When I was twelve or thirteen, my great grandfather said to me, “I used to read Popular Mechanics. You should, too.” And he handed me a quarter. It was the best piece of advice any relative ever gave me.
I bought my first popular science magazine, and I was hooked. I was soon buying three a month every month, and occasionally a fourth. Science and Mechanics, no longer published, was the best. Popular Science came next, then Popular Mechanics. Mechanix Illustrated was a lame imitation, but I always looked and occasionally bought, if there was a particularly interesting article.
In school, I usually devoured my science textbooks by the end of the first month of the school year. They provided an important, basic, bare bones understanding. But the popular science magazines put exciting flesh and blood on those bones. I learned more science from those three popular science magazines than I ever learned from a textbook.
Those were the days when GEMs were new. Ground effect machines, that is. There were articles that explained how they worked (what shape plenum chamber do you prefer?) but better still, there were articles that showed guys who had built their own out of plywood and a lawn mower engine, flying down the street of their suburban neighborhoods, six inches off the ground.
When I sent ten scientists to explore Cyan, they used skimmers, which were clearly ground effect machines.
There were always articles on how to take care of your car, and there was the new car issue every fall. You didn’t have to be a science nut to like cars.
There were always stories about the newest, hottest jet plane, including a story about a new safety device that gave pre-recorded error messages into the earphones of a pilot. The Air Force had discovered that the pilot never missed the message if the recording was a sultry female voice. Any thirteen year old boy in America could have told them that. The illustration of that article was a realistic drawing of a helmeted pilot with a tiny, bikini-clad femme whispering into his ear the words that would save him.
These guys knew their target audience.
Not everything between those covers would be politically correct today. I remember the pistol crossbow, a powerful hand-held weapon that shot sharpened six-inch pieces of quarter inch rod. Try making that in your seventh grade shop class. Maybe you could get a merit badge in Boy Scouts?
There were always articles on how to build something in your shop, about the latest tools, or about how to build the tools you couldn’t afford. I was hooked on that, too. My father was a farmer, not a craftsman. If a nail in a board would do the job, he was satisfied, and moved on to the next of an unending set of chores. I wanted more. I wanted to be a craftsman. Today I am, and these are the magazines that got me started on that path.
Eventually, I stopped reading popular science magazines. You can only read so many thousand articles at that level until you have absorbed enough. I moved on, but I didn’t forget how powerfully they ignite young imaginations.
When I became a teacher in a small middle school, all the other teachers were happy to load science onto me, and I was glad to accept. I taught all subjects the first year, but after that it was “science-and”. Every year I taught more science and less “and”.
The first year I subscribed to Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (Science and Mechanics was long dead), and soon I added Smithsonian Air and Space. I bought a magazine rack at a garage sale and put it up in my room. I never threw a magazine away until it was too tattered to read, and after a few years there were a hundred magazines in the rack.
Occasionally, at the end of an hour, there would be a few minutes to spare and I would say, “You can either do homework for another class, or read one of the science magazines.” It was the best advice I ever gave them.
And nobody chose homework.