recess radio program

8/09/04
The Kid Who Named Pluto
    by John Cech

It’s National Inventors’ Month – my guess is that’s because August is the peak month for vacations, and if you’re not traveling, it’s the perfect time for fixing things, which always means improvising, and that, as we know, leads to plain ol’ tinkering, and tinkering has lead to automobiles, airplanes, computers, and most of the inventions that have changed the world. Don Wulffson offers an inspiring starting point for all those young aspiring Edisons in his book The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle. As Wulffson tells the story, the popsicle was accidentally created by Frank Epperson, who was 11 when he forgot a batch of powdered soda mixed with water on his back porch one winter night, with the stirring stick still in it. Young Frank tasted the frozen result, and had one of those eureka moments. Come the warm weather, he was peddling them to the kids in his neighborhood. He called it a popsicle because pop was the main flavoring ingredient.

ulfsson gives us a brief history of dozens of other inventions in the book – from animal crackers to the zipper, with stops along the way for the scooter (also a kids’ invention), the frisbee, and our local Florida favorite, Gatorade. Did you know that jigsaw puzzles were first used in 1767, to teach geography? And that the ice cream cone came from the thin Arabic wafer called zalzabia, that doughnuts were brought by the Pilgrims to this country from Holland and the first hole was later cut into it by a Maine sea captain? And did you know that the yo-yo was originally used for hunting in the Phillippines, and that over 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal invented the calculator when he was 19 years old, and that the thimble was invented by sailors, and that the idea for sunglasses goes back to ancient China?

And once your young inventors run through Wulffson’s books, they should look for The Kid Who Named Pluto by Marc McCutcheon for some amazing stories about young people who came up with breakthrough ideas, like 11-year old Venetia Burney who, in 1930, won a naming contest a newly-discovered planet, which she called Pluto. It was 14-year old Philo Farnsworth who tuned in to the concept for what would become television while he was plowing one of the family’s farm fields in Idaho. As a young man, Farnsworth built the first prototype of the device that would send images round the world. And then there was the blind, teenage Louis Braille who created an alphabet so that people without the ability to read, could at last, through their fingertips, see.

Copyright 2004 © John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."