Surviving childhood

Recently in a conversation with a group of colleagues, I complimented one colleague on his ingenious way of putting together simple things to make remarkably new and innovative discoveries. Graciously he deflected attention from himself by talking about people who had been tinkerers as kid. He pointed out that most individuals who grow up to be inventors started out in childhood, and probably had some experience performing dangerous experiments with chemistry sets or some equivalent.

We all mused that perhaps there would have been more such people in the world, but that some of the more daring young would-be inventors had actually succeeded in blowing themselves up at an early age, and had therefore never made it out of childhood alive.

At this point the conversation took a curious turn, as each person related something they had done in their experimentally inclined youth that might have put them at risk.

When it was my turn, I talked of the day – I think when I was somewhere around seven years old – that I became curious about the electrical outlet, and wanted to find a more “hands on” way of exploring its properties. I did this by taking a wire coat hanger from my parents’ closet, bending it into a U shape, sticking one end of the hanger into one terminus of the 120V wall socket, and then gingerly poking the free end of the wire into the other hole, to see what would happen.

At this point in the story my colleagues were all looking at me with concern. Possibly they were wondering why I was even now alive to tell the tale. “Well?” one of them asked, “What happened? Did all the lights in the house go out?”

I explained that the lights had managed to say on, but that a spray of very impressive sparks had immediately shot out of the wall outlet, creating black scars on the wooden floor of my bedroom. As soon as the sparks started to fly, I had pulled the wire back out, discretion having finally overcome curiosity within my young brain.

I don’t think I understood back then just what kind of fire I was playing with. I realized only when I was older, looking back on that experience, that what had saved me was the fact that my body was never actually in the path of the high voltage electricity. The short circuit had gone entirely through the wire – an excellent conductor – rather than through me. Had I used two coat hangers – one in each hand – instead of the one, I would have been very efficiently electrocuted, and that day would have marked my final experiment.

I’ve never told my parents about this little escapade – I think it would only have worried them. The floor in that room of their house has long since been covered by carpeting, beneath which I suspect one would still find the tell-tale burn marks on the floor near one electrical outlet, evidence of the early career of a very lucky young scientist.

One thought on “Surviving childhood”

  1. I had a not-quite-as-dangerous afternoon with a bunsen burner. The rug I was experimenting on in my parents’ basement turned out to be rather more flammable than I was expecting. The fire spread rather quickly, but I was able to smother by folding the rug over on itself.

    Luckily, the burns were superficial and there wasn’t any major damage done. I don’t think my parents ever knew. I can remember walking quietly for the next week or so though, sure they were going to clue in. 🙂

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