February 16, 2024
Recently, an attorney told me that his eleven-year-old daughter had “discovered” gears in a science class and was excitedly learning all she could about them. It got me thinking about when and how I first “discovered” the objects that have become my life’s work. For me it was a friend’s slot-car racing set — a birthday present if I recall correctly. The little electric motors had — I was to learn later — a spur pinion pressed on the armature shaft; this drove a face gear set-screwed to the rear axle. We quickly learned to keep that set-screw tight and the backlash adjusted properly, or your car always lost the race. If it hadn’t been for that constantly loosening set screw I might not have been so well informed on gears when they came up in mechanical drawing class a year or so later. Amongst the advanced projects at the end of that class were spur gear blanks and the actual “construction” of a tooth flank with compass and pencil — pretty heady stuff for a middle-school kid — but not unexpected in an industrial powerhouse like 1960s Milwaukee. So how are kids today going to become exposed to gears? Slot-cars seem to be a more adult activity, and improved automobile reliability means their older brothers won’t be rebuilding jalopy parts in the driveway. Erector sets and other mechanical toys have taken a backseat to video games. I have seen lots of “electric” jeeps and “yard cars” in enthusiast catalogs, but how many grandfathers are that generous — or have the means to be so? For those of you with access to small surplus gears, be generous to your gearless friends. They make great desktop toys and objects of interest for anyone with a mechanical bent. National Engineers Week (February 21-27, 2016) is drawing close; but you still have time to prepare a gear-centric exercise for your local school. Wouldn’t it be great to know your effort inspired some future gear great?