The Mad Scientists’ Club
Purple House, 217 pages, $17.95
The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club
Purple House, 210 pages, $17.95
The Big Kerplop!
Purple House, 238 pages, $17.95
The Big Chunk of Ice
Purple House, 288 pages, $18.95
By Bertrand R. Brinley
There’s a kind of negative sound a model rocket makes after you throw the switch or light the fuse, a sort of indrawn breath as the spark disappears into the touchhole.
For an instant the whole rickety contraption—dunce-hat top, stove-pipe body, shark-tail fins—seems to shrink back like one of those wide-eyed girls on the cover of a 1940s Amazing Stories as the tentacles of the space monster stretch toward her scoop-necked blouse. Then with a screech of exhalation, the rocket begins to lift, straining from the metal-tubing frame to climb through the blue sky toward the black of space: faster and faster, too fast to see, a parabolic smoke trail penciling its passage. And maybe, if everything goes right, at the end there’s this little poof and the handkerchief parachute pops from the nose and floats the bombard gently home to earth: a victory, an achievement—a marker laid down, with a surveyor’s precision, for a world in which things work.
Except that it hardly ever did go right. The ignition spark would fail, or the flight would start to corkscrew, or the rocket wouldn’t climb more than a few inches, thrashing against the frame like a demented squirrel until it finally flipped over and burned itself out burrowing into the ground. Besides, metal tubing was expensive, and the frame was probably rusty tiebar, those knobby metal sticks that reinforce concrete, filched from a construction site and strung together with baling wire and duct tape—for baling wire and duct tape were the fallbacks and the fix-alls for every one of the after-school rocketeers: the young inventors, the proto-geeks, the science boys.
You almost certainly knew some of them, if you are of a certain age. They were the ones in your algebra class drawing suspension bridges and cloverleaf freeway interchanges in the margins of their spiral-bound notebooks. They understood all about slide rules and ham radios and those physics-lab gizmos that sparked and hissed and made your hair stand up with static electricity so you looked just like Lon Cheney. Mad! you’d howl, They said I was mad! while the science teacher was out of the room. And the girls would giggle, but the science boys would look down at the careful cross-hatchings in their notebooks, because it wasn’t funny to them. It was real, the way things worked. The way things wanted to work.
Theirs was a world of the kind of stuff army-navy surplus stores used to stock on the dusty tables way in the back: leftover radar parts from Korea and oversized walkie-talkies in olive drab—Press To Talk, Switch NOT Depressed While Receiving—and metal detectors like mop-handled soup plates and Geiger counters and Breast-Plate Microphone Holders for Wireless Set WS-19 and vacuum tubes and radio headphones and manuals on COMSEC and Morse code. Theirs was the erector-set cosmos of Popular Mechanics, with its pictures of moonwheels and frictionless bearings, and its ads for kits to put a sleek fiberglass body—As Aerodynamic as a Porsche!—on the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle, and its stories about how some credulous banker in Spokane had been suckered again by con men with a perpetual-motion machine.
Part of the attraction may have been the Tomorrowland utopia the technology seemed to promise, with its glimpses of a Jetsonian future: the People-Mover! the Paperless Office! the Self-Cleaning Corningware Stove Top! the Robots That Will Serve Us Coffee in the Sparkling Comfort of Our Space-Age Homes! And part of it was the sheer gadgetry: the fetish of the accessory that made, for instance, a 1960s shutterbug ache for all the telephoto doohickeys and widgets in the mail-order catalogue that came every other month from that We-Have-It-All! camera emporium in New York City.
But an underappreciated element, I’ve always thought, was the language, the nuts-and-bolts poetry in all those pre-computer words: a kind of rhetorical gluttony that might have driven Rimbaud mad—that did drive Kipling mad as he scribbled down stories filled with Scottish engineers and ship’s boilers and No. 12 steam-fitting wrenches and the work of the men who actually make things work. For the American science boys, it was oscilloscopes and cathode rays, diodes and dynamos, capacitors and step-down transformers. Or the great mechanical words they got to use: axial force and momentum, vector and differential, tension and torsion.
Do they still exist? All the junior engineers I knew have flown now, arcing like rockets with a small, eccentric wobble as they fluttered across the sky. One—maybe the smartest of them—went mad and disappeared for a while, resurfacing a decade later to move back into his mother’s basement and work in her garage on the solar-powered car he’s never quite gotten to run. Another made a fortune, inventing something or other during the gold-rush days of semiconductors, and retired at age thirty-five to a fancy mountain house in Colorado, where he tinkers happily all day with the nineteenth-century mechanical toys he collects. Yet another teaches basic physics, explaining to prep-school students why iron filings make a pattern when you sprinkle them on paper above a magnet and why light dissociates into rainbows when you shine it through a prism.
Each of them has a workshop with a lathe and a little motor, vises mounted on wooden benches, and every tool’s exact place outlined with a thin white line on the peg-boards along the wall. Each of them still sometimes gets that eyes-down, hunted expression they used to have in high school, especially when the conversation moves to politics or novels or something else too amorphous to discern the rules by which it works. And each of them seems different, somehow, from the computer kids one meets today.
It’s hard to say quite what the difference is. Over the past few months, an enormous number of words have been spilled about how the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in science: cover stories in news magazines, chin-pulling on television talkshows, widely publicized demands for legislative action.
Much of it is driven simply by partisan politics—like the brouhaha about evolution, the nation’s failing grade in science is yet another stick with which to beat the pro-lifers who oppose creating embryos for stem-cell research. But some of it is the familiar spell of self-doubt that seems to come upon us every few years, regular as clockwork, ever since the Russians beat us to space with that shiny ball called Sputnik in 1957, and there was President Bush in this year’s State of the Union address, calling for an increase of $136 billion in science education over the next ten years.
The evidence for America’s decline is less than convincing. When Time magazine emblazoned “Is America Flunking Science?” on its cover this February, the columnist Charles Krauthammer responded, “The U.S. leads the world by an immense margin in just about every measure of intellectual and technological achievement: Ph.D.s, patents, peer-reviewed articles, Nobel Prizes. But in the end, . . . the economy follows culture, and American culture is today, as ever, uniquely suited for growth, innovation and advancement. The most obvious bedrock of success is entrepreneurial spirit. The U.S. has the most risk-taking, most laissez-faire, least regulated economy in the advanced Western world.”
That seems right, and yet also wrong, somehow. The United States has certainly had its share of brilliant scientists, particularly over the last fifty years, but they don’t exactly define the nation. The whole gigantic, weird, sprawling, entrepreneurial American thing was never really about science, and the all-American science boys, cast from the Ben Franklin–Thomas Edison mold, were never really scientists. They were tinkerers, engineers, and machinists rather than theorists and experimenters. They were inventors, more than anything else, which is why the U.S. Patent Office has issued them more than three hundred patents for apple-peelers since 1803.
During the 1960s, when advertising campaigns were filled with catch-phrases like “German Engineering,” there was a sense that other nations manufactured higher-quality goods than we did. And during the “Made in Japan and Korea” panic of the 1980s, there was a sense that other nations manufactured goods more cheaply than we did. But always Americans believed that we had probably invented those goods in the first place.
A few moments of serious money came along (especially with automobiles in the 1890s, radios in the 1920s, and personal computers in the 1980s), when all the tinkering boys in the bicycle shops and cinder-block basements seemed to be getting rich. But mostly the distinctive American inventing was non-financial, or pre-financial, or extra-financial, or, anyway, somehow partly outside the realm of money. It was really just some guy with a lathe and a drill who had to find out whether his idea for—oh, I don’t know, a self-compensating rotary pump, maybe—could be made to fly.
In truth, all the classic American inventors lived in a Newtonian universe of fundamental laws that worked just fine, as long as you were willing to bash them a little with a ball-peen hammer when they didn’t quite fit, tie them back together with duct tape and baling wire when they came apart, and fill in the nicks with a scrape of putty and a dab of paint. But though they gave birth to the world of Apple PCs and Microsoft and the Internet, their computerized children seem to live instead in something more like a Cartesian universe—the mind-body distinction cleaner, the logic-puzzle elements come to the fore, the math side triumphing over the engineering side, the reality grown more virtual and less physical.
Or perhaps that’s just the view of the aging inventor types I know, grown now too crotchety and set in their ways to understand what it is that the kids are up to. But if you want to recall what it used to be like for the American science boys, you can see bits of it in those old Mad Scientists’ Club volumes that once upon a time the Scholastic Book Service sold to schoolchildren across the nation.
For years and years—long before J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books made it the most successful publisher on the planet—Scholastic used grade schools to help market its softcover selections. As a money-maker, the scheme was hard to beat: Teachers handed out catalogues, the students would bring in their quarters and dimes, and a small portion kicked back to the school.
The books were usually illustrated, and they were always sweet, in one way or another. Children’s fiction began to be dominated by Judy Blume’s sort of feminist angst in the 1970s and by Daniel Pinkwater’s kind of black humor in the 1980s, but Scholastic was invariably late to any trend that was going around, and for decades there was a feeling of 1958 to every one of the publisher’s books.
Maybe you have to have gone to school in a small town with only a Carnegie library and a single bookstore to know the excitement of those catalogues that came midway through the fall and again in the spring. The paper was pulpy newsprint, and the ink always smeared while you carried it home, but for 60¢ you could get such now-forgotten favorites as May Nickerson Wallace’s The Ghost of Dibble Hollow, and for $1.25 you could take home a genuine classic like Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It was Scholastic’s grade-school marketing that made a star out of Encyclopedia Brown, with Donald J. Sobol’s twenty-three little volumes about a boy detective, his tough girl sidekick Sally, and his enemy Bugs Meany. And about 1965, the catalogues added The Mad Scientists’ Club, a collection of stories by an army captain named Bertrand R. Brinley.
Brinley was an unlikely children’s author. Born in upstate New York in 1917, he lived an unsettled life as a child—dragged from Pennsylvania to Illinois to California—before finishing high school in West Newbury, Massachusetts, and heading off to Stanford for college. Though he took a degree in history, it was amateur theater that attracted him, first in Palo Alto and then while working for Lockheed Aircraft in southern California as a systems analyst.
Tiring of his draft-exempt defense work, he joined the army in 1944 and seems to have had one of the most curious military careers over the next fifteen years—working as a kind of passe-partout mix of showman, concierge, press agent, and circus promoter in a captain’s uniform. According to his son, a surviving copy of a résumé he prepared at the time reads: “Assigned as Special Services Officer, Third U.S. Army in Munich and Heidelberg . . . . Escorted USO shows. Directed Troop Entertainment Program for U.S. Occupied Zone, Germany . . . . Organized road circuit of twenty-one show units and ninety-five dance bands . . . . Arranged talent exchange with Bal Tabarin and Folies Bergère in Paris, and the Palladium in London . . . . Wrote and directed seven musical productions for troop entertainment . . . utilizing both soldier and professional talent, twenty-girl ballet, and concert orchestra.”
Did the army really need men like this? While in uniform, he ran a nightclub for GIs in Germany and a resort hotel for American officers in Austria, served as the fast-talking press aide to American negotiators during the UN talks that ended the Korean War, and finished his career as news chief for the First Army on Governors Island in New York.
Somewhere along the way, he picked up an interest in science and by 1957 had started an army program for recreational rocketeering. The book he wrote as a result, Rocket Manual for Amateurs, remained the standard introductory reference for years after it was published in 1960. It was, as it claimed on its cover, “The Complete, Authoritative Handbook for Safe Procedures in Design, Testing, Preparation of Fuels, and Firing of Rockets Which You Can Make Yourself!” But a typical sentence runs: “Monopropellants are fluids which contain both a fuel and an oxidizing agent, either as a single chemical such as nitromethane, or as a mixture such as ammonia and nitrous oxide”—all perfectly true, and yet not exactly the raw stuff of bestselling children’s books.
In 1961, however, there appeared in the magazine Boys’ Life three stories by Bertrand R. Brinley: “The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake,” “Night Rescue,” and “The Unidentified Flying Man of Mammoth Falls.” Four more stories joined them to make up The Mad Scientists’ Club, which the publisher MacRae Smith brought out in hardback in 1965—and which Scholastic Books quickly added to its paperback catalogue, along with the five additional stories that formed The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club in 1968. A novel, The Big Kerplop!, was published in 1974, but MacRae Smith was nearing the end and, unable to pay the printing bill, produced only a thousand copies. The Mad Scientists’ Club seemed to have reached an end as well, and the final novel, The Big Chunk of Ice, was still unpublished when Brinley died in 1994.
Except that the stories never quite faded away, and when the science boys grew up they began hunting down and collecting old copies. By the end of the 1990s, used-book services were asking over $300 for the MacRae Smith hardbacks, and good copies of the Scholastic paperbacks routinely sold at $50 or more. Finally, in 2001, a small children’s reprint publisher called Purple House Press began issuing the books, finishing this winter with the fourth volume, The Big Chunk of Ice.
You’d be hard pressed to call the accounts of the Mad Scientists’ Club great literature, but there is a kind of small perfection—the feel of something doing the work of its genre in a classic way—when the first story opens: “Dinky Poore didn’t really mean to start the story about the huge sea monster in Strawberry Lake. He was only telling a fib because he had to have an excuse for getting home late for supper. So he told his folks he’d been running around the lake trying to get a close look at the huge, snakelike thing he’d seen in the water, and the first thing he knew he was too far from home to get back in time.”
And with that we’re launched immediately into the mandatory us-vs.-them, clever-child-vs.-stodgy-adult, of the traditional schoolboy tale. Owen Johnson’s Lawrenceville stories—The Prodigious Hickey, The Tennessee Shad, The Varmint—are probably the best American examples. But the genre was first sharply defined in England in 1881 when Talbot Baines Reed took Tom Brown’s School Days and played it for laughs in The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s, and with Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co. and P. G. Wodehouse’s Mike and Psmith, two genuinely talented writers showed how to make the genre run.
It’s a gentle version that Brinley gives, and once the New Englandy town of Mammoth Falls starts to believe Dinky Poore’s fib about the monster in Strawberry Lake, The Mad Scientists’ Club picks up another classic element of boys’ books—for that’s the moment when Henry Mulligan, the club’s vice president and chief of research, leans his piano stool back against the wall of Jeff Crocker’s father’s barn and begins to think about how the boys could use their radio equipment, a wrap of canvas around a chicken-wire frame, and a quiet outboard fishing motor to make the monster come alive.
There’s something deep in the nature of boys that almost always requires the books they like to contain a how-to element: how to sail a boat, or how to build a treehouse, or how to send Morse code—or how to rob a bank, for that matter. You can see it Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages: Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned, or Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days , or R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. You can see it as well in The Mad Scientists’ Club, when Brinley explains how to fly a balloon in “The Great Gas Bag Race” and keep a compass heading in the dark in “Night Rescue” and—best of all, for the boy reader—how to haunt a house in “The Voice in the Chimney.”
What Brinley layers on top of all this, however, is a kind of late 1950s or early 1960s gloss of something that he calls science, though it isn’t really. The stories pay ready lip service to the experimental method, the glories of theory, and the high calling of the scientist. But what they are actually after is, instead, the simulacrum of science that is old-fashioned science-boy science—invention, in other words, and the problem-solving of elegantly and cleverly applied technology. Each story is like the latest patent-worthy plan for yet another genuine American apple-peeler, though in the case of The Mad Scientists’ Club, the apple to be peeled is some traditional challenge of literary boyhood: adults to be bamboozled, rival clubs to be defeated, adventures to be had, dragons to be slain.
With Freddy Muldoon, Brinley adds the happy fat boy all such stories must have, and with Mortimer Dalrymple, the sardonic skinny boy—together with the club’s phlegmatic president, Jeff Crocker, and its mad genius, Henry Mulligan. And into their hands he puts all the things a science boy would love to have: the oscilloscope and ten-channel transmitter they get a newspaper to buy for them, the gastroscope a professor at the nearby university lends them to look inside a sealed cannon, the radiosonde beacons they can attach to almost anything.
Maybe the cleverest literary element in the stories is the first-person narration by a club member whose name, Charlie Finckledinck, isn’t even given until midway through The Big Kerplop!, Brinley’s third book about his Mad Scientists’ Club. Unfortunately, midway through the third book is also when the series starts to falter and the books lose their classic feel.
The early stories often show a whimsical, science-doesn’t-know-everything element of fantasy. “The Big Egg,” for instance, ends with a hint that maybe a dinosaur egg really could hatch, and “The Secret of the Old Cannon” finishes with the suggestion that maybe there actually are ghosts. But The Big Kerplop! (a story about the boys finding an atom bomb the air force has lost) suddenly introduces a comic adult named Professor Stratavarious—based on a character from Sid Caesar’s 1950s television comedy show, though for some inscrutable reason Brinley took the already unbelievable figure and added the further unbelievability of making him a Romanian: “‘Oh, zat is a marvelous idea, ‘Enry!’ the professor exclaimed. ‘Zat will make a really big expedition. Zat will make zere eyes pop out!’“ In the final volume, The Big Chunk of Ice, the boys thwart a jewel heist when the professor flies them to Europe in his blimp to look at a glacier.
The decline in the later book-length tales is proof, perhaps, of how surprisingly delicate a thing Bertrand R. Brinley pulled off with the early stories. They had comedy, and comradeship, and wish-fulfillment fantasy—and, most of all, they had that science-boy thing of chemistry sets that got used instead of gathering dust in a closet, of walkie-talkies that proved useful instead of being lost in the basement when their batteries died, of junkyards where you could actually find the eight-foot steel bar you needed to bring one of your ideas to life.
In the years since Brinley wrote, Homer Hickam has covered some of this ground with his memoirs (made into the 1999 movie October Sky ) of a 1950s rocketeering boyhood in Coalwood, West Virginia. But no one else has quite captured the world in which American know-how used to live: the Tomorrowland technology, the sheer gadgetry, the poetry of all those science words. Really, by the time Brinley wrote The Big Chunk of Ice in 1974, it was going fast. The last of the old style of science boys created the personal computer, and after them came”well, something new, something different.
The computer kids, I suppose we have to call them: the natural Cartesians who, for example, don’t seem much drawn to the conquest of outer space any more. The mind-body dualists whose first idea for a problem is to model it on a computer. The boys who don’t quite hear the magic that model rockets make when you first throw the switch—the sudden negative sound, the quick indrawn breath.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.