Steven Pinkert 8th Grade Science Project
So as promised here is Steven Pinkert’s story about his 8th grade science fair project that he demonstrated at both Coles School science and the District science fair. The idea behind this science fair project was to demonstrate the process of ionization – displacing electrons in a gas at a reduced atmospheric pressure – and how that leads to light!
Thanks to Renee Chaden, a good friend, and grammar school classmate, who provided me with this page from the Coles School newspaper! (It is incredible that she saved it all these years.)
I first got the idea for this project during a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. One of my usual hangouts on the weekend was the Museum of Science and Industry – I could navigate it with my eyes closed. In a demonstration of “the future” (I guess) the demonstrator had long glass tubes that were evacuated while a high voltage electrical charge was connected to electrodes at both ends of the tube. The result was a beautiful plasma display. The display would change with the amount of vacuum and type of electrical charge. I wanted to replicate this at home but my first problem was that I had none of the equipment! The glass tubes were actually available quite inexpensively from a few scientific companies; and the high voltage electrical supply was easy for me to assemble as I had most of the parts in my basement. (Electricity and electronics was always my first love as a kid.) The problem was the vacuum pump. Vacuum pumps like the one I needed were probably $400.00 back then and I made very little at my part time job repairing radios and TVs at Nolans Radio and Television Repair shop on 83rd Street. So the first step was to find a vacuum pump!
My father and his brothers owned Scrap Corporation which was a scrap company not too far from our home. I frequently spent Saturdays there combing through the junk collecting motors, transformers and whatever else struck my fancy. There were lots of truck parts in the junk and I thought maybe I would get lucky and find a junked vacuum pump. After a few Saturdays spent exploring in the really dirty greasy piles of junk I found what I thought was possibly an old vacuum pump. It looked different from the ones I had seen at the museum and in magazines (no internet this was 1963). But I thought it might just be a vacuum pump. To this day I recall it was painted green and had a pulley attached for a typical ½ inch fan belt.
I took the pump home, mounted it to a piece of plywood with an electric motor I had lying around, attached a pulley to the motor, added a fan belt and fired it up. Now what was weird about this vacuum pump (or whatever it was), was that it had three ports. “Why three I wondered?” There was one port for the vacuum, one port for the exhaust gas, but the third? This was a big puzzle to me. Sadly, when the pump was fired up there was just the slightest amount of suction from the port hat I had identified as the suction. It seemed like this vacuum pump might be a dud and tossed in the junk for a reason.
Steven Pinkert’s Neighbor, Mr. Dobecky
As I mentioned in a previous blog posting, Steven Pinkert and his family lived on the South Side of Chicago, at 8444 S. Yates – to be exact. My next door neighbor who I enjoyed spending time with, was a man named Mr. Dobecky (SP?). Mr. Dobecky was a jet aircraft mechanic with American Airlines and he knew everything about mechanics! He and I spent quite a bit of time together as he didn’t have children and I really admired him. One night Mr. Dobecky actually took me to one of the America Airlines hangers at O’Hare field and we actually started up a big jet and taxied it around! You have to realize I was completely enthralled with technology even as a young child so this was a real treat.
So, I went over to his house and told him what I had done with the pump I had found in the junk and my problem with the mystery port and lack of suction. He offered to come over to my house and have a look – which he did. I fired up the pump for him and demonstrated the lack of much suction and asked him about the mysterious third port. Instantly he said – “turn it off quick.”
The Mystery Pump Port
Mr. Dobecky was a genius! He explained that this was a good quality vacuum pump that I had found but that it needed to have oil circulating in it to form a vacuum. The mysterious third port was for the oil supply! But this pump also didn’t have an oil reservoir so it needed oil constantly to be fed to it through the supply. And what would happen to the oil, I asked? It would come out of the gas exhaust port as a mixture of oil and gas, Mr. Dobecky explained. I was puzzled but he added (as if it was so obvious) – you need an oil separator that can also act as an oil reservoir. He quickly drew it for me on a piece of paper – so simple a solution! And he said that he would help me build it.
We got an empty spam can and cut two small holes in the bottom of the can. Then we soldered a separator metal plate in the middle so that the oil and gas would hit the plate, separate and the oil would fall to the bottom and recycle into the pump. The gas would escape from the top.
We put it all together, added some oil into the spam can and fired it all up. Perfect! I now had what seemed a very powerful vacuum pump.
As you can probably surmise, Steven Pinkert loved building things and technology. The science behind it was unfortunately a passing interest. But I created an electrical power supply, purchased the glass tubes and then drew on a chart how the ionization occurred. All in all it was a pretty cool project and everyone loved to watch the plasma discharge.
Looking back it is incredible that my school trusted me to demonstrate this equipment with dangerous high voltage. Back then no one even wore safety glasses! Thank god the glass never imploded from the vacuum.
Steven Pinkert wins First place at Coles but…
So I won first place at my grammar school and then on to the District fair. The District fair was always exciting and I was excused from school for a few days which never hurt. The judges were very interested in my project and although I was dying to win, I drew third place. But who won first place? The same girl that had beaten me the previous year! You would be shocked to know what she did to beat me. She had a vacuum cleaner fitted with 8 cigarettes on the input and she streamed the heavy smoke over various shaped airplane wings to demonstrate lift. It was a cool experiment but I later learned it was right out of the Scientific American Science Projects book! What is incredible is the fact that when she literally fired her project up for the judges, we were all completely surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Imagine trying that today. But that was the early 60s.