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The Flying Yardstick
A Brief Tale with Digressions

Written March 3, 2005


From the ages of seven to 16, I lived with my family in a farmhouse not far outside the village of Richwood.  The house had a yard, of course, with a lot of open space except for one big tree.


Digression:  The tree was a Northern Catalpa.  My mother never cared for it, calling it “dirty” because it covered the lawn with fallen blooms in the spring and long brown seedpods later in the year.

In a 1958 photo that I've posted here, it's the tree on the right.  Below are some pictures taken by others of a catalpa flower and “beans.”


The yard might have been a good place to throw a Frisbee around, but I had no one to throw it back to me.  Instead, I tried sailing a yardstick.


Digression:  This yard was also where I first experimented with stereoscopic photography.  In 1962, I set my Polaroid camera on a table and took one picture of the catalpa trunk and the Cramers' house across the road.  Then I moved the camera a few inches to the right and took a second picture.  Viewed through a stereoscope, the photos formed a three-dimensional image.

Except I didn't have a stereoscope.  And I couldn't just lay the photos side by side and look at each one with a different eye, because they were wider than the distance between my eyes.

I designed a  periscope arrangment with two small mirrors so I could place the left photo farther to the left.  It also had to be on a higher plane than the right photo, to keep the optical path lengths (and the image sizes) the same.

To support the left photo and the mirrors, I used Tinker Toys to build this frame.  The makeshift stereoscope worked, but not very well.

Much later, I used a computer to combine the photos into the version below, which you can view with colored 3D glasses.


Any pictures labeled 3D are stereoscopic anaglyphs, using the system that you may have seen in a couple of Sports Illustrated issues in 2000.  For the three-dimensional effect, view them with a red filter over your left eye and a cyan (blue-green) filter over your right eye.


My experimental flying yardstick was one of the advertising items (such as matchbooks) that my father's auto dealership gave away every September when the new models were announced.


Digression:  Introductions of new cars were major events back then.  For that matter, even the introductions of new tractors were big deals.  In early 1955, the local paper reported:

Ford Motor Company's new farm tractors for 1955 will go on display on January 7 in the showrooms of McDaniel Tractor Sales.

Richwood Implement will observe open house at their place of business on East Ottawa Street on January 10 for the premiere showing of the great new McCormick Farmall tractors.

John Deere Day is slated at the American Legion Hall on January 11 showcasing the new John Deere line for 1955.  Entertainment for all.


Although some of my father's giveaway wooden yardsticks were thin and flexible, this one with the slogan "Oldsmobile: Always a Step Ahead" was more substantial.  It was a quarter-inch thick and rigid, and it weighed a full four ounces.

For some reason, I had it out in the yard one day and idly began tossing it around.  Before long, I discovered how to make it fly.

Grasping the three-foot-long strip of wood near one end with my right hand, I held it out horizontally beside my body, but not quite flat.  In aerodynamic terms, I used a positive angle of attack.  The leading edge of the yardstick was tilted up maybe 20 degrees.

I then threw the stick forward.  The leading edge, catching the air, flipped up further, and the stick began to rotate rapidly, making a soft buzzing sound.  It was now a sort of flying wing, blurring into something resembling a cylinder three feet long and an inch in diameter.

A spinning baseball traveling through the air creates a pressure differential that causes its path to curve.

In the same way, my spinning yardstick created lower pressure above it and higher pressure below.  That resulted in lift.  So it resisted gravity by maintaining its altitude, maybe even climbing a little, as it buzzed along.  It flew even better if I threw it into the wind.

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Eventually, after a few seconds, drag slowed down my glider.  It fell to the ground, and I retrieved it for another flight.



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