If there was ever a piece of compelling evidence that children are incredibly easily amused by visual stimuli, liquid timers would be it. All it takes it some oily liquid and few drops of fluorescent food coloring and we as kids were rapt with attention for hours. A paperweight with limited functionality may not seem like an attractive toy for a child, but any parent who ever brought a kid into a science museum gift shop or Discovery Channel mall store realized liquid timers held a mesmerizing appeal. Standard kitchen egg timers may not have given us palpitations, but place a colorful liquid timer in front of us and we were set to stare for a solid 20 minutes.
Liquid timers came in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and permutations, providing children with a vast spectrum of semi-scientific objects by which to be captivated. While other toys relied on highly interactive features and endless manipulable amusements, the various producers of liquid timers knew parents were far more interested in a toy that made their child sit quiet and still than one that allowed them frantic movement.
I’m not a parent, but if I had the choice of something like a pogo ball or a liquid timer, you can bet I would go for the colorful dripping paperweight. Not only is the chance of skinned knees far less likely, but your child will likely be so entranced by the dripping timer that they may unknowingly commit to vacuuming or doing the dishes.
The fact that these desktop toys were sold primarily in science-themed stores is fairly laughable; sure, there’s some science behind the dripping mechanism, but it’s unlikely a child ever actually learned anything from one of these timers. They rarely came with a detailed “How It’s Made!” guide, leaving kids to speculate on the vaguely scientific and educational nature of the equivalent of a colorful leaky faucet. It may have been on the shelf at the Discovery Channel store, but there was relatively few discoveries to be made. You turned it, it dripped, the end.
The fancier models may have incorporated some mysterious chamber changing and reverse direction technology, but it never made any effort to educate us on why or how. Granted, liquid timers were marginally more educational than the usual crap that occupied our playtime, a fact that was probably more than enough to appease the parents shelling out for these useless space occupiers.
A brief research investigation (read: Google search) of liquid timers was by far the most educational interaction I’ve had with them so far. A potentially credible site taught me that the timers are filled with liquids of varying densities that have an oil-and-water type relationship: one liquid passes through the other by means of chemically variant and non-combinable properties. That sounds accurate, right? I tried to science it up a bit with my limited relevant vocabulary, but the basic principle seems like a valid explanation. Thanks, Google.
That same Google search, however, yielded another interesting tidbit of information: manufacturers of liquid timers do NOT (capitalized, underlined, bolded, and italicized: these sites mean business) recommend these items for children. Apparently some curious children saw fit to try to break open their hypnotically soothing toys for a taste of the undoubtedly delicious colored liquid inside. Kid deductive reasoning concludes that if it looks like grape juice and drips like grape juice, it’s probably grape juice--a foolproof formula.
Despite its potential toxicity, it’s obvious why our parents gave into our demands for liquid timer ownership: these overpriced paperweights were a much-welcome distraction. Admittedly they didn’t do anything, but in an age before kids were incessantly preoccupied with technology that wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing. We could only hope to recapture the whimsy and effortless amusement of our younger years. While now it takes at least four forms of technological entertainment to hold our attention for any period of time, it could do us all some good to spend some time gazing aimlessly into the liquid timer-filled abyss. If you don’t have an abyss on hand, your desk is probably also a suitable alternative--just make sure you’re gazing aimlessly for the full liquid timer effect.