Dangerous books for boys (and girls and men and women)


Already a huge hit in the UK, The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, is taking the US by storm. The first print run of 80,000 has been supplemented by a second order for 300,000 copies.

While the book is beautifully produced and entertaining, it really doesn't contain any risky projects that the title and nostalgic design suggest. I can't blame them — the authors and publisher would open themselves up to lawsuits if they included potentially dangerous projects in the book.

The trouble is, an awful lot of exciting projects carry an element of risk. Things that explode, burn, fly, and make loud noises are great fun. Safety precautions are necessary whenever you experiment with anything that is capable of quickly releasing a lot of energy. Because many people don't bother with goggles, gloves, grounding, and other safety measures, today's book publishers are reluctant to publish books that have potentially unsafe projects in them.

But "dangerous" books are available, if you want them. Some are reprints of old books now in the public domain, others can be picked up used or downloaded on P2P networks, and some are still being published today by brave authors and publishers.

Here are a few of my favorites:

The American Boy's Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It (1890)

Dangerous projects include: War kites with broken glass on the strings, mole-trapping techniques, hot air balloons with fireworks, blow guns, and a spring shot-gun ("Although the shot cast from the tube will have sufficient force to stun a small bird, it will not injure the specimen by making ugly holes in the skin and staining the feathers with blood.")

Almost 120 years old, The American Boy's Handy Book offers a glimpse of what life was like (or what boys of that era fantasized about) in the late 19th century. Children in those days wanted to emulate Lewis and Clarke, pioneers, trappers, and settlers — people who could be airdropped naked into the wilderness with nothing but a buck knife and a coonskin cap, and six months later be whittling happily in a rocking chair on the front porch of their newly-built log cabin, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney, and a half dozen rabbits waiting to be collected from snares and added to the stewpot simmering over the fire.

The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (1960)

Dangerous projects include: making chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen, and ethanol.

The book is long out of print, and used copies are very expensive (Amazon.com has used copies for over $(removed)). Of course, in today's litigious environment, no major publisher would dare republish a book that had actual chemistry experiments in it, for fear getting sued.
I have long wanted to own a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. I sort of forgot about it, but recently a friend emailed me a page he had scanned from a copy he owns. It prompted me to search for a sub-$(removed) copy. I got lucky and found a $(removed) copy, thanks to BitTorrent. Here's a link to the torrent file for a nice scan of the 112 page book.

The book is an example of everything great about vintage children's science books. Once you lay your eyes on it, you will come to the sad realization that our society has slipped backwards in at least three important ways: 1. The writing quality in old kids' science books was better; 2. The design and illustration was more thoughtful and skillful; 3. Children in the old days were allowed and encouraged to experiment with mildly risky but extremely rewarding activities. Today's children, on the other hand, are mollycoddled to the point of turning them into unhappy ignoramuses.



Whoosh Boom Splat: The Garage Warrior's Guide to Building Projectile Shooters (2007) and Backyard Ballistics (2001), by William Gurstelle

Dangerous projects include: potato cannons, catapults, fire kites, and tennis ball mortars.

William Gurstelle is a friend of mine, and a contributing editor to MAKE magazine. (Here's a funny video he made to promote Whoosh Boom Splat). Recently, MAKE magazine decided to kill a story because we deemed the project (a high-voltage "lifter") to be unsafe. MAKE invited its technical advisory board to weigh in on the subject of safety, and William's comments are worth excerpting here:

This is a question — about publishing information that could hurt, injure, or kill if misunderstood — that I've spent a long time considering.

Several years ago I published a book called Backyard Ballistics which explained, among other things, how to build a device that shoots projectiles at high velocities. Am I worried that someone might goof up and get hurt? Of course. Is that a reason not to publish information -— that someone, anyone could make a mistake?

True story: a couple of years ago, a young adult in Texas built a spud gun and went out in the swamp. He spent all day collecting bullfrogs, tossing them down the barrel of his spud gun and shooting them into froggy goo on the other side of the swamp. But on the last occasion, his gun misfired. Against every warning and caveat possible, he looked down the barrel of the gun, and as you probably guessed, took a fair-sized bullfrog between the eyes with unfortunate results. (Google it for details.)

Point is, just because someone could make a mistake with the information you're providing, it doesn't mean the magazine is liable, morally or legally. Unless it's incorrect.

But if the info is correct, that is, it has been thoroughly vetted, can be clearly explained, and contains plenty of warnings of the magnitude of the consequences of error, well then, I say go for it. I don't know the first thing about high-voltage power supplies, so I can't tell how complete the MAKE explanation is, but if complete and thorough information can be provided, then go for it. Nanny State be damned.

Legal disclaimer: But as Dennis Miller says, that's just my opinion; I could be wrong.

Even if you aren't planning on tackling the projects in these books, they make for interesting reading.

Reader comment:

Richard says:

"Just read your boingboing post and felt you should include this book: Manual Of Formulas; Recipes, Methods and Secret Processes, if not in your post, at least in your collection, originally published by Popular Science Magazine Publishing Co in 1932. It has since been republished and is an entertaining read. Has things like illuminous paint recipes/ make up / fireworks/ floor polishes etc. Huge disclaimer when it was republished given that it was a different time and health and safety was not high on the priority list."