Long long ago, when the London Museum was housed in Kensington Palace, my first wife was in charge of the library there. One day she showed me a letter from a pupil at a London school.
"Dear sir," it said. "I am about to do a project on the history of London. Could you please send me any information on London you may have? "
"Unusual optimism," I said.
"Nothing unusual at all," she said. "I'm always getting letters like that."
That little story sums up everything you need to know about school projects. A school project is a challenge to the pupil's ingenuity to find ways of getting someone else to do all the work, and to avoid learning anything himself.
My own son once came home from his village school with the news that his class had been given the job of making models of bridges. He had to do a suspension bridge, while others had to do cantilever bridges etc etc. He sought my help and I agreed, on condition that we split the work down the middle. He agreed. So I looked up the basic principles of bridge-building, and got the materials for the bridge and built the bridge, and he painted the area under the bridge blue to signify water.
I learnt that, even if the pupil learns nothing from a project, his nearest and dearest will end up better educated, so I looked forward to his next project.
And last week he finally came home with the news that he had to do something on "nylon".
"That shouldn't be too hard," I said. "We can look it up and find out what it is made from, who invented it and so on. Is that the sort of thing you need?"
"The sort of thing I need," he said, "is a site on the internet that will provide me with some information about nylon so that you can print it off for me and I can hand it in."
Faced with this appallingly low standard of morals, I insisted on looking it up in an encyclopedia. It must have been the wrong encyclopedia, however, as it didn't mention nylon, so I looked on the internet. When you put "nylon" into a search engine, you are offered lots of sites promising pictures of ladies wearing nylons and little else, which I think my son's teacher should have been aware of in advance, but the one I chose was called "The Drama of Nylon", which had 18 close-packed pages written by David Hounshell and John Kenly Smith jr, and boy! what a story it was!
It all goes back to the 1920s, when Du Pont set up a chemical research unit and put in charge of it a brilliant young chemist called Wallace Carothers. What Wallace liked doing was pure research, and he did a lot of pioneering work into the way molecules are strung together, especially in polymers, which put him in the running for Nobel prizes and that sort of thing. However, after a while Du Pont noticed that this expensive unit wasn't actually making anything, especially money, and so a hard-hearted director called Elmer Bolton instructed Carothers to get cracking on the problems of producing man-made fibres.
Grumbling and groaning at being separated from his beloved research, Carothers finally cracked all the problems involved in synthetic fibres and invented nylon, the stuff that was stronger than silk and was to restore Du Pont's fortunes. The first nylon stockings, on sale just before the Second World War, caused a sensation, but during the war all nylon production went into the war effort (parachutes, tow ropes etc) and didn't go back on women's legs till 1946.
All of which was no comfort to Carothers, because he committed suicide in 1937. A depressive, he had become convinced that his life as a scientist had been wasted. He killed himself three weeks after the application for a patent on nylon had been filed (not by hanging himself from a nylon rope but by taking cyanide, which I guess is what a chemist would do).
What a story! Just the sort of thing that Michael Frayn could turn into a play. Forget Copenhagen, nylon is where history comes to life. That eternal struggle between pure thought and pure commerce... between the academic and the businessman... overshadowed by Nazism, the New Deal and the thought of long slim American legs in nylon! What a titanic theme ....
I stole a look at my son's first draft this morning. It started: "Nylon was invented by a man called Carothers in the 1930s. Women preferred it to silk in stockings, and often queued for hours to get some..."
Honestly, I think school projects are wasted on the young.