example, a failure of the electrical power grid in a region not only affects home and business use of electricity, but will quickly take down delivery of fresh water; removal and processing of sewage; heating for buildings which rely on electrically powered air or water circulation systems and furnace burners; and telephone, Internet, radio, and television communication once the emergency generators which back up these facilities exhaust their fuel supplies (usually in a matter of days). Further, with communications down, inventory control systems all along the food supply chain will be inoperable, and individuals in the region will be unable to either pay with credit or debit cards or obtain cash from automatic teller machines. This only scratches the surface of the consequences of a “grid down” scenario, and it takes but a little reflection to imagine how a failure in any one part of the infrastructure can bring the rest down.

One needn't envision a continental- or global-scale financial collapse to imagine how you might find yourself on your own for a period of days to weeks: simply review the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornado swarms, and large-scale flooding in recent years to appreciate how events which, while inevitable in the long term but unanticipated until too short a time before they happened to effectively prepare for, can strike. The great advantage of preparing for the apocalypse is that when something on a smaller scale happens, you can ride it out and help your neighbours get through the difficult times without being a burden on stretched-thin emergency services trying to cope with the needs of those with less foresight.

This book, whose author is the founder of the essential SurvivalBlog site, is a gentle introduction to (quoting the subtitle) “tactics, techniques, and technologies for uncertain times”. By “gentle”, I mean that there is little or no strident doom-saying here; instead, the reader is encouraged to ask, “What if?”, then “What then?”, and so on until an appreciation of what it really means when the power is off, the furnace is dead, the tap is dry, the toilet doesn't flush, the refrigerator and freezer are coming to room temperature, and you don't have any food in the pantry.

The bulk of the book describes steps you can take, regardless of how modest your financial means, free time, and physical capacity, to prepare for such exigencies. In many cases, the cost of such common-sense preparations is negative: if you buy storable food in bulk and rotate your storage by regularly eating what you've stored, you'll save money when buying through quantity discounts (and/or buying when prices are low or there's a special deal at the store), and in an inflationary era, by buying before prices rise. The same applies to fuel, ammunition, low-tech workshop and gardening tools, and many other necessities when civilisation goes south for a while. Those seeking to expand their preparations beyond the basics will find a wealth of references here, and will find a vast trove of information on the author's SurvivalBlog.

The author repeatedly emphasises that the most important survival equipment is stored between your ears, and readers are directed to sources of information and training in a variety of fields. The long chapter on medical and dental care in exigent circumstances is alone almost worth the price of the book. For a fictional treatment of survival in an extreme grid-down societal collapse, see the author's novel Patriots (December 2008).

July 2011 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. Tools for Survival. New York: Plume, 2014. ISBN 978-0-452-29812-5.
Suppose one day the music stops. We all live, more or less, as part of an intricately-connected web of human society. The water that comes out of the faucet when we open the tap depends (for the vast majority of people) on pumps powered by an electrical grid that spans a continent. So does the removal of sewage when you flush the toilet. The typical city in developed nations has only about three days' supply of food on hand in stores and local warehouses and depends upon a transportation infrastructure as well as computerised inventory and payment systems to function. This system has been optimised over decades to be extremely efficient, but at the same time it has become dangerously fragile against any perturbation. A financial crisis which disrupts just-in-time payments, a large-scale and protracted power outage due to a solar flare or EMP attack, disruption of data networks by malicious attacks, or social unrest can rapidly halt the flow of goods and services upon which hundreds of millions of people depend and rely upon without rarely giving a thought to what life might be like if one day they weren't there.

The author, founder of the essential SurvivalBlog site, has addressed such scenarios in his fiction, which is highly recommended. Here the focus is less speculative, and entirely factual and practical. What are the essential skills and tools one needs to survive in what amounts to a 19th century homestead? If the grid (in all senses) goes down, those who wish to survive the massive disruptions and chaos which will result may find themselves in the position of those on the American frontier in the 1870s: forced into self-reliance for all of the necessities of life, and compelled to use the simple, often manual, tools which their ancestors used—tools which can in many cases be fabricated and repaired on the homestead.

The author does not assume a total collapse to the nineteenth century. He envisions that those who have prepared to ride out a discontinuity in civilisation will have equipped themselves with rudimentary solar electric power and electronic communication systems. But at the same time, people will be largely on their own when it comes to gardening, farming, food preservation, harvesting trees for firewood and lumber, first aid and dental care, self-defence, metalworking, and a multitude of other tasks. As always, the author stresses, it isn't the tools you have but rather the skills between your ears that determine whether you'll survive. You may have the most comprehensive medical kit imaginable, but if nobody knows how to stop the bleeding from a minor injury, disinfect the wound, and suture it, what today is a short trip to the emergency room might be life-threatening.

Here is what I took away from this book. Certainly, you want to have on hand what you need to deal with immediate threats (for example, firefighting when the fire department does not respond, self-defence when there is no sheriff, a supply of water and food so you don't become a refugee if supplies are interrupted, and a knowledge of sanitation so you don't succumb to disease when the toilet doesn't flush). If you have skills in a particular area, for example, if you're a doctor, nurse, or emergency medical technician, by all means lay in a supply of what you need not just to help yourself and your family, but your neighbours. The same goes if you're a welder, carpenter, plumber, shoemaker, or smith. It just isn't reasonable, however, to expect any given family to acquire all the skills and tools (even if they could afford them, where would they put them?) to survive on their own. Far more important is to make the acquaintance of like-minded people in the vicinity who have the diverse set of skills required to survive together. The ability to build and maintain such a community may be the most important survival skill of all.

This book contains a wealth of resources available on the Web (most presented as shortened URLs, not directly linked in the Kindle edition) and a great deal of wisdom about which I find little or nothing to disagree. For the most part the author uses quaint units like inches, pounds, and gallons, but he is writing for a mostly American audience. Please take to heart the safety warnings: it is very easy to kill or gravely injure yourself when woodworking, metal fabricating, welding, doing electrical work, or felling trees and processing lumber. If your goal is to survive and prosper whatever the future may bring, it can ruin your whole plan if you kill yourself acquiring the skills you need to do so.

February 2015 Permalink

Russell, D. A. The Design and Construction of Flying Model Aircraft. Leicester, England: Harborough Publishing, [1937, 1940] 1941. British Library Shelfmark 08771.b.3.
In 1941, Britain stood alone in the West against Nazi Germany, absorbing bombing raids on its cities, while battling back and forth in North Africa. So confident was Hitler that the British threat had been neutralised, that in June he launched the assault against the Soviet Union. And in that dark year, some people in Britain put the war out of their minds by thinking instead about model airplanes, guided by this book, written by the editor of The Aero-Modeller magazine and published in that war year.

Modellers of this era scratch built their planes—the word “kit” is absent from this book and seemingly from the vocabulary of the hobby at the time. The author addresses an audience who not only build their models from scratch, but also design them from first principles of aerodynamics—in fact, the first few chapters are one of the most lucid expositions of basic practical aerodynamics I have ever read. The text bristles with empirical equations, charts, and diagrams, as well as plenty of practical advice to the designer and builder.

While many modellers of the era built featherweight aircraft powered by rubber bands, others flew petrol-powered beasts which would intimidate many modellers today. Throughout the book the author uses as an example one of his own designs, with a wingspan of 10 feet, all-up weight in excess of 14 pounds, and powered by an 18 cc. petrol engine.

There was no radio control, of course. All of these planes simply flew free until a clockwork mechanism cut the ignition, then glided to a landing on whatever happened to be beneath them at the time. If the time switch should fail, the plane would fly on until the fuel was exhausted. Given the size, weight, and flammability of the fuel, one worried about the possibility of burning down somebody's house or barn in such a mishap, and in fact p. 214 is a full-page advert for liability insurance backed by Lloyds!

This book was found in an antique shop in the British Isles. It is, of course, hopelessly out of print, but used copies are generally available at reasonable prices. Note that the second edition (first published in 1940, reprinted in 1941) contains substantially more material than the 1937 first edition.

April 2007 Permalink

von Dach, Hans. Total Resistance. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, [1958] 1965. ISBN 0-87364-021-7.
This is an English translation of Swiss Army Major von Dach's Der totale Widerstand — Kleinkriegsanleitung für jedermann, published in 1958 by the Swiss Non-commissioned Officers' Association. It remains one of the best manuals for guerrilla warfare and civilian resistance to enemy occupation in developed countries. This is not a book for the faint-hearted: von Dach does not shrink from practical advice such as, “Fire upon the driver and the assistant driver with an air rifle. …the force of the projectile is great enough to wound them so that you can dispose of them right afterward with a bayonet.” and “The simplest and surest way to dispose of guards noiselessly is to kill them with an ax. Do not use the sharp edge but the blunt end of the ax.” There is strategic wisdom as well—making the case for a general public uprising when the enemy is near defeat, he observes, “This way you can also prevent your country from being occupied again even though by friendly forces. Past experience shows that even ‘allies’ and ‘liberators’ cannot be removed so easily. At least, it's harder to get them to leave than to enter.”

December 2003 Permalink

Yates, Raymond F. A Boy and a Battery. rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1959. ISBN 0-060-26651-1.

March 2002 Permalink

Yates, Raymond F. Atomic Experiments for Boys. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952. LCCN 52-007879.
This book is out of print. You may be able to locate a copy through abebooks.com; that's where I found mine.

April 2002 Permalink

Yates, Raymond F. A Boy and a Motor. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944. LCCN  44-002179; ASIN 0-060-26666-X.
This book is out of print and used copies are not abundant. The enterprising young electrician who comes up empty handed at the link above is encouraged to also check abebooks.com.

September 2002 Permalink