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Thursday, July 27, 2006 | Lately, I have been collecting anecdotal information about childhood before television and computers, when children found practically all of their recreation out-of-doors.

One person e-mailed me a memory about card motors. You took a baseball trading card – some player you never heard of or didn’t like – and attached it to the front fork of your bicycle with a clothespin. When the wheel turned, the spokes would slap the card and make a sound like a motor.

It must have been 20 years since I thought about card motors. Even then, I was positive there was going to be a big market for card motors someday. Now I am reminded of them again, and in the 20 intervening years, advances in science and technology have been made that have moved us leaps and bounds closer to card motors.

Human beings have always liked engine noise with their transportation. Young people, in fact, go to some trouble to create the kind of engine noise that makes their motor sound muscular. It’s not easy to do with today’s tiny four-cylinder engines that typically power the autos that are marketed to the young. The special exhaust systems designed to make an engine sound muscular, when attached to one of these hamster motors (as I like to call them), gives out a sound like a sewing machine on laughing gas.

Loud, ridiculous, or refined, the engine noise provides reassurance that the engine is doing what it is supposed to do, which is to keep the vehicle moving. We can very easily look at instruments in the dashboard and know whether or not the engine is running. But instead, we listen. Sometimes people forget if they have started the engine or not. They lean forward in the seat, listening, and if they can’t hear it, they turn the ignition key and are informed by the god-awful grinding of the starter motor that yes, the engine is running.

Now we are in the 21st century, and practically guaranteed that before the century is ended, there will be some basic changes in vehicle power, and the fuels that provide the power. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was writing about diesel vehicles that will run quite nicely on vegetable oil, and not only that, but used vegetable oil, with the bonus that the vehicle’s exhaust smells like whatever was fried in the oil.

But that is just a primitive wrinkle on old technology. Scientists are working on much classier solutions, such as atomic power. Twenty years ago – and this is what reminded me of card motors at the time – scientists were talking about the future of cold fusion. A team of chemists even announced that they had achieved what appeared to be cold fusion – the creation of energy by the fusion of hydrogen atoms – in a vessel of room-temperature water.

Their findings were debunked, but debunkment is no reason for a scientist to quit. Googling “cold fusion” will net you 11,800,000 links to potential sites, including work going on at the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego. There may be a day, when this work is done, that fueling your car will be a simple matter of raising the hood, pouring a cup of fusion juice into the tank, and driving for months.

The new fusion power is silent. Thus, every car will need a card motor. All the Indy 500 cars will have card motors. The crowd will insist on it. In many venues, the sounds of engines running provide us not reassurance, but romance. Think about a train track. People who love trains – and they tend to be romantic types – already have endured the evolution from steam to diesel, whose sound in the night isn’t nearly as good. These people are not going to sit happily at grade crossings when fusion locomotives bubble past with the thunder of club soda.

Other engine sounds will demand a romance factor. Take shuttle launches. The flame and the smoke and the roar are spectacular, which is romantic. It may be even more than romance. It could be that human beings have a basic need for flame and thunder from their rockets. It may have become a part of our belief system. Could we take the sight of a flameless, smokeless, noiseless new-fusion launch? I don’t know. I think there is going to be a lot of money to be made from card motors.

The most important trick is going to be rigging up a card motor for fusion-powered airliners. If there is one place that a human being demands to hear engines running, it is at 33,000 feet. With the sound of airplane engines running, romance is not a factor.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.

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