March 23, 2009

Popular Mechanics Archive on

Just discovered the treasure trove of old DIY content in the Popular Mechanics magazine archive on

Google Books archive of Popular Mechanics back issues

As a kid, I read through the local library's dog-eared copy of The Boy Mechanic a zillion times, replicating the 1930s projects in my garage with scrounged pallet wood and duct tape.

The Boy Mechanic was the Make Magazine of its era--espousing the can-do American do-it-yourself spirit 80 years before HGTV, while retaining the post-depression frugality that all its readers shared. Why buy something when you could make it yourself from a used apple crate or an old automobile leaf spring?

Now Google has scanned the original magazine articles from which The Boy Mechanic was composed. So not only can you find the how-to articles, but also the "timely" tech articles that explore such wild ideas as radar, ballistic rockets, and shortwave radio.

Like this guy, wearing the latest in 1942's Sirius radio/WARfinding gear:

Cover of Popular Mechanics June 1942

But the real gems are the projects, written for guys with an interest in tinkering and not a lot of money (which would be half of Silicon Valley right now). I actually made this Sidewalk Scooter, 30 years before the whole Razor craze:

Sidewalk scooters article from Popular Mechanics Aug 1935

Note from experience: If you put some nails into that "brake" you can have a pretty good shower of sparks going down some hills in San Francisco. Oh, and ensure your health insurance is up to date. Nuff said.

A lot of projects, are, to paraphrase the Make manifesto, "gonna void your warranty". The Dangerous Book for Boys that was all the rage last year comes close, but is nowhere near as dangerous as the original PM content.

Chemistry sets don't come with those kinds of chemicals anymore, and little parlour pastimes like this basement crossbow range, with bows you make yourself from used hacksaw blades, are frowned upon these days:

Home Crossbow Range article from Popular Mechanics April 1931

Books mentioned in this post:

This version of the Boy Mechanic is but a taste of the real monster tome I knew and loved. Think of it as a Whitman Sampler to whet your appetite:

The Dangerous Book for Boys has spawned a whole cottage industry, one that is almost too prolific, almost to the point of nauseum (like those "Chicken Soup" guys). But it still strikes a chord with the nostalgic, independent, back-to-basics tone and its coverage of "real boy" topics. In a world where schools eliminate spelling bees "because competition means conflict", this was quite refreshing.

The original Boy Mechanic that I read at the library is no longer in print, but you can find used, beat-up copies on eBay from time to time. Luckily Lee Valley has reprinted the earlier set of volumes in archival-quality editions, worthy of passing down to your grandkids (as I know you'll do):

Buy the Boy Mechanic at Lee Valley Hardware

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