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Atomic Ping-Pong
Written February 9, 2009


When I was a boy, I remember donning headphones to listen to a public demonstration of a forthcoming marvel called stereophonic sound.  I heard music.  I heard a classic stereo sound effect:  a train approaching from one side, passing, and departing to the other side.  I heard another classic stereo sound effect: a ping-pong game.

I can't say for sure, but this preview of the future might have arrived in the fall of 1954, when I was 7½ years old.

If so, it reached me on a vehicle like this, originally built by General Motors for the 1939 World's Fair.  Inspired by GM's new diesel locomotives for railroads, it was an incredibly tall bus called the Futurliner.

A remodeled fleet of Futurliners toured the country from 1953 to 1956 in a series of one-week stands called the Parade of Progress.


When the Parade visited Akron and Canton, Ohio, beginning September 28, 1954, my parents might have taken me to glimpse this world of tomorrow.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, "Large crowds gathered near Firestone Stadium to witness a 'scientific circus' featuring modern miracles such as microwave ovens, power steering, portable television, synthetic rubber, jet propulsion, stereo sound, solar engines, shatter-resistant glass and automotive air conditioning."

From the roof of each Futurliner rose a lighting bar.  The sides of each vehicle opened up, revealing displays or stages for demonstrations.  And if my recollection is correct, at the base of one of those display panels must have been a row of headphones hooked up to a stereo tape player.

The Parade of Progress stopped touring the nation in 1956.  By then, the nation had television, and there was no need for people to trek to the fairgrounds to be impressed by the marvels of technology.

It was on television about that time that I saw a memorable demonstration of the concept of a nuclear chain reaction.  I think it was a scene from Disney's 1957 film Our Friend the Atom that was included on the Disneyland program.  (Click here for a 21st-century version of this demonstration.)

A table was filled with large mousetraps, representing uranium atoms.  On the "hammer" arm of each trap sat two ping-pong balls, representing neutrons.  Someone triggered the chain reaction by tossing one more ping-pong ball onto the table.  That ball tripped one mousetrap, causing it to undergo "fission" and fling its two "neutrons" into the air.  Those two balls set off two more mousetraps, which tossed up another four balls, which set off four more mousetraps, which flung eight balls into the air, and so on.  A nuclear explosion of ping-pong balls filled the screen.

I'm only sorry I didn't hear it in stereo.



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