Mendel Letters 33 — When Mendel Won the Science Fairs

June 12, 2021

Dear Mendel,

1961 was a very hard year. Mommy died in February. I was eleven and my brother was nine. You stayed home with us for a week as we sat shiva. I know the apartment was crowded with people, but I don’t really have any memories. Once you went back to work and we returned to school, you were out before we woke up in the morning and came home after a neighborhood woman fed us supper. Other than Sundays, we were pretty much on our own.

There was one good thing that spring. You won the third and fifth grade science fairs at PS 104. I think we made both projects in one evening after you got home from work. For my brother, we made an electric circuit conductivity board. We taped different objects to a one foot square flat board. Some were metal. I am pretty sure we used an old key and a coin. There was a piece of wood and plastic toy soldier. I had large dry cell battery with two screw on terminals on top, some insulated copper wire, and we took a small light bulb from a flashlight. Terminal to bulb and a wire ran from the bulb. Another wire was attached to the other terminal. When my brother touched both wires to the key, the light bulb lit. It didn’t light when he touched the wood or the plastic soldier. That was his project.

I was in fifth grade so my project was more complicated. I think I found the prototype in a library book. “How to make a baking powder can steam turbine?” I don’t remember if the can came with a pinhole on top or we punctured it. In those days baking powder cans were all metal. You half filled the can with water and secured the top. We punctured the center of a number 10-can top and used heavy scissors to create a pinwheel. I think we ran a straightened paper clip through the hole in the center of the pinwheel. The tricky part was cutting two metal strips from the number 10-can, probably about three inches long and a half an inch wide. We punched a hole in each about half an inch from the top and soldered both strips to the baking powder can. We mounted the pinwheel in place, heated the can of water until it emitted steam that spun the pinwheel. I don’t remember what we used for the heat source, probably the stove.

The few hours the three of us spent together making the projects were much more important to my brother and me than winning the science fairs that year.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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Mendel Letters

Mendel Letters

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