"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 8: My "Science Laboratory"
Of course, I didn't have a laboratory. However, my everyday environment presented me with demonstrations of basic scientific phenomena, as well as opportunities for conducting my own "homemade" experiments. I've divided these experiences into categories, as follows:
Velocity of Sound
As far back as I can remember, we lived in this house at 119 Prospect Avenue in Tomahawk. It was less than a block from the Wisconsin River, and the two lots between our house and the corner were vacant, so we could see the river, The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad bridge, and beyond that the Marinette, Tomahawk and Western railroad bridge, both of them across the Wisconsin. I was always fascinated by all the trains I saw on those bridges, from the long trains of flatcars carrying logs from the north to the passenger trains of bright orange cars which seemed to always be in a hurry. I was impressed, even awed, by the huge clouds of smoke and steam emitted by the locomotives, especially in winter. And I learned to watch for the smaller clouds of steam from the engines' whistles, which the engineers always blew when approaching the depot. These whistles presented me with a puzzle. I could always see the steam from the whistle some time before I heard the sound! And when I could see and hear the whistles on the M.T.& W. locomotives, the delay was even longer. (They were twice as far away.)
I noticed another instance of the same phenomenon one day when I was playing in our front yard. There were several boathouses at the river's edge, about a block away. I noticed a man hammering a nail into the side of one of them, and watched to see if I could tell what he was up to. And as I watched and listened I thought it quite strange that the sound of the hammer blow seemed to occur, not when the man's hammer hit the nail, but when it was in mid-air!
Another and more spectacular instance of the same phenomenon finally led to an explanation of these mysteries. During thunderstorms (quite frequent in Wisconsin) I noticed not only that the lightning always preceded the thunder, but that in general, the shorter the interval between the two the louder the thunder. That's when someone explained to me that sound travels more slowly than light, and that one could estimate the number of miles to a lightning strike by counting the seconds between the flash and the sound, and dividing by five. This system turns out to be remarkably accurate, for under ordinary atmospheric conditions, sound travels a mile in 4.85 seconds!
Another puzzle involving the velocity of sound presented itself while I was riding on a train. It was at night, and as we sped along I was surprised to hear the sound of warning bells at road crossings suddenly change to a lower pitch just when we reached the crossings. It was quite a long time before I learned that what I had noticed was a demonstration of the Doppler effect. This effect, named for nineteenth century physicist Christian Doppler, is caused by the fact that a listener moving toward a stationary sound source hears succeeding cycles of the sound at shorter than normal time intervals because each cycle has to travel a shorter distance than the last. This shorter time between cycles, is, of course interpreted as a higher frequency, or tone. To a listener moving away from a sound source, the opposite is true, and the tone is lower.
One of the first optical phenomena I encountered was refraction. Since my dad built boats, and we lived so close to the Wisconsin river, we always had a rowboat. Often I would find myself sitting in the stern of our rowboat, with a can of "angleworms" at my feet and a bamboo fishing pole in hand, waiting for someone to man the oars. And sometimes the oars would be hanging from the boat into the water. I can still remember my surprise at seeing those perfectly straight oars apparently bend where they entered that water! I don't know how many times I experimented with sticks and rods of different materials, only to find that they all seemed to bend the same amount. Then, I guess I accepted this phenomenon as a natural property of water, but didn't really understand it until I studied optics in high school physics.
Of course, every child plays with mirrors at one time or another. And I learned at an early age that the image I saw in a mirror was a reversed version of myself. Much more fun than looking at myself, though was trying to catch someone's attention by reflecting sunlight into his face! I became quite adept at this, and in the process learned a lot about angles of incidence and reflection, without ever having heard of these terms.
And what youngster hasn't played with a "burning glass"? Of course I learned about the magnifying property of a lens, but more exciting than using a lens to make an earthworm look as big as a snake was using it to burn holes in paper, cloth, wood, or even the skin on my hand! All this without ever realizing that the hot, bright spot on my hand was actually an optical image of the sun.
I don't know how many families owned cameras in the early nineteen hundreds, but the Seefelds had one. It was a simple box camera, used roll film (which was quite new at that time) boasted an achromatic lens and had two shutter speeds: "snapshot" and "time exposure." When I was eight or ten, I used to sneak into the "front room", find the camera, which never seemed to have film in it, open it, remove the film holder, and use it as a camera obscura, although I had never even heard the term. I placed a sheet of white paper where the film would normally be, set the shutter to "time" so it would stay open, and pointed the lens toward the window. And there on the white paper was a miniature image of the view out the window, in "living color" but upside down with right and left reversed.
Years later, after that camera had been declared surplus (I think!), I removed the lenses and took them apart. The double-convex element from the achromat became the eye lens for a crude microscope, while the little lens from the finder became its object lens. This left the achromat's double-concave element, which was used as the eye-lens of a Galilean telescope I built, employing a discarded eyeglass lens as its objective element.
Many things have changed about Tomahawk since my growing-up years. Streets are paved, new schools have been built, and trees now grow in parks which were wide open play areas for us kids. But the weather remains the same, and the cold winters often bring large amounts of snow, which melts in spring and runs off into the Wisconsin river. And some of it must run down the north end of Second Street between Lincoln and Prospect Avenues, as it did when I lived nearby. Only now it runs uninspiringly down the paved street and gutter to a storm drain and joins its kind in the river.
When I was eight or nine, North Second Street was unpaved, and in spring was avoided by most traffic because the snow-melt turned the sand and soil into mud. So for a few weeks each spring, the street became a "hydraulics laboratory" where two or three eight to ten year old "hydraulic engineers" labored with great energy to control that seemingly inexhaustible flow of water from the vicinity of Second and Lincoln to the river. With plenty of materials at hand, such as sand and mud, sticks and rocks and boards, and once in a while even a piece of pipe, we fashioned an endless variety of dams and reservoirs, canals and locks, islands and waterfalls, and, yes, even castles with moats!
Since we were playing on a city street, occasionally some adventurous soul would drive a horse-drawn buggy through our "engineering complex". Then we had to scramble to rebuild everything before too much water got away, but in the rebuilding process new ideas would always emerge, so the rebuilt system bore only a faint resemblance to the original.
Eventually, of course, all of the snow melted, drying up our water supply, and the street, turning the mud back into sand and soil, and later on into dust. Normal "traffic" resumed on North Second Street, and included such regulars as "Shorty" delivering meat for Thielman's Market, and elderly Mrs. Oelhafen driving her horse and buggy to and from their farm, which was somewhere in that vast unknown (to me) territory north of the Fourth Street bridge.
So I turned to other "projects", one of which also involved water. With perhaps a dozen empty tin cans from one of the trash heaps out by the alley, a hammer and assorted nails from Dad's shop, and onion stems from our garden, I constructed what Mother jokingly called my "waterworks." Guess what flashes through my mind when I play "Monopoly"! With hammer and nail I punched a hole in the side of each can, as close to the bottom as possible. Into the hole was inserted the end of a suitable length of onion stem, and presto! I had the basic building block of the system. The cans with their outlet "pipes" were positioned on our back steps in such a way that when the uppermost can was filled, water flowed from its outlet pipe (or pipes) into a similar can below it, and from it into another can -- you get the picture. Sometimes I had several of these systems operating simultaneously, and then occasionally I would vary the design by feeding all the groups from one large container fitted with several spouts.
As I mentioned above, water still runs downhill in Tomahawk, but today the could-be "engineers" are most likely somewhere indoors, watching the exploits of imaginary turtles or dinosaurs, or playing electronic games which exercise only a finger or thumb. It seems to me that they, and the society in which they live, are missing something important.
When I was growing up, our house in Tomahawk did not have electricity. (It was wired in early 1927!) So when I started learning about this thing called electricity it wasn't the 110 volt alternating kind, but the kind that comes from batteries. One time, when I was about eight or nine, Mother took me to visit her parents, who lived on a farm near Alma Center in southern Wisconsin. (They didn't have electric light either.) My uncle August, who was a bachelor and lived with his parents, spent a lot of time with me, and became my favorite uncle. One day he took me for a long walk through the fields and roads, and made a whistle for me out of part of a branch he cut from a bush along the road. Oh, yes, electricity! That night, I slept in Uncle August's room, and when it got dark, he went to the window, flipped a little switch and presto! up in the ceiling there was a little light! Just a flashlight bulb powered by a couple of dry cells, and not very bright, but to me it was magic. How I wished that I could have one like it at home! But I didn't have any money to buy bulbs and batteries. Shucks, I didn't even have a room! Anyway, our kerosene lamp did put out more light.
Back home after my "vacation" in Alma Center, I was rummaging around in Dad's shop, and found, of all things, some dry cells! And with them was a spark coil, all of this probably left over from some motorboat installation. Having been around boats a lot, I knew that the spark coil was connected to the spark plug, and the batteries were connected to the spark coil and a thing on the engine called a "timer" which told the coil to send a spark to the spark plug just at the right time to make the engine go. In the shop, though I could connect the batteries directly to the coil, and then, as long as the buzzer on the coil did its thing, the spark plug wire had a very high voltage on it. I learned this early on by in advertently substituting my finger for the spark plug!
By careful arrangement of this apparatus, I was sometimes able to produce continuous sparks as long as half an inch. Then came a period of experimentation to determine the effects of electric sparks on various materials. Paper placed in the spark sustained a series of small charred holes burned through it, while glass was not affected, although sometimes the spark took a path around its edge. Then, one day, I connected the base of a burned-out light bulb to the coil. I know -- we didn't have electricity, so where did the bulb come from? I must have "rescued" it from a trash pile in the alley behind someone else's house. I don't remember that little detail. Anyway, when I connected the batteries this time I got more than I expected. Inside the bulb (which was clear glass; frosted bulbs came along much later) there was a spark between the two filament support wires as I had anticipated, but in addition, on the inner surface of the glass was a weird pattern of a strange yellow-green light! As soon as I could round up more bulbs, I repeated the experiment with the same result, except that each bulb seemed to have its own individual strange light pattern. Nobody I knew could explain what I had seen, so I just filed the experience away in my memory for future reference. Much, much later I learned that I had unknowingly set up a crude demonstration of one of the basic principles which make modern day televisions work!
One day when I was about eight years old, I was playing in Dad's shop when in walked a neighbor carrying two short pieces of iron pipe connected by an elbow. He fastened one pipe in the vise on the workbench, and with a pipewrench tried desperately to unscrew the other one. I watched him silently for a while (after all, he was several times my age, and should have known what he was doing) but then I couldn't stand it any longer and blurted out: "Turn it the other way!" He glared at me with a look that was intended to vaporize me on the spot, but then turned it in the proper direction and got it apart!
I've included that little episode to illustrate the fact that growing up as I did with creative and innovative parents I learned a great many things by observation and experimentation. I learned about right-hand and left-hand threads, ropes and pulleys, levers and balances, wheels and bearings (roller skates) and other things of like nature which I don't remember at the moment, which is probably just as well!
Then, one Christmas Santa brought me a Meccano set. For those who never heard of a Meccano set, it was a lot like an Erector set. For those who don't remember that either, this is what I got: An assortment of shiny steel strips, angles and plates, all with holes evenly spaced about half an inch apart, shafts, pulleys, cranks and gears, and lots of small screws with which to fasten them together. Oh, yes, an instruction book with illustrated directions for assembling a variety of devices from these parts. Fantastic! This first set was intended for beginners, and was rather small, so before long I had built everything in the book and was bemoaning the resulting lack of creative challenge. So, before long, another set appeared, this time a much larger one. Now, with the two sets combined, the things I could build were limited only by my imagination, which quickly shifted into "overdrive".
I can't begin to remember even all the types of things I built with those sets. My "specialty". though was cranes (the big construction variety). The one I remember best was also my largest. In building it I used practically every part of the two combined sets, and when it was operating it took up half of the dining room floor. The last time I saw my Meccano set it was up in our attic, which was accessible only through a tiny door under the eaves, reached only by climbing a long ladder. If I poked my head into that door today, I wonder if that set would still be ....... nah, not after eighty years!
I think here is where I'll put the story about "the engine that nobody understood". While I wasn't actively involved, I looked on with great interest, and did eventually learn from the experience.
The boat engines we in our neighborhood were familiar with were all of the single cylinder two-cycle type. The Bergquist brothers had one in the boat they had bought from Dad, and we had a similar one in our boat. Apparently Dad wanted our boat to have more power and speed, so, after consulting his copies of Motor Boating magazine, ordered a bigger, two-cylinder engine. After a long wait, it finally came, all the way from Ogdensburg New York, a small town across the Saint Lawrence River from Ontario. It came by freight, of course, and was delivered to the house by Allie Schulz on his "dray-wagon". After a lot of preparation, the engine was finally installed in our boat and all the necessary connections and couplings were made. Dad poured some gasoline into the "priming cups", turned the crank, and the engine started and ran. And this is when the "mystery" started!
As I said, the boat people on our neighborhood were familiar with two-cycle engines, and two-cycle engines fire once for every turn of the crankshaft. Not this engine! Being of four-cycle design, each cylinder was supposed to fire once for every two turns of the crankshaft, and since it had two cylinders, it was supposed to fire once for each revolution. And it did this! But, instead of saying: "putt,putt,putt,putt" in a nice steady sequence, it said: "putt,putt ...... putt,putt ...... putt,putt" and so on. Dad was sure this was abnormal, and was very disappointed. The Bergquists thought it was abnormal. My "shirt-tail uncle" August Krueger who was a railroad engineer thought it was abnormal, and puzzled long and hard about the problem and the reason for it.
Finally, everyone gave up trying to come up with a "fix", so Dad, believing that he had been "taken", took the engine out of the boat, and put back the "old reliable" single cylinder power plant. The last time I saw this engine it was gathering dust (and rust) under one of the benches in Dad's shop. Many years later I have seen and heard (on television) quite a number of fishing boats in eastern waters busily "putt,putt .... putt,putting" along, apparently quite normally, so our engine was perfectly OK, just misunderstood. So here was an eastern-built engine, given a chance to explore some of the "West", but denied that opportunity because it didn't speak our "language!"
The Infinity Concept
As I was growing up, I quickly learned that all things had dimensions or limits. Our lot at 119 Prospect was always exactly fifty feet wide, a week always consisted of the same seven days, always arranged in the same order, a dozen was always twelve (except sometimes at the bakery), and clover leaves always had three lobes, except when you were lucky and found one with four!
And then there were the things I knew had fixed dimensions but seemed quite changeable at times. For instance, school days were generally longer than vacation days, the days just before Christmas and my birthday were much longer than usual, and the days just before school "let out" were interminable! The walking trip down town to the store was always shorter than the trip back home, and on "wash day" that old pump on the porch gave up its last bucket of water much more reluctantly than it had the first.
And so I learned to cope with values which were always the same, some that were always the same except sometimes, and fixed values which seemed to change with circumstances. And then, one day, I came face-to-face with a concept that "boggled" my mind.
Being a carpenter's son, I was always interested in tools, and wanted to learn to use them. But I wasn't allowed to use any of Dad's best tools because of possible injury to myself or the tools. Then, one Christmas "Santa" brought me a toolbox and some toy tools. I don't remember much about the tools, except that to me they were disappointing. But I sure remember the toolbox. Like any proper toolbox, it had a hinged lid which swung up and back and was supported when open by a small chain. And inside of the lid was a picture of my toolbox with the lid open, and inside that lid was another picture of my toolbox with the lid open, and inside that lid was a picture of my toolbox ... well, you get the idea. It really caught my imagination, and I reasoned that if the pictures were only good enough, there would be no limit to the number of pictures within a picture of my toolbox there could be! In other words, the number of pictures could be infinite.
Later on, when I started getting regular barbershop haircuts, I experienced another version of the same phenomenon. I would sit there, perched on a board placed across the arms of the barber chair to get me up within working distance of Elliot Brady, my friendly barber. And in a large mirror across the room I could watch the barber at work. On the wall behind me was another large mirror, so I could see the front and back of my head at the same time. But, in addition, I could see a long row of small boys who looked exactly like me, each getting his hair cut by Elliot Brady! That line of boys seemed to stretch out at least a city block behind the mirror I faced, and again my imagination took over. If only the mirrors were good enough, there would be no limit to the number of images one could see. Infinity, again.
While we are contemplating the infinite, I'm going to include a definition of infinite time as quoted to me by a fellow worker many years ago. "Imagine a solid granite mountain, a hundred miles wide, a hundred miles long, and a hundred miles high. Once every thousand years a small bird lands on this mountain, sharpens his bill, and flies away, to return a thousand years later to sharpen it again, and so on. When that mountain is completely worn away by that little bird, one day of eternity will have passed".