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Bringing The Past To The Next Generation
Keith Wright making his presentation at a CAPS meeting.

Of course, I brought the Space Helmet.

By the title and the previous sentence you may have visions of science fiction running through your head. In that case, let's replace those visions with ones closer to the spirit of this publication and this Society: I have become obsessed with introducing school children to old technology and in particular to that class of technology which includes gramophones, phonographs and talking machines. "Yes Ma'am, you could say I am an archeotechnologist or — as I prefer — a paleotechnologist." Boy, do I have fun. Early this year CAPS asked me to demonstrate how I do this. That's where I gained the dubious distinction of being the first person to play rock and roll at a CAPS meeting.

In 1997 I had a very modest beginning collection when the germ of an idea came to me: I could show the evolution of recording playback to my eldest daughter's class. She was 10 at the time — as I assume was much of her class — and it struck me how 'natural' the dates would be if I could somehow represent each year ending with '7 (1877, 1887 and so on). Think of how important the '7s' are to the subject (such as Edison in 1877 and transistors in 1947). Then it came to me that I could also try to get across a sense of 'continuity' and make them imagine children just like themselves listening to these exotic machines by showing a family picture from the same date ("Yes, that ten-year-old is me!"). It also occurred to me that the evolution of the automobile was something to which children could more immediately relate. So, to increase interest I also included at least one picture of an automobile from the same year (a 'horseless carriage' for 1897, a horse and wagon for 1877, and for 1967 it was that huge barge Dad bought in 1966). Finally, I figured that if I started at the end (1997) and worked backwards the children wouldn't 'know the punch-line' (OK, where's the CD?) and I could create a sense of mystery by presenting one more alien machine after another. I succeeded in spades.

For that first demonstration (which turned into 3 demonstrations — heaven forbid I should do something for only one of my children) I actually dragged in a wind-up upright (and up two floors!); used two different horns to make an Edison Standard represent two different decades; dragged in a complete stereo system (two turntables, an amp and speakers); waved a borrowed 8-track tape (and couldn't play it); borrowed the school's CD player; and probably left the impression that no one played a disc before 1917. But I knew I was on to something.

Keith with his Victor I and his popular space helmet 8 track player.

So, this has become my obsession (since you're reading this, I can guess you have one too), that is: portable hardware with the appropriate recording for each decade — ideally from the year ending with "7". While you were hunting for your Edison Opera, I was looking for a working 'interesting' 8-track player and I'm still looking for "Saturday Night Fever" on 8-track tape. While you were chuckling about how your Victor Credenza was increasing in value, I was shouting for joy at finding an HMV 102 orthophonic portable. While you were counting your Royal Purple Amberols, I was rushing back to where I'd seen the 1947 Freddy Martin hit, "Managua Nicaragua". While you were having Don Woodrow change the springs in your Victor VI, I was having Experimental Electronics change the tubes in my 45 player. I really don't mind, the Credenza wouldn't fit in the back of the van with the rest of the demo anyway. However, you wouldn't happen to have a spare tin foil machine, would you?

From this 'backbone' of hardware and software I can engage a class in music appreciation, music history, science, technology, social studies or history. By varying the recordings I play (and tailoring the number) I can entertain a kindergarten class with Boney M's "The Calendar Song" (they all know the words — it must be one of the Highlights in the History of Music). Or I can show the transition from marches to rags to jazz for a more appropriate grade. And almost every class hears 'O Canada' on Blue Amberol. In fact, I have even named a few 'standard' demonstrations:

  • Pirates of Industry. Some grade 6 classes go through the process of creating inventions — including doing research into competing products—and may visit an "invention convention". I use my demo to show the shenanigans that occurred during the early history of the phonograph and gramophone ("Edison deliberately bankrupts his company." "Berliner, blocked from selling his own invention in the US, starts over in Montreal."). I also introduce them to 'patents'.
  • Trouble in River City. Named from the song in the "Music Man" which goes, "and ragtime — shameless music!" This demo concentrates on the music and goes in chronological order from the turn of the century's sentimental songs and brass bands to ragtime to early jazz and so on.
  • Good Vibrations. Grade 4 classes have a module on sound. Using various machines,I show how sound vibrations are stored and re- created. As one teacher put it, "It's great when the curriculum comes tumbling out of a demo!"

Random notes from various presentations:

  • "That looks like a microwave." Said of the 1946/47 RCA Victor VE-20 electric 78 player.
  • The most common answer when I ask the class to guess the shape of the recording played by the 1917 Amberola 30 cylinder player (before I open the lid): "triangular".
  • The most common first answer to how many transistors are on a Pentium chip: "100".
  • The correct answer for the number of transistors on the Pentium chip: approximately 5 million.
  • The music which children most often ask me to replay: whatever it was I brought that day by Elvis on 45 rpm.
  • The music which teachers most often ask me to replay: "Over There" by the American Quartet.
  • One student's reaction to "Over There": "Didn't the Americans get angry over being called "Yanks'?" "No, an American wrote the song."
  • After one demo,a child in traditional non- western garb quietly came back and shyly asked me to play the 'rock and roll' song again.
  • Longest time a class has listened to "My Hero, The Chocolate Soldier": about 30 seconds.
  • Number of times the RCA Victor 9-EY-3 (representing 1957) has dropped a 45 rpm record without my help on its first attempt: 0.
  • Number of times it has needed help on its second attempt: 0.
  • The first answer I always get when I hold up my 1977 8-track tape and ask, "What is this?": "a movie".
  • I usually play the 1907 Victor I once without its horn. Then, after explaining there is no volume control, I ask the class how they could make someone hear them across the playground. I look for someone to make a 'horn' with their hands and then I install the Victor's horn. The first answer when I did this for the CAPS demo: "Use a cell phone". (Name withheld to protect the guilty.) We shouldn't laugh, as I have seen quite a few cell phones in senior public schools.
  • "Best sound I've heard from a 40s era Victor record." CAPS member on hearing a 1947 Victor disc on a 1947 Victor machine.
  • The most popular machine for the children, hands down: the Space Helmet.
  • The machine that got most comments at CAPS: the Space Helmet.
  • The machine my daughter spotted on the inside of a Ricky Martin CD: the Space Helmet (although it was, of course, the rare orange version).

This brings me to 'the unkindest cut of all'. Of all the hardware I bring with me, the machine that gets the most attention everywhere I go is the Canadian-branded Weltron 2001 8-track player. Collectors of 8-track players (yes, they exist) have nicknames for certain players such as "Swiss Cheese" (the case of which is covered in hole-like circles) and "TNT" (which looks like Wile E. Coyote should use it to blow up that bird). Similarly they've named the 2001 the "Space Helmet" because of its round head and flat face (the speakers are even where the 'ears' should be). Not the Victor I with the black and gold flower horn. Not the first-generation 45 player with brass turntable and bakelite body. Not either of the cylinder players. Not the real 'Victrola' in nice mahogany. It is the ABS plastic Space Helmet that gets the lion's share of adult comments (OK, and some giggles) and almost all of the children's post- demo admiration. But, as someone pointed out to me, what other artifact could I possibly bring to scream out its own era as loudly as the space-age Space Helmet? And when was the last time your Edison Opera was seen on MTV?

I have elicited feedback from all of the teachers of all the classes who've seen the demo and they have been enthusiastically positive. These demos are challenging to stage (taking up to an hour of preparation, so ideally I set up in one room and a number of classes rotate through in an afternoon), they are a ball to 'perform', they're an obsession I constantly 'tinker' and 'tune' (I always seem to get something new just before each one) and they are even educational! Now taking bookings for the 2000/2001 season!

And I promise, I'll bring the Space Helmet.