The Sixth Grade Science Fair of 1958

By Drew Kopf

When I was in Grammer School, Seamans Neck Road School, in the Levittown School District # 5 they held a Science Fair in the Cafeteria Auditorium. I don't remember the rules but I do recall that everyone but me made their entry a display or a working model of one of the science experiments represented in our class textbook.

That would probably have been the way I would have chosen to go but my father made the whole thing far more interesting that what amounted to the "paint by number" approach the rest of the class chose.

My father, among other things, was an award winning inventor. See the following URL addresses as proof:

The Ddavis Adjustable Loom

The Gard-Rite Window Guard

When my dad heard about the Science Fair, he suggested "we" make it more interesting. He sent away for a US Government pamphlet entitled "Inventions Wanted by the Armed Forces" and had me read through it to see if there was an invention we could come up with and make our work on the solution the crux of my Science Fair exhibit.

I read the entire pamphlet and thought the one request about railroad box cars was one for which I had a possible solution.

The pamphlet asked for a way that would allow railroad box cars to be made from aluminum instead of from steel. When the box cars were full there was no need for them to be heavy since the load they were carrying would provide stability even when rounding curves. But, when empty, aluminum box cars might veer off the track when the train hit curves in the track.

We had been studying electromagnetism in school and I thought if we equipped each wheel of the box car with an electromagnet then when the box car was full of heavy material like coal the electromagnets could be at zero power. It the load was lighter material like wood, the power in the magnets could be adjusted accordingly. And, when the cars were empty, the magnets would be at somewhere from zero power to something moderate on straightaways but increased to an appropriate power based on the speed of the train and the length and type of the curves as they were encountered.

Carrying extra weight for no reason is expensive. My electromagnet idea would make a big difference and save lots of money. We sent the idea to the Pentagon and received a nice letter acknowledging our submitted idea.

We were not able to create an electromagnet model of the idea for the Science Fair. But, my dad had me take a plastic toy freight train car and run it back and forth on its tracks that we secured to a thin piece of wood about as wide as the tracks plus about a half an inch on each side and about three feet long. I would hold the train on one end and while visitors to my Science Fair table watched, I would lower the other end of the track and the train car rolled to the other end. Then, I would talk about the electromagnet idea and how it would work. And, I would explain that for the purpose of our demonstration I cemented real magnets to the wood between the railroad tracks and magnets to the bottom of our plastic railroad car. Then, I would turn the display piece upside down. The railroad car stayed in place. It did not fall off. I then lowered the other end of the track and the train car rolled along the track just as it had before. Only now, it was upside down and completely defying gravity and impressing everyone who saw me do it.

I received an honorable mention or something. It was not like there were winner or loosers. If you entered an exhibit you had the experience and that was it. But, in my experience it was really cutting edge stuff.

I always wonder if Maglev, which came about many years later had its roots in my response to "Inventions Wanted by the Armed Forces."

Interesting - Now, on a website called Trains, there is an article or at least a discussion all about whether railroad freight cars are or can be made of ... right you are ... aluminum. Click HERE for a visit to that dicussion. I have search for a copy of that pamphlet "Inventions Wanted by the Armed Forces" but to nw, no cigar.

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