Mom, May I Take it Apart, Please?

I wouldn’t have wanted to be Thomas Alva Edison’s mother! That intensely curious boy with an abnormally large head would probably have driven me bonkers. When he learned that geese hatch after a mother goose sits on the eggs, he made a nest, gathered his own clutch and tried it himself. Another time, at the age of six, he burned his father’s barn to the ground when he was experimenting with fire. “I just wanted to see what it would do,” he’s reported to have said. (Does that sound familiar to you?) As a young child, Al, as his mother called him, would disappear as soon as her back was turned. Keeping that boy from hurting himself and others was a major occupation. Al had trouble at school, perhaps because he had dyslexia and maybe ADD. His mother, who had been a teacher prior to her marriage, didn’t believe the schoolmarm who thought he was “addled”, and instead began to homeschool her son.

Susan Wright was another mother who did much to encourage her sons’ curiosity. Spending much of her childhood in her father’s carriage shop, she was mechanically inclined herself. At Hartesville College in Indiana she studied science and literature, graduating as the top mathematician in her class. Susan often built household tools for herself and toys for her five surviving children. (A pair of twins died as infants.) Wilbur and Orville learned to love to tinker from their mother, and she was the one who helped with their projects such as making mechanical toys to sell to neighbors. (Centennial of Flight)
                                                             Orville and Wilbur Wright

Papa Wright, a “staunchly conservative” minister in a denomination that, as was common in the late 1800s, was making a decided move towards liberalism, also fostered his children’s inquisitiveness. When he traveled, he looked for interesting toys and gadgets such as a rubber band powered helicopter to bring home to his children. The Wright home had two libraries: one full of theology books, and the other with a wide variety of literature. NASA’s biography of Orville Wright, incidentally another mischievous child, quotes him as saying, "We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity."

Now while our children aren’t likely to invent anything on the order of the light bulb or airplane, as mothers we do have the opportunity to build and nourish a healthy sense of inquisitiveness or to squash it. How often do I throw out a quick, “I don’t know!” when asked a question by a curious child instead of helping him search out an answer? I sure don’t want a child burning down the barn just because he wanted to see what would happen! But I do want to give my children plenty of opportunities to (safely) explore and test out hypothesis and ideas.

My son Paul is fascinated with gears, springs, electronics, and other gizmos and gadgets. He’s always asking for something to take apart. Following my description of Paul’s unfortunate experience with the washing machine, Lydia asked what, in addition to flashlights, are legitimate targets for curious children. I’ve come up with these lists, some of which my junior mechanics will be exploring this fall as we study inventions and simple machines. If you have other ideas, please share them!

Category A: Fun things to peek into and watch at work
- Piano. Lift the lid and let kids see what happens when another one strikes the keys. What’s different when the damper pedal or the quiet pedal is held? Note the various combinations of levels at work.

- Toilet. Take the top off the back of the stool and watch as you flush. Again, levers are at work.

- Old fashioned hand crank pencil sharpener. Can you find a wedge? (Triangular piece used to split apart, raise, or pry open.) You can see how zippers uses wedges here.

- Stapler. Open up and look for spring, lever, and wedge.

Category B: Things that can be taken apart

- Any broken small appliances or electronic devices. Paul and Ben had so much fun smashing the casing of our worn out dehydrator motor to get to the innards. When our hair clippers began doing more hair pulling than trimming, I passed them on to Paul. Worn out printers, kitchen scales, etc. make for fun discovery learning. Paul now possesses a large spring collection from various discarded items. You can also ask friends and family to save broken small appliances for your inventor-wannabe, or buy cheapo mechanical toys at a thrift or dollar store.

- Doorknob. Disassemble and try to turn the axle with just your fingers. How does the doorknob make it easier? (Wheel and axle)

- Traditional telephone. To produce sound, something has to vibrate. The vibrations travel through air (or through wire in the case of land line phones), and when they reach our ears they stimulate the auditory nerve. Can you find the parts that send and receive sound?

- Old computers. Andrew and Jonathan both enjoyed cannibalizing old computers for parts, often reusing them in a different setup. Andrew, now halfway through his PhD in electrical engineering, loved learning how to put computers together, but views programming only as a means to achieve some other goal. Jon, on the other hand, has built a couple of computers, but takes much more satisfaction from making them do what he wants by writing code. Paul would just like to get his hands on one to take it apart.

- Old cameras, clocks, VCRs, and toasters that have given their useful life would all make interesting targets.  

- Not things that you are planning to use again! Unless you have more confidence than I do!

If you have a child who loves to take things apart, watch out! These gearhead tendencies often show up relatively early, which makes career counseling easy. But they also come with some decided drawbacks. Check out this Dilbert clip if you think your child might have “The Knack.”

4 Responses
  1. Anna Says:

    Too funny--Ben was explaining to me on Saturday how doorknobs work. He knew much more about it than I do!

  2. Anne Says:

    Ha ha - I wonder if he had any clue what he was talking about or if he was making it up! We'll be taking apart a doorknob in the fall, but I don't know if Ben's seen the inner workings of one yet.
    He had a great time at Carver's party!

  3. Kim Says:

    Speaking of which... we have a microwave that has died an untimely death... you are most welcome to it should your "Gear Head" desire to take it apart.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks Anne! Jesse has been very interested in what the pedals under the steering wheel are for so it's definitely time to distract him with something else.