Fun with the sun;Reviews

26th June 1998 at 01:00
SOLAR K'NEX. Solar 10 multi model set, from pound;59.99. Solar 20 multi model set, from pound;99.99.

Jon O'Connor dabbles with solar power

It's seven o'clock in the morning. My secret prototype is spinning gently on the desk. As the sun rises higher, the model gradually builds up speed - as planned. The first solar-powered whizzer-thing in the world. And I made it, with a bit of help from the new K'nex solar-power construction kit.

This kit amounts to an environmental statement with sound commercial sense. If playthings reflect our world and shape our children's outlook, it must be time we balked at the billions of batteries consumed by toys. Sustainable energy for whizzer-things, that's what I say.

We also need to build sustainable imagination into our playthings. K'nex is a way of life for some. There are those, apparently, who make a hobby and a habit out of quietly clicking these brightly coloured sticks into sockets. There's a simple logic to a K'nex kit. A variety of structural lengths, fixed and moving joints with angles galore. Make what you will of it, K'nex appeals to my friend the astonishing architect, my mate the musical madman. And myself, a workaholic obsessed with structures and systems, waiting to change the world. I think there's a connection.

Construction kits offer two main approaches to representing our world. Many make a fantastic amount of money by selling thousands of detailed extras: you want Tudor-style plastic beams for your house? No problem! A school-crossing patrol figure, Friday rush-hour roadworks with flashing lights, cones and a broken-down dustbin lorry, even fantasy theme parks - all can be yours. But what if your fantasy does not fit the kit?

Most construction kits take us too far down the road of pre-formed images. They're popular because the construction is insidiously lazy. You buy each separate kit to make one model, rather than model the kit to create your own ideas. K'nex is a different breed, simpler and yet powerfully versatile. It is all about the exploration of form, shape, structure and - yes - imagination.

Each kit comes with ideas and guidance, but allows the user to plan and create forms, to actually design. It's got some qualities in common with TacTic, another kit invented by a garden-shed genius who changed greenhouse technology into imaginative play. Such kits are for the divergent thinkers among us.

But back to the solar power, which in this K'nex kit comes from a neat panel just about the size of an adult hand. It works using sunlight or a 100-watt light-bulb to power a simple motor. The motor drives any assortment of K'nex wheels, cogs and driving gears that you care to devise. So you can build helicopters, windmills, Ferris wheels, prop-driven aircraft, cranes and the odd lawn-sprinkler or whizzer-thing.

It's strangely liberating to add the extra component - the panel - that makes explicit where the power comes from and to decide for yourself how to manage that power. There is enormous pleasure in designing your own applications and there is a more technical potential. There are simple experiments you can carry out, to compare the power from different light sources and levels of light.

K'nex makes it seem conceptually easy to think about levels of friction and gearing ratios, for example by counting the revolutions of moving parts, under different conditions, controlling the power flow. Switch off the power - cover the panel. Uncover the panel gradually and watch the power increase. It all helps to make children aware that there are natural forces more powerful than anything we have dreamed of to date.

My dream machine spins on tirelessly, using endless free energyI Here comes the sun.

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