It is not uncommon in the museum to converse with a child about robots. Sometimes the conversation is about sci-fi or movie robots, but during my 14 years in the museum field this has changed significantly. Now it is not unusual to have a kid tell you about his or her robot. What the kids describe is not the servant robot that I dreamed of in the 1980s, but the task-driven bot they created in a STEM class or program. It is amazing what kids have access to these days. Low cost components and computers have allowed more kids to explore STEM through robotics.
I have to admit I feel a bit jealous when I have these kid-to-older-guy conversations. I think to myself what it would have been like for me to have access to robotics and teachers who could teach the topic. At times I am tempted to say, “Look kid, in my day we didn’t have robots to play with!” But that wouldn’t be very encouraging.
There were a few “robotic” toys in my day, like the robotic arm from Radio Shack, Big Trak, and the Verbot. Each of these toys had its own degree of robotic life but for the most part they were slow-moving electromechanical devices. They were also very expensive and had no support network to help when they broke. They were simply not within reach or appealing.
Much to my father’s frugal chagrin, I became interested in radio-controlled (RC) cars. I am not talking about the tethered “remote control cars” with a range of 12 inches and a top speed of 2 miles per hour. I was interested in something untethered and fast. Being a good dad, my father took me with him to the hobby store to do some research. That is when the accessory sticker shock set in. I vividly remember the man at the hobby shop asking what type of controller we would want for my car. What type of controller? It doesn’t come with one? Then there were the other needed accessories like the speed control, battery packs, battery chargers, and tools to keep the car running. The price added up quickly. Needless to say, my dad and I compromised. One year for my birthday—I think I was turning fourteen at the time—he bought me a radio-controlled car. It was pre-assembled and ready to run out of the box.
While I was driving a ready-to-run car, my friend Mike had just gotten a Tamiya Hornet. His car came as a kit that you built. It was one of those "which accessories will you want with that?" type of cars. Performance-wise there was no comparison to my car. Mike could set shock stiffness, change out motors, use different battery packs, and tweak his car's performance from the remote control.
After much saving of money and some long conversations with dad, I got my first kit RC car. It was a Tamiya Falcon. Building the car took longer than I thought but with Mike’s help I ended up with what I had hoped for—a nice RC car. In the process of the build, I learned about different types of nuts and bolts, how resistors affect current flow, how a set of C cell nickel cadmium batteries can be wired in series to produce 7.2 volts, what a servo motor is, and how a differential works.
Over the next few years Mike and I would race our cars. We also experimented with car parts we would get from other kids who had given up the hobby. One of the greatest experiments was my 1/12 scale, ultrafast rocket-powered car. It ran off an Estes D12-0 rocket engine. The car was lightweight and all thrust. Mike and I built the rocket engine housing and exhaust system from an old fishing net with an aluminum handle and some RTV silicone. The end product looked both rough and cool and would perform with consistent predictability.
Those days were some of the most fun I remember as a kid. The satisfaction of building a working machine, coupled with the frustration and joy of tweaking it to do what I wanted, was empowering. As the years went by, Mike and I each bought a few nicer RC cars. My top car was my Schumacher CAT 4WD with a Hyperdrive belt drive transmission added. Mike's top car was his RC10 with all of its aerospace-inspired construction.
Since those days I have gone on to work with 3D printers, CNC machines, microcontrollers, and more. Mike is a tech for flight simulators and tinkers with Arduino and Raspberry Pi’s. Although we may not have had access to robots in our time, RC cars were our gateway into STEM fields.