Monday, January 23, 2012

Live in the World of Tomorrow...Today!

Norman W. Edmund passed away last Tuesday at the age of 93. Any American boy who grew up in the 1950's and 60's knows the company he founded: Edmund Scientific. His business made home science projects affordable and accessible across the country.

Norman W. Edmund

 Mr. Edmund knew how to connect with the inner scientist in boys everywhere. Rather than playing off the current fad of painting science as something for geeky "outsiders," Norman Edmund portrayed his customers as a group of industry "insiders" who suddenly had access to high-quality science gear at affordable prices. His catalogs, hawked regularly in magazines such as Boys Life, were punctuated with bullet lists of applications for each of his military surplus equipment. What young scientist wouldn't want a Audio Phase Discriminator with resolution down to 200 cycles? And for only $15 plus shipping - - why not order one and find out how to use it when it arrived?

And if you saved up enough money: LASERS!

My first purchase from Mr. Edmund's catalog was a set of six prisms. The glass was Army surplus, originally used as part of a lens set for an armored personnel carrier's periscope, and was virtually impervious to cracking - - even if dropped on a sidewalk. With the simple prisms, I learned how to recreate Isaac Newton's studies of light diffraction and wavelengths. I found out how to aim the prisms to cast rainbows on my bedroom walls, and how to stack prisms to restore the rainbows back to plain white light. All this science for about $3 including shipping.

I didn't buy the most common Edmund product, but many of my friends did: the official surplus military weather balloon with auxiliary helium tank. Many balloons (with an attached Spy Camera with Delayed Shutter Timer) were lost in the New Jersey stratosphere, all in the hope of returning pictures of a near-space panorama. Somewhere in the Raritan River basin, there must be dozens of rusting cameras full of moldy Ektachrome film reels, the remains of many failed junior meteorology experiments.

It's a Professional weather balloon!

Einstein, Salk, von Braun, and Sagan inspired many people my age to become scientists, but the case could be made that Norman W. Edmund inspired more future scientists than all those other men combined.


  1. Yes, one of those people whose contributions are subtle but incalculably enormous. The Edmunds Catalog was a seductive compendium of "What If?" and daydream fuel.

  2. True that. Of course there were equally discouraging businesses buried in the end pages of Boys Life. The Connecticut School of Art convinced me long ago that I had no future in graphic design, as I was unable to faithfully draw their example pirate. :)

  3. Funny you'd mention that. A couple of years ago I gave a talk to a class of Design students at UC Davis (my family's alma mater). The professor regularly assigned the class a quick warm-up exercise to get their creative juices flowing, and on my particular day it was copying the "Sketch The Pirate" drawing. So rather than pacing nervously in the wings waiting to go on, I grabbed some chalk and drew the pirate on the big chalkboard up front. Did a pretty fair job, I must say.