Bury my heart at Radio Shack

photo by Windell Oskay

Once widely available, electronic kits and chemistry sets made science fun and approachable

It happens every time.

On our way to the beach, my wife and I pass through Marshville, thirty-five miles outside Charlotte on Highway 74. Not long after I see the sign proclaiming we’re speeding past the birthplace of its most famous son, Randy Travis, we pass a rusted Radio Shack sign.

I can’t help but gaze at it. Like Mr. Bojangles, I still grieve after all these years.

When I was in high school in the early 70s, nothing compared with a trip to Radio Shack. It was a science nerd’s dream. The kits they sold promised high-tech adventure, and making them gave a sense of accomplishment. Build your own AM radio transmitter! How about a treasure finder? Make your own shortwave receiver and listen to the US armed forces, or NASA, or ships at sea. There was nothing quite like soldering that last connection, powering up your project, and hearing it work.

And it wasn’t just Radio Shack. Kits for any skill level, as well as more serious electronic gear, could be found at Heathkit and Lafayette stores. Retail and drug stores offered chemistry sets, lab gear, and a dazzling (and potentially dangerous) variety of chemicals.

From the 1950s up to the early 90s, kids were encouraged to explore the sciences, and not just for entertainment value. After all, we had to compete with the Soviets. It was the age of Sputnik, of Lyndon Johnson growling that he did not want to look up at the moon and see a damn Russian flag. Mastering science and technology wasn’t just for the sheer fun of it; it was a patriotic duty.

My parents did their part. I had a microscope in the third grade, and received chemistry and electronic learning labs as presents for many birthdays and Christmases. One set included a formula for what the manual called “Dehydrated Fire,” a harmless-looking powder that would burst into flames when you sprinkled water on it. Who says science is boring?

In the eighth grade, my parents bought me a reflecting telescope from Sears. The night sky in the backyard of our rural home was unpolluted with city lights, ideal for squinting at distant craters, ice rings, and glowing stellar nurseries.

In the late 70s, the personal computer put even more technology into the hands of ordinary people. Hard-core hobbyists made their own computers from kits, but even off-the-shelf computers gave owners the ability to create and store their own programs. Learning to program no longer required access to a big-ticket, room-sized mainframe. I learned BASIC on the Commodore 64, and thought I was Mr. Spock himself.

From the end of WWII to the early 90s, science and technology were domesticated and made understandable. Little wonder that this period saw such a creative outpouring of intelligent and optimistic science fiction, with visionaries such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Card, and Le Guin dazzling and enchanting us with tales of wonder, exploration, and adventure.

And then something happened.

Today’s computers do not come with built-in programming capabilities. You can buy an interpreter or compiler, but why bother? Whatever you want to do, there’s an app for that already. Yes, computers can be customized, but they only allow you to choose features designed by others. The mini-computers in our cell phones are not springboards for creativity, but instruments that transfix and numb their owners.

Technology today is designed for consumers, not collaborators.

I believe the age of hands-on, empowering technology started dying the same year Radio Shack peaked, 1999. The number of stores dwindled until the parent corporation declared bankruptcy in 2015. Since then, electronics morphed from interactive to anesthetizing. With the Cold War won, and no real challenges before us, we lost that sense of purpose that pushed us to learn and explore and dare.

And yes, a few stores do offer science kits today, but these kits are feeble substitutes for the magnificent and daring science adventures we enjoyed. Have you seen the “fossil dig kit” available in craft stores? For $19.99, a kid can brush away dirt from a fake rock and “discover” real shark’s teeth and bones. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s safe. It’s what kids are allowed to do in a timid, complacent, and aimless age.

Quote of the day

“I find the short story much more intriguing because it encompasses, in a moment, everything that went before and supposes everything that will follow. It gives the reader the opportunity to exercise his or her chops in solving the mystery. It freezes up a moment in time, it freezes your imagination of a concept in a moment in time, and the short story has always seemed to be to me far more difficult and adroit and flexible than the novel. There are many great novels, and yet I see people writing trilogies and quatrologies and even five and six and eight volumes in a series, and I think, ‘Are they not re-chewing their cud?’ So I try to hit the gong the first time.” Harlan Ellison

Quote of the day

Jack London

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame.” Jack London

William Gibson, Cyber Rebel

Mention the term Southern fiction, and people typically think of the works of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Ron Rash, or Charles Frazier. The term evokes scenes of snowy-white cotton fields, simmering tension between characters sipping bourbon, or protagonists haunted by an aching nostalgia for a rural life long gone.

Most folks wouldn’t associate memory uploads, runaway AI systems, or megacorporations as proper subjects for Southern fiction. But maybe my article on cyberpunk author William Gibson might just change your mind. It’s the featured post over at the Abbeville Institute blog. Read it there, and comment on it here. Enjoy!

Happy 128th, J.R.R. Tolkien!

JRR Tolkien

From Shaun Gunner, the chair of the Tolkien Society:

After Bilbo left the Shire on his eleventy-first birthday in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo toasted his uncle’s birthday each year on 22 September. The Society continues that tradition by continuing to toast Tolkien’s birthday.

J.R.R. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein [South Africa] on 3 January 1892, and we invite you to celebrate the birthday of this much loved author by raising a glass at 9pm your local time.

The toast is simply:

“The Professor!”

I will do that.

Tolkien’s works continue to exert influence not only because they tell exhilarating stories, but because, especially for me, they so beautifully capture the Norse, Celtic, and Christian traditions Tolkien sought to reclaim for the modern world.

The stakes, warns Tolkien, couldn’t be higher.

Mordor represents the self-defeating triumph of technology over nature. Gollum and the Orcs embody what the divorce from nature makes of those no longer in harmony with their organic ties to society and the natural world. When the lust for power and treasure erase our natural instincts to care for our homes and kindred, we will devolve into monsters. Our lovely world, threatened by poison and dictatorship, can be lost forever if we let it fall to those crazed by greed and envy.

9:00 PM folks. Be there.

“Tuggle ably captures the spirit of Dan Brown novels and Indiana Jones–style adventure stories.” Kirkus Reviews

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