Because there were few adults in the crowd, and Colonel “Biff” Hawton stood over six feet tall, he could see every detail of the demonstration. The children--and most of the parents--gaped in wide-eyed wonder. Biff Hawton was too sophisticated to be awed. He stayed on because he wanted to find out what the trick was that made the gadget work.
“It’s all explained right here in your instruction book,” the demonstrator said, holding up a garishly printed booklet opened to a four-color diagram. “You all know how magnets pick up things and I bet you even know that the earth itself is one great big magnet--that’s why compasses always point north. Well ... the Atomic Wonder Space Wave Tapper hangs onto those space waves. Invisibly all about us, and even going right through us, are the magnetic waves of the earth. The Atomic Wonder rides these waves just the way a ship rides the waves in the ocean. Now watch...”
Every eye was on him as he put the gaudy model rocketship on top of the table and stepped back. It was made of stamped metal and seemed as incapable of flying as a can of ham--which it very much resembled. Neither wings, propellors, nor jets broke through the painted surface. It rested on three rubber wheels and coming out through the bottom was a double strand of thin insulated wire. This white wire ran across the top of the black table and terminated in a control box in the demonstrator’s hand. An indicator light, a switch and a knob appeared to be the only controls.
“I turn on the Power Switch, sending a surge of current to the Wave Receptors,” he said. The switch clicked and the light blinked on and off with a steady pulse. Then the man began to slowly turn the knob. “A careful touch on the Wave Generator is necessary as we are dealing with the powers of the whole world here...”
A concerted ahhhh swept through the crowd as the Space Wave Tapper shivered a bit, then rose slowly into the air. The demonstrator stepped back and the toy rose higher and higher, bobbing gently on the invisible waves of magnetic force that supported it. Ever so slowly the power was reduced and it settled back to the table.
“Only $17.95,” the young man said, putting a large price sign on the table. “For the complete set of the Atomic Wonder, the Space Tapper control box, battery and instruction book...”
At the appearance of the price card the crowd broke up noisily and the children rushed away towards the operating model trains. The demonstrator’s words were lost in their noisy passage, and after a moment he sank into a gloomy silence. He put the control box down, yawned and sat on the edge of the table. Colonel Hawton was the only one left after the crowd had moved on.
“Could you tell me how this thing works?” the colonel asked, coming forward. The demonstrator brightened up and picked up one of the toys.
“Well, if you will look here, sir...” He opened the hinged top. “You will see the Space Wave coils at each end of the ship.” With a pencil he pointed out the odd shaped plastic forms about an inch in diameter that had been wound--apparently at random--with a few turns of copper wire. Except for these coils the interior of the model was empty. The coils were wired together and other wires ran out through the hole in the bottom of the control box. Biff Hawton turned a very quizzical eye on the gadget and upon the demonstrator who completely ignored this sign of disbelief.
“Inside the control box is the battery,” the young man said, snapping it open and pointing to an ordinary flashlight battery. “The current goes through the Power Switch and Power Light to the Wave Generator...”
“What you mean to say,” Biff broke in, “is that the juice from this fifteen cent battery goes through this cheap rheostat to those meaningless coils in the model and absolutely nothing happens. Now tell me what really flies the thing. If I’m going to drop eighteen bucks for six-bits worth of tin, I want to know what I’m getting.”
The demonstrator flushed. “I’m sorry, sir,” he stammered. “I wasn’t trying to hide anything. Like any magic trick this one can’t be really demonstrated until it has been purchased.” He leaned forward and whispered confidentially. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do though. This thing is way overpriced and hasn’t been moving at all. The manager said I could let them go at three dollars if I could find any takers. If you want to buy it for that price...”
“Sold, my boy!” the colonel said, slamming three bills down on the table. “I’ll give that much for it no matter how it works. The boys in the shop will get a kick out of it,” he tapped the winged rocket on his chest. “Now really--what holds it up?”
The demonstrator looked around carefully, then pointed. “Strings!” he said. “Or rather a black thread. It runs from the top of the model, through a tiny loop in the ceiling, and back down to my hand--tied to this ring on my finger. When I back up--the model rises. It’s as simple as that.”
“All good illusions are simple,” the colonel grunted, tracing the black thread with his eye. “As long as there is plenty of flimflam to distract the viewer.”
“If you don’t have a black table, a black cloth will do,” the young man said. “And the arch of a doorway is a good site, just see that the room in back is dark.”
“Wrap it up, my boy, I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m an old hand at this kind of thing.”
Biff Hawton sprang it at the next Thursday-night poker party. The gang were all missile men and they cheered and jeered as he hammed up the introduction.
“Let me copy the diagram, Biff, I could use some of those magnetic waves in the new bird!”
“Those flashlight batteries are cheaper than lox, this is the thing of the future!”
Only Teddy Kaner caught wise as the flight began. He was an amateur magician and spotted the gimmick at once. He kept silent with professional courtesy, and smiled ironically as the rest of the bunch grew silent one by one. The colonel was a good showman and he had set the scene well. He almost had them believing in the Space Wave Tapper before he was through. When the model had landed and he had switched it off he couldn’t stop them from crowding around the table.
“A thread!” one of the engineers shouted, almost with relief, and they all laughed along with him.