Sunday, July 31, 2016


   In 1980 I had a job as exhibits designer for the New York Hall of Science. it was kind of a strange museum, because while other ciies like Toronto and San Francisco had world-class Science Centers, The NY Hall of Science was, honestly, patheic. It was housed in the Science building in Flushing Park, Queens, constructed for the 1964 world’s fair with a few ‘left-over’ exhibits and while plans were discussed to make it a truly great center, any actual funding or construction was still years away. 

   Nevertheless I had a small dedicated staff and an even smaller budget and it was our job to make the place ‘work’, so rather than deal with abstract science concepts, I decided to, as best I could, teach science that would be relevant to what was currently in the news.

   For example, the whole country was at that time going thru an energy crisis and the idea of fireplaces and burning wood for heat was becoming a subject that people were discussing so I designed an exhibit called ‘POTBELLY’. We had dozens of different wood and coal burning stoves on display and we were able to teach some great principles of combustion and heat distribution by using the different techniques that each stove employed. The show was so popular that we even got to be on NBC’s TODAY show! More about POTBELLY later.

   The Science Center being in Queens instead of Manhattan had its disadvantages and advantages. Because I lived in Manhattan the greatest advantage for me was driving to work every day going in the empty and opposite direction of everyone else. But a serious advantage, and the reason for this blog is that we were right across from the National Tennis Center (NTS) where every year the U.S. Open was held, and it was coming up soon.

   My idea: Micro-Tennis: An Exhibit of Tennis through the microscope! With our limited budget we put on a photographic, but scientific examination of tennis equipment as seen thru the microscope. Our researcher Dr.Larry Rosen had some connection with a hospital in the Bronx that let us use their Electron Scanning Microscope at night. It was fantastic. Shots of plastic racquet strings look like cables that held up a bridge while those same strings of natural material looked like pieces of meat complete with ‘marbelling’.

   To display our photos we built giant tennis rackets out of plywood and sandwiched concrete reinforcement wire to look like the strings and then clamped our photos on the grid. We hung the tennis rackets from the ceiling and their slow natural rotation made a rather limited exhibition look actually exciting. You can see the tennis rackets in the background of the photo.
Hair on a tennis ball as seen on the Scanning Electron Microscope
   I walked over and showed the folks at the NTS what we had i mind and they loved it. They let us put up our posters and promoted our exhibit in any way they could. They even gave us some expensive ($325) tickets to the Open. How cool was that!

   Now here’s where it gets interesting. I wanted to build a giant microscope out of used tennis balls and have a guess-the-number-of tennis-balls contest with some prize for the winner. I knew the picture of it would get us a lot of publicity (it did). I didn’t think it would be to hard to round up used tennis balls. First I called the nearby National Tennis Center who told me that they had JUST donated lots of used balls to the Girls and Boys Clubs in the area. Damn. I don’t recall how many calls we made but nobody seemed to have a lot of used tennis balls for us. It was getting close to the opening of the show and of course I was starting to panic. I needed those balls ‘now’ if we were to have any chance of building the ‘scope’ in time.

   I don’t remember the details but I do remember making some rough calculation of the number of balls I thought we might need and that if you crammed them all together they would fill a 8 foot x 6 foot crate. 

   Now desperate, I thought of calling the manufacturers. My first call was to Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago, who I knew supplied the US Open. I managed to connect with a marketing guy and when I explained what I was doing, and where I was located he thought the idea was great. He said unfortunately they don’t have any used tennis balls but he’d be willing to send us new balls for our project at no cost. Wow. I told him that would be great and, because I needed them right away, I volunteered to pay for them being air shipped to us. Done!

   So now it’s Friday afternoon and still no balls. The exhibit opening reception is on Wednesday.. Three o’ clock and four o’ clock came and went. And then, right at 5 o’ clock I see a forty-foot tractor trailer pulling towards our loading dock. Finally.

  “Got some tennis balls for ya!” The driver shouts from the cab and as he opens the back doors I see that the truck is packed full of big Wilson Tennis Ball boxes. Full. Wall to wall. The driver starts to unload. “Wait there must be some mistake, that’s a lot tennis balls, are you sure youre at the right place?” “Hall of Science!” he says as he hands me the invoice. He’s still unloading. I said “maybe you better take them back until we get this figured out.” “Look pal,” says the driver probably already pissed having to work late on Friday, “if we have to reload and take these back they’re going into some warehouse and you’ll be lucky if you ever see them again”. Ya gotta love New York. “Besides”, he says, “there’s another tractor with more balls coming behind me”. I signed the receipt.

   I’m just stunned as I watch all these boxes being unloaded. I opened a box to find brand new Tennis Balls in their cans. 3 balls per can. And to top it off I see the museum maintenence guys loading boxes into their car trunks like it’s Christmas. Finally the trucks leave. Everybody heads home. I’m standing there with two tractor traier loads of tennis balls. And then it hits me.

   I volunteered to pay for the air freight for this. I am totally screwed!

   That weekend was one of the worst in my life. I imagined what a Boing 747 full of tennis balls was going to cost. How was I ever gonna explain this. I was dead.

   Finally Monday came. Wilson was in Chicago so I had to wait for the time zones to catch up to call. Finally I got thru to the guy I was dealing with and told him what happened. I held my breath. He just laughed and I heard him tell somebody in his office ‘oh that’s where those balls wound up’. Seems that THEY screwed up the shipping and he told me not to worry about it (a little too late). He said that we could use what we needed and they’d send a truck to pick up the rest later today. Oh man what a relief.

   The rest of Monday and Tuesday was spent hot gluing those tennis balls together. You know it really was a crime to ruin all those new balls, used balls would have looked and been so much more sensible but I had no choice. I think we even lost count of how many we used so we counted the used cans and made up a number and gave out some good prizes anyway.

   The show was a big success with many tennis industry pros as well as spectators from the US Open walking over to the Hall of Science to see Micro-Tennis and learn some interesting science facts about their sport.

   But I wouldn’t want to ever go thru a weekend like that again.

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