Norman Wilson Edmund died Tuesday. He was 95, and he was a hero of mine. Oh, I didn’t know much about him, but there was only one thing I needed to know: He was the founder of Edmund Scientific, which, for a nerdy kid growing up in a faceless mid-Atlantic suburb back in the pre-Internet days, was the greatest catalog ever.
I was a science geek in my formative years. I was destined for a career in science until college, when Chem 102 (Organic), my creative streak, and my interest in the media pretty much wiped that out. But as a kid, one of the highlights of every year was when my father would return from the New Jersey Education Association’s Teachers’ Convention in Atlantic City with a copy of that year’s Edmund Scientific catalog. It was, along with the Phillies and Mets yearbooks I would annually procure and maybe The Sporting News, the single most influential publication of my childhood. (More adult publications came later. Get your mind away from there)
What was it? It was, as the video above (from someone selling the 1972 catalog on eBay) shows, a thick pamphlet from a store in Barrington, New Jersey, somewhere in Camden County, showing off only the most amazing collection of science gadgets, gizmos, and curios I’d ever seen: weather balloons, microscopes, telescopes, drinking crows, little discs that would jump off the table, black lights, prisms, freaky lens filters, fiber optic lamps, all sorts of surplus optics…. There was not one thing in that catalog I wouldn’t have wanted. Not that I had any use for most of it, but I wanted it all. I wanted to see the stars, to bend light, to send a balloon to space, to… well, I didn’t know what I could do with a lot of it, but I knew I wanted it.
And I couldn’t afford any of that stuff, so the catalog was the best I could do. But it was the Edmund Scientific catalog that helped nurture a love of, and respect for, science that’s lasted all these decades, even though I ended up not really having the aptitude to do anything with it, or even retain the knowledge that college organic chemistry knocked out of me. (Whenever Chris gets on a real science roll on the podcast, I can only strain to remember all the things I once learned and eagerly absorbed. It’s been a looooonnnnng time) The Edmund family still runs the optics company; Edmund Scientific, run, it appears, by another company, still exists, and there’s still a catalog (the last time I saw one was in the studio at Y107 back when Chris was the morning co-host) but they don’t have the Barrington store and it’s not the same when you’re not a kid.
Or is it? When I heard that the founder had died, I went online and the current incarnation of the company has a lot of what I remember desperately wanting as a kid, and more. Drinking crows, Buckyballs, the star and planet locator, potato clocks, weather gear, magnetic stuff, it’s all there, and for a moment, I was a kid again, only, more dangerously, a kid with credit cards. If only I had those when I was 11 years old, paging through the Edmund Scientific catalog and dreaming of a house full of wonder.
Thank you, N.W. Edmund.