Hacking Neil Downie

Comments from the Hacking Neil Downie Workshop at the Eli Whitney Museum July 16-20, 2012.

Based on chapters from The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science Neil A. Downie, Princeton University Press (c) May 2012.  Page numbers are references to this book.


Nathan: We need big carrots.

Sally: Why?

Neil Downie’s Carrot Cannon (page 3.)

Sally: Yeah, well when you hit someone in the eye, don’t bring them to me.

Nathan: Hey, I thought carrots were good for eyes!

Motor Brushes (page 112.)

We made a classic mistake.  We created a propeller unit to put on top of “Doogals” we have made for three years.  It worked beautifully. The ones we made today, not so much.

Parker turned off the propeller on our demonstration model to demonstrate that it was already a superior “vibrobot”: well balanced and turned. It was important to make the Motor Brush work well first, then add the propeller. English propellers may be more efficient than the inexpensive American ones we use.


Josh B missed Monday and dragged himself in Tuesday still with a terrible cough.

Josh said: It’s just not a week I would ever miss. Cough. Cough.

To which everyone responded: Hacking Neil Downie.

Hacking: (American) to make innovative adjustments or applications, of established ideas or technology, understanding something that works by taking it apart and putting it back together.

Smooth-Wheeled Steamer (p 117)

Terrific fun.  And a reminder that most of us need more practice at balancing boats.

Telestrings (p 182)

A brilliant version of a device heretofore manageable only by very clever mechanics.  Thomas Jefferson designed a similar device to reproduce his signature. We will recommend the ultimate version to our friends at Monticello.


Projects that seem simple often present big challenges.  Projects that seem outrageous sometimes turn out to be simple. We changed the subtitle of An Eiffel Brick Tower (page 90) to Monster Eiffel.  Owen’s very first tower passed the limit of our ladders at 14′ 8″.  Friday we have retooled for a 16′ attempt.

The Popup Piston (page 9) is another delightfully simple pleasure. We like the trick of putting a small hole all the way through the block so that “experts” can pop the piston hat.  Those who do not know the secret, cannot.

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