Rodney was a fairly popular name in the mid forties. There were two of us on our street. Well technically the other Rodney, Rodney H, lived on the street that was perpendicular to ours – but right at the intersection. His house was at the top of the hill (I used to launch my skateboard from up there) and ours was down towards the bottom.
We were the same age, roughly, and so entered school at the same time and sat next to each other that first year.
It was just my luck that Rodney H was brilliant!. So there were two Rodneys, the brilliant one and me. I’ll give you an idea of the difference between us at that age (five). We were given an assignment in class. Teacher handed a slate to each of us (a tiny, handheld, blackboard) and some white and coloured chalk. The assignment was to draw anything we wanted.
Being a precocious artist, I made random shapes with the white chalk, and filled the shapes with different colours. Artistic genius perhaps? About 3/4 of the class made random shapes and coloured them in. We all completed our masterpieces. Teacher came around and oohed! and ahed! at them. She gave mine a quick once over and moved on to the other Rodney.
She held up his picture. I looked at it and scoffed a little. There was no colour in it, just white lines. Not very pretty!
“Can you tell us what this is, Rodney?” she asked him. “its an internal combustion engine” said Rodney. I just about choked, is he crazy, what’s an infernal combusted thingamy? “Its a diagram of a car engine” he continued.
Get the picture. We didn’t stay in the same class for long.
The other Rodney was a nice lad and he and his dad invited me to go for a train ride one Saturday. I thought, “Fantastic, I get to ride on a train”. Dad and son Rodney came equipped with stop watches and notepads.
First they said we would do some train-spotting. Easy I thought, there’s one over there in the station. Apparently there was more to it than that. We wrote down all the types of engines we saw and compared these to lists of engines they had seen before. there was excitement over new ones (check out the train-spotting link above to see just how exited train-spotters can get). “Do we get lunch?” I thought. The numbers indicated something about the number of wheels on the steam engines. Once on the train things got better. It was a rather fast one. I loved the clackety-clack of the rails, the way the train swayed and you had to walk with your feet a little apart to keep your balance. I liked the smell of the smoke from the engine and sounds it made. The countryside was rushing by the windows.
We found a window that we could all stand at. Then we started to time the passing telegraph poles. Why would you want to time passing telegraph poles? Glad you asked. According to Mr H, the poles were installed at equal distances. He knew the distance between each one (how I never found out, this was before Google remember). By using the stopwatches we could note the time it took for the train to pass two poles. Then, by some serious mathematics, we worked out the speed of the train! Boy, we were really having fun now, getting to do difficult math sums on a speeding train on a Saturday! Didn’t they know, there was no school on Saturday! Mind you, I was impressed to learn that our train was going 65 miles per hour. I don’t think I was invited on another train expedition with them.
Another time I had been invited to the other Rodney’s to play. We went to his room and he had all kinds of experiments going on. He also had a range of batteries. He said that if we connected a wire to each battery terminal we could touch each end to our tongues and feel the difference in voltage! The little batteries gave off a bit of a funny taste. The big ones created a rather unpleasant tingling sensation on my tongue. When I got home I asked if we could have fith and thips for dinner that night.
These encounters with the other Rodney helped me to develop a bit of an enquiring mind (which bit, I’m not sure). I discovered experimentation could be fun, but not without the odd risk.
My father had always wanted a model railway. So one Christmas he bought me one! It was a Trix Twin 00 or ‘double 0’. We thought the Trix was better than its arch rival, the Hornby 00, because the Trix had three rails not the usual two. While this was not as authentic looking (real trains ran on two rails) it did allow for the third wire to carry a separate electrical circuit. The benefit of the second circuit was you could run two trains independently on the track. Each having its own controller. They shared the common centre rail. I backed Trix, Beta and Reel-to-reel – all better solutions but out-marketed by Hornby, VHS and cassettes. Now I’m a Mac user – did I finally get one right?
Anyway, back to the trains. There was some important electrical stuff you needed to know about electric train layouts (never, never say train-set to a real enthusiast – they are model railroad layouts – you have been warned).
These railways run on about 12 volts of power. In England the regular household current is 240 volts. It means there is a need for a step-down transformer to convert the 240 to 12 volts. The transformer was plugged into the wall, the train controller(s) into the transformer and the rails connected to the controller(s).
So simple and so safe. Or so you would think.
One day the bright and inquisitive Rodney (no this one – did you think I was talking about the other R?) noticed that the shape of the electric prongs that went into the controller were the identical shape of the prongs on the plug that connected the transformer to the wall outlet. I wondered what would happen if I connected the prongs from the controller directly into the wall outlet. Sort of cut out the middle man.
There was an engine already on the track when I tried my little experiment. Well call me Casey Jones if you must, but that little engine really smoked – I mean it took off like a rocket with flames and smoke included. This may have been when I made my second error in judgement – but let’s not think of blame, let’s think of scientific inquiry and discovery.
I grabbed hold of the engine! OOOOh, that tingled a whole lot more than the other Rodney’s battery terminals! It felt like WHUMP and I shot backwards sitting down rather sharply and letting out a kind of Ahhhhhhhh!. Luckily the engine had come off the track and was no longer connected to the mains. My heart was racing a bit and I was a bit shaken (physically as well as mentally). It was too bad I didn’t have the other Rodney there to estimate the speed of the train or my departure from the rails.
Just my luck, dad was coming in the front door when the lights flickered and he heard an Ahhhhhhhh! Thump! From my room. “Everything all right Rodney?” “Yes thanks dad, just playing with the trains.” Shortly, I was explaining my experiment and its rather startling results to my dad. All he said was “You won’t do that again will you son?” “No dad”. Later on I took up something much safer – growing potatoes in my garden. See Mr Potato Finger for that fiasco.
I don’t think collecting gunpowder from penny bangers to make one big banger was really in the same league as the supercharged train event – and the good news is eyebrows grow back.