Probably the most enjoyable lecture I've ever attended was by George McFarland at Lakeland Community College. You may already know that McFarland played Spanky in the old Our Gang and Little Rascals comedies produced by Hal roach and MGM Studios in the 1930s and 40s.
McFarland (Spanky) explained that Our Gang typified how kids grew up before the age of television; they had to find their own ways to entertain themselves. This usually meant brainstorming about starting a secret club or building some sort of exotic vehicle from items rescued from a junk pile.
Spanky showed a film clip that revealed the prime mover of the Gang’s fire chief’s car. In that car’s engine compartment was a cage with a cat inside. The cage was positioned in front of a dog, which, of course, tried to chase the cat. But the dog was held stationary by a harness, so its running motion was transferred to a treadmill, which, in turn, powered the car’s wheels.
We would certainly question the practicality of this humorous setup, but it does illustrate a solution that kids who had no access to an internal combustion engine would use to solve a problem. Before television, kids across America resorted to innovative (though more practical) tactics like this in order to amuse themselves.
It’s no wonder, then, that American industry benefited from the carry-over of this innovation. When kids from this pre-television era grew up into adults, they already had creative design experience even before they entered college — if they even went to college. Moreover, I believe that this mechanical inclination becomes lifelong when it is etched into the inquisitive mind of a child.
Which brings me to my point. Read any current magazine discussing industry, and you’re bound to learn someone’s opinion of what has caused the U.S. to lose ground as the industrial leader of the world. Certainly video games and the internet cannot be singled out as the main reason for our lost ground. If kids would rather play video games, surf the net, or text their friends than use their ingenuity to entertain themselves, blame parents, not digital technology. Besides, there are plenty of good materials out there that educate and encourage children to figure out concepts. So point to today’s lifestyles as a main reason why so many kids shoot for MBAs and law degrees instead of engineering and sciences.
Here is a shot of what Spanky looked like when I saw him. I first thought, "This could be anyone," but after watching him for awhile, I could tell it was him.