Toy Shop – Intermediate Level

Colonel “Biff” Hawton stood over six feet tall. Because there were few adults in the crowd, he could see every detail of what was happening. The children (and most of the parents) watched in wonder. Biff Hawton had seen too much of the world to think that it was anything special. He stayed on because he wanted to find out what the trick was that made the toy work.

“It’s all explained right here in your instruction book,” the demonstrator said. He held up a cheaply printed booklet, opened to a four-color diagram. “You all know how magnets pick up metal objects. I bet you even know that the earth itself is one great big magnet. That’s why compasses always point north. Well… the Wonder Space-wave Tapper hangs onto those waves. Although you can’t see them, they are all about us. They even go right through us. The Space-wave Tapper rides these waves just the way a ship rides the waves in the ocean. Now watch.”

Every eye was on him as he put the model rocket-ship on top of the table and stepped back. It was made of metal and seemed as likely to be able to fly as a can of meat — which it very much looked like. The painted surface was unbroken. It had no wings and there wasn’t a sign of any kind of engine. It sat on three rubber wheels. Coming out through the bottom were two thin electrical wires coated in plastic. These wires ran across the top of the black table and into a control box in the demonstrator’s hand. A small light, a switch and a knob appeared to be the only controls.

“I turn on the power switch, sending an electric current to the Wave Detectors,” he said. He moved the switch and the light flashed on and off with a regular beat. Then the young man began to slowly turn the knob. “A careful touch is necessary as we are dealing with the magnetic powers of the whole Earth here….”

A cry of “ahhhh” came from the crowd as the Space-wave Tapper moved from side to side a little, then rose slowly into the air. The demonstrator stepped back and the toy rose higher and higher, moving gently on the invisible waves of magnetic force that supported it. He reduced the power ever so slowly and it settled back to the table.

“Only $17.95,” the young man said, putting a large price sign on the table. “For the complete set of the rocket-ship, the control box, battery and instruction book…”

At the appearance of the price card the crowd broke up noisily and the children hurried away towards the model trains. The demonstrator’s words were lost as they noisily left, and after a moment he stopped talking. He put the control box down, yawned and sat on the edge of the table. Colonel Hawton was the only one left after the crowd had moved on.

“Could you tell me how this thing works?” the colonel asked, coming forward. The demonstrator brightened up and picked up one of the toys.

“Well, if you will look here, sir…” He lifted the lid at the top of the model. “You will see the space-wave coils at each end of the rocket-ship.” With a pencil he pointed out the plastic forms of about an inch in size. Around them, apparently in no particular pattern, were a few turns of wire. Except for these coils, the inside of the model was empty. The coils were wired together and other wires ran out through the hole in the bottom of the control box. Biff Hawton turned a very questioning eye on both the toy and the demonstrator. The young man took no notice of this sign that Biff did not believe him and continued talking.

“Inside the control box is the battery,” he said, opening it and pointing to an ordinary flashlight battery. “The current goes through the Power Switch and Power Light to the Wave Detector…”

“What you mean to say,” Biff broke in, “is that the power from this fifteen cent battery in this cheap control box goes to those meaningless coils in the model. Then absolutely nothing happens. Now tell me what really flies the thing. If I’m going to pay eighteen dollars for seventy-five cents worth of tin, I want to know what I’m getting.”

The demonstrator’s face turned red. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to hide anything. Like any magic trick, I can’t show you how this one works unless you buy it.” He leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do though,” he said quietly. “This thing is way too expensive and hasn’t been selling at all. The manager said I could let them go at three dollars each if anyone wanted to buy them. If you want to buy it for that price…”

“Sold, my boy!” the colonel said, putting three dollar bills down noisily on the table. “I’ll give that much for it no matter how it works. The boys at the missile base will get a kick out of it,” he added as he pointed to the winged rocket on his uniform. “Now, what really holds it up?”

The demonstrator looked around carefully, then pointed. “Strings!” he said. “Or rather a thin black thread. It runs from the top of the model, through a tiny hook in the ceiling, and back down to my hand. Tied to this ring on my finger. When I back up, the model rises. It’s as simple as that.”

“All good magic tricks are simple,” the colonel said, following the black thread with his eye. “As long as there is enough talk or other things going on to make people take their eyes away from the real action.”

“If you don’t have a black table, a black cloth will do,” the young man said. “But you need to make sure that the room behind where you are standing is dark.”

“Wrap it up, my boy, I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m an old hand at this kind of thing.”

******

Biff Hawton showed the trick at next Thursday night’s poker party. The other players all worked with him at the missile base and they cheered and laughed as he acted out the introduction.

“Let me copy the diagram, Biff,” said one of them. “I could use some of those magnetic waves in the new missile we are working on!”

“Those flashlight batteries are a lot cheaper than rocket fuel,” said another. “This is the thing of the future!”

Only Teddy Kaner saw the trick as the rocket-ship began to rise. He studied magic in his free time and spotted how it worked at once. He kindly kept silent, and smiled as the rest of the group grew silent one by one. The colonel was good at acting and he had set the scene well. He almost had them believing in the Space-wave Tapper before he was through. But when the model had landed and he had switched it off, he couldn’t stop them from crowding around the table.

“A thread!” one of the engineers shouted, almost with relief, and they all laughed along with him.

“Too bad,” the head project scientist said. “I was hoping that a little space-wave tapping could help us out. Let me try it.”

“Teddy Kaner first,” Biff announced. “He spotted it while you were all watching the flashing lights. But he didn’t say anything.”

Kaner put the ring with the black thread over his finger and started to step back.

“You have to turn the switch on first,” Biff said.

“I know,” Kaner smiled. “But that’s part of the trick. You make people look at the box so that they don’t notice the thread. I’m going to try this cold first, so I can get it moving up and down smoothly, then go through it with the whole works.”

He moved his hand back smoothly, in a professional manner that drew no attention to it. The model lifted from the table, then crashed back down.

“The thread broke,” Kaner said.

“You pulled it too quickly. You need to do it smoothly,” Biff said. “Here… let me show you how to do it.” He knotted the broken thread and pulled slowly back.

The thread broke again, which got a good laugh that made Biff’s face go a little red. Someone mentioned the poker game.

This was the only time that poker was talked about or even remembered that night. Very soon after this they found that the thread would lift the model if the switch was on. The thread was strong enough only when two and a half volts were flowing through the meaningless coils. With the current turned off the model was too heavy to lift. The thread broke every time.

******

“I still think it’s a silly idea,” the young man said. “A week getting sore feet, showing how those toy rocket-ships work to every kid within a thousand miles. Then selling them for three dollars when they must have cost at least a hundred dollars each to make.”

“But you did sell ten of them to people who would be interested?” the older man asked.

“I think so. I caught a few Air Force officers and a colonel in missiles one day. Then those two professors you said were from the university. And there was one government official I remembered from the Department of Standards. Luckily he didn’t recognize me.

“Then the problem is out of our hands and into theirs. All we have to do now is sit back and wait for results.”

“What results?!” said the young man. “These people weren’t interested when we were knocking on their doors trying to show them what we found. We’ve patented the coils and can prove to anyone that there is a reduction in weight around them when they are operating, but…”

“But it is only a small reduction in weight. And we couldn’t tell them what is causing it. No one can be interested in a thing like that. A tiny reduction in weight in a cheaply made model is certainly not enough to lift it. Their minds are caught up in the single idea that you must burn huge amounts of fuel to create tons of lift. They have no time to listen to a mad man who thinks he has found a small mistake in Newton’s laws of physics.”

“You think they will now?” the young man asked.

“I know they will. The breaking strength of that thread is matched to the weight of the model. The thread will break if you try to lift the model with it. Yet you can lift the model after a small amount of its weight has been removed by the coils. This is going to annoy these men. Nobody is going to ask them to spend time trying to find out why this happens. But it will always be at the back of their mind because they know this effect can’t possibly exist. They’ll see at once that the magnetic wave theory is silly. Or perhaps true? We don’t know. But they will all be thinking about it and worrying about it. Someone is going to experiment at home — just for fun of course — to find why it happens. And he or someone else is going to find out what makes those coils work, or maybe a way to improve them!”

“And we have the patents…”

“Correct. They will be doing the research that will stop them having to worry about the need for huge fuel loads. Then we will enter into the field of real space travel.”

“And in doing so they will be making us rich whenever the time comes to manufacture,” the young man laughed.

“We’ll all be rich, son,” the older man said, touching him on the shoulder. “Believe me, you’re not going to recognize this old world ten years from now.”