When toys, Heathkit and TV/movie serials made the engineer

When I was a young child in the 1950s, one year I received a Christmas toy called the Marx Cape Canaveral Missile Base from my parents. I was always very interested in outer space, but this is even before President Kennedy announced that we were going to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 60s decade.

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I remember that there was a 45-rpm record included that played an announcement something like this, “The Marx Cape Canaveral Missile Base is now in operation!” There was also a countdown and rocket/missile launch part of the record. I think that’s when I became “Rocket Man” or “Rocket Boy” that day.

Although, the box said ‘Atomic’ and ‘Missile Base’, in my mind it was a rocket launch base that would take a person into space. Flash Gordon was one of my favorite TV shows in the mid-50s and I believed this could someday be true:

Flash Gordon was my hero; his adventures further fueled my imagination and Dr. Zarkov was my first mentor as a brilliant scientist, and I was infatuated with Dale Arden. Ming the Merciless was, of course, the arch-enemy of all the universe!

I later was able to see some older 1936 serials of the original Flash Gordon—Buster Crabbe—that was cool too!

Of course, what cemented the deal for me to want to be an electrical engineer, was the Mercury Program in the 60s and a Heathkit crystal radio project that I built as a young boy. When I built this simple radio receiver and was able to tune a single channel in and hear a radio station, I got ‘hooked’ on a life of discovery and building circuits.

Young, future engineers today have the opportunity to find their passion regarding what they want to be, on the Internet and all the social media platforms. This venue offers such a wide breadth of information, but maybe sometimes too much information if that flow of data is not properly monitored. My parents only needed to monitor Radio and TV programs/commercials in an era when people who were married slept in separate beds and the worst thing said in anger was ‘Darn it!”

Hopefully, this new generation will get the right kind of guidance and information that they need to help fuel their passion for what they love and lead them to a role in our world to do something beneficial for the benefit of all people. I guess I am hoping for an ideal situation, but I just want the young generation to get the good start that I had, at an early age, regarding what to do with their lives.

What are your thoughts and experiences regarding this topic?

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7 comments on “When toys, Heathkit and TV/movie serials made the engineer

  1. jciern
    December 20, 2017

    It was the Radio Shack 100 in 1 Kit that hooked me. A neighborhood friend had one – at nearly $30 back in 1970 I couldn't afford to buy one. Building a radio receiver seems to be the main thing to accomplish. From my friend's basement in Hartford, CT, tuning into several NYC AM stations was awesome.


  2. Steve Taranovich
    December 20, 2017

    @jciern—That's so neat—-I didn't have any money as well, but I would have loved the 100 in 1 kit!

  3. DaveR1234
    December 20, 2017

    I still remember tuning in a radio station with a crystal and headphones when I was about 10.  As I recall, there was no 'tuner', you just picked up whatever station was the strongest.  Since I was only 5 miles from 50,000 watt WJR (Detroit) it came in pretty clear.   At about 7 or 8, I strung a pair of wires half a block to a friends house and and we could talk using a pair of telephone headsets and battery. 

  4. David Ashton
    December 20, 2017

    I think what got electricity flowing in my veins was when I was about 4, I discovered these holes in the wall that some rods I used to play with fitted into nicely.  But one day when I put one in I ended up on the other side of the room feeling very sorry for myself.

    A British publisher published some kids books on various topics called “Ladybird books”.  I had one of these (amongst many) entitled “Magnests, Bulbs and Batteries”.  My dad also bought me some of the said items to experiment with,  a few torch bulbs later I had got the basics.  

    I also went through the Crystal set route – lots of turns of thin wire wound on an empty toilet paper roll, a capacitor out of a dead tube radio, a germanium diode and some WW2 surplus headphones.  Conjuring radio stations out of the ether yourself certainly does get you hooked.  A few years later I was fixing dead radios instead of pulling them apart. 

    BTW Steve… “an era when people who were married slept in separate beds”.  So how did you get here?  Or is there a “not” missing in there? 🙂

    Lastly, a great Christmas and happy new year to all.

  5. catherinedenvers
    December 21, 2017

    Toys also inspired me to study electrical engineering. The most incredible thing is that we realize that the vocation for a profession comes from childhood, whether with toys, serials, etc.

    Catherine Aqui

  6. Steve Taranovich
    December 22, 2017

    @catherinedenvers—Excellent observation–a child's mind is a fertile and absorbing wonder–we can only hope that they are exposed to wondrous things that stimulate their imagination and create a burning desire to strive towards a profession or trade that they love.

  7. cs57
    January 10, 2018

    In the middle of 60's, Philips announced in Brazil, (I supposed also in Europe) a “Electronic Engineer” kit which was a fascinating kit, enabling the user to assembly 22 different circuits: amplifiers, radio, various control circuits, even a small “electronic organ”. It was really a amazing toy!!

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