Though I write and illustrate books, I'd like to begin my first blog post with a note about books I neither wrote nor illustrated: a beloved, personal collection of 19th century popular science books, many of them written for children and families. Typically, they were aimed at boys, but they surely would have appealed to any Victorian curious to learn about the latest advances in science and technology of the time. With titles like Magical Experiments, Half Hours of Scientific Amusements and The Fairy Land of Science (the latter, notably written by a woman, Arabella B. Buckley), the books were clearly meant to entertain as well as enlighten, predating current hands-on learning and "edutainment" trends by more than 100 years. Take a close look at the title page of Popular Scientific Recreations below. At 884 pages, the book is just a dozen pages short of J.K. Rowling's behemoth, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and with at least as many marvels to offer:
To a project-oriented, scientifically curious individual such as myself, it's a delight to flip through its fragile pages and peruse its 900 illustrations. On one such occasion in the 1980's (when I first started the collection), I came across an experiment showing an improbably stacked set of dominoes. After providing a few tips on how to build the stack, the text reassures us the stack will "remain in equilibrio provided that the perpendicular drawn from the center of gravity passes through the base of sustentation of the lowest domino."
And with that, the short chapter on The Equilibrium of Bodies concludes, but not before announcing, "In our next section we shall deal with the Density and the Movements of Gases."
However, we're not nearly done with Equilibrium of Bodies. Would that trick really work? That's the question I asked back in the 1980's. As it happens, I had an authentic, 19th century domino set in my studio – props left over from a photo-puzzle I'd created for GAMES magazine – and so began my foray into the world of "pleasing experiments and attractive pastimes". I set about carefully stacking the ivory and ebony tiles, ready to document the moment with the "Instragram" device of the day – a SX-70 Polaroid camera.
It worked! The trick, as noted in Popular Scientific Recreations, is to temporarily support the stack with three dominoes, then gently remove the two outer ones and place them on top. I used a set of double-nine dominoes, drawing from a total of 55 tiles, but a standard set of 28 double-six dominoes makes for a more effective parlor trick as the entire set would be stacked on a single domino using the above configuration.
In another book, Magic at Home (1891), I found another balancing experiment, this one with a bit of inherent jeopardy, as failure would result in broken eggs. As I recall, I may have lost a couple, but I eventually succeeded, as you'll see below. I used a raw egg, and heavy-handled forks helped to keep the center of gravity low, adding stability to the "system".
You may have noticed the similarity of the engravings in both books. That's because many British and American popular science books were following similar trends going on in France, some of which borrowed from the same French publications. I have (unconfirmed) suspicions that the engravings were based on photographs, so with that in mind, I deliberately imitated the engravings viewpoint and lighting as much as possible. This time, the film of choice was 8"x10" Ektachrome.
My book collection quickly became, and continues to provide, a deep-well source of inspiration. My 1997 book, A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder, quotes from Arabella Buckley's The Fairy Land of Science of 1890, and derives experiments from C.V. Boys' 1896 classic, Soap Bubbles (more on those books in future posts).
In 2007, I made "Balancing Act", a photograph clearly inspired by the early books, showing a 117 (unbreakable) toys balancing on a single LEGO® brick. Note the heavy pool balls hanging at the bottom. Like the forks, their weight and position help stabilize the structure by lowering the center of gravity. The resulting photograph was a gift to the Connecticut Science Center, where I served as a trustee. It's been on display since the center's opening. A short, behind-the-scenes "Balancing Act" video can be found here.
A version of "Balancing Act" was adapted for my fold-out book, Hey,Seymour! (2015). Reimagined as "Balancing Tricks" (pictured below), this very tall picture is accessed in the book on a page that shows a smaller version of the stack, which then doubles in size to 20" when the page is unfolded vertically. The book features a search & find game, not hands-on instruction. But my thought in making this picture, was the search need not be within just any pile of toys if the same toys could be reconfigured to inspire the question, "Would that trick really work?"
My apologies to the keepers of any orderly household now enduring the chaos of flying toys (here's a tip – start with dominoes). However, I'm a lifelong advocate of learning through play. I need to look no further than my bookshelf for validation. The books may be a century old, but the forces that keep my stack of toys "in equilibrio" never go out of style.