Oct 192009

When I was a kid, I had a rock tumbler. It must have been a Christmas or birthday gift from my parents, as I didn’t have a lot of spending money as a child. I hardly remember it as a toy, only that rock tumblers enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the early 1970’s. Kind of a geological version of the “ant farm”.

I remember very little about using the device; the machine was small, and was essentially a box with two rollers on top. A yellow plastic container fit between the rollers, and when the machine was turned on, the yellow plastic container slowly rolled. In fact, to polish rocks, it had to roll for something like a week. I think we put it in a corner in our basement laundry room, and it ground away the minutes, the hours, and the days. I assume I watched Hogan’s Heroes and I Dream of Jeannie while it tirelessly worked.

Eventually I had a polished rock. It was too big to put on a ring, and I didn’t wear rings anyway. I don’t know what ever happened to my polished rock. I don’t know what ever happened to my rock polisher…

I love old Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines. These magazines had a heavy influence on me as a child, augmenting an already huge fascination with science. As I grew older, I became somewhat more savvy about the commercial nature of these enterprises, and I saw that many of the things that were claimed to soon revolutionize our lives never panned out.

Some years back my friend Jan Gregor gave me a huge stack of these magazines from my favorite time period, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I even remember some of the particular issues. I nearly creamed my jeans when I found the soy-protein-turned-into-meat story from a particular issue of Popular Science in the early 1970’s. For some reason, this seemed unbelievably cool for me growing up in Missoula Montana. I developed a mighty craving for some soy-beef, and eventually I got some. But that’s another story

While looking through the June 1965 issue of Mechanix Illustrated, Volume 62, number 445 I found a remarkable “sidebar”.

On page 30 is an illustrated account that lacks an author’s name, but instead refers to the contents of a letter submitted by a Frank Wynne of South Pittsburg Tennessee.

For some reason, I find this concept as cool as hell, and would love to try it myself if I ever lived near a small stream. It sounds like way more fun than a “rock polisher”, but I assume you need soft stone to start with. It kind of reminds me of the quasi-mysterious “ice circles” that get reported from time to time.
This is the text of the MI article:

“In January, 1964, MI ran a little piece called Marble Players of Blue Eye, about the grownup game of marbles played in that Ozark community. The players didn’t play for keeps because their marbles are ancient ones made of stone and no one knew how to make them any more, we said. Wrong again.

Later on a letter came from Frank Wynne of South Pittsburg, Tenn., telling how he used to make his own stone marbles as a boy. The trick was to find a block of “sand rock” and chisel out a three-inch-deep hole in it, then divert stream water through a pipe so that it fell about three feet into one side of the hole in the rock.

Into the hole Frank would drop a bit of the same stone-as round as he could find- and leave it a few weeks to turn over and over and “grind true.”

Somewhere a boy living near a stream is going to try this. We know it.”

Some time after I first put this page up I decided to ask the “hive mind” of Metafilter’s AskMeFi if anyone knew anything about this exotic subject. Here is the thread.

One individual in particular was very helpful, so much so that he allowed me to post photographs of his grandfather’s marbles!

 Posted by on 10/19/2009 Personal History

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