from the Curator's Office:
The Mad Scientists
of Mammoth Falls
Geer's drawings, which decorate the cover and interiors
of the books, perfectly illustrate Brinley's stories of
seven propeller-head kids in small town America. (Used
with permission from Purple House Press)
(01/08) I still remember the book fair as one of
the highlights of my elementary school year. For a half hour or
so the teacher would take us down the long hall to the multipurpose
room - my school was too small to have a separate gym, cafeteria
or even a library - where table after table had been set up with
stacks of books arranged by interest and age level. I loved books
as a kid and I always looked forward to the event. Some of the
books I purchased there would shape my reading habits for the
rest of my life. I still remember taking the two dollars my mom
gave me for the fair and investing it in The Andromeda Strain.
This was Michael Crichton's first book under his own name and
I found it impossible to put down. Since then I have read most
of Crichton's books such as The Great Train Robbery, Eaters
of the Dead, and Jurassic Park, not to mention seeing
many of the movies inspired by his works. That book fair made
me a lifelong Crichton fan.
Another book fair introduced me to yet another author:
Bertrand R. Brinley. Few of you will recognize his name, though
some will fondly remember series he authored: The Mad Scientists'
Club (referred to as MSC among fans). His initial work consisted
of two volumes of short stories and a novel. A second novel written
by Brinley but not really published until after his death completes
the set. In my opinion his stories rank as one of the best young
people's reading series ever created.
Bertrand Brinley was born in Hudson, New York, in
1917. As a child he moved with his family from place to place,
eventually living in West Newbury, Massachusetts as a teenager
where he graduated from the local high school. He worked at Lockheed
Aircraft Corporation in California as a systems analyst during
the early years of World War II and joined the army in 1944. His
tour with the army allowed him to see much of the world. He left
the army for a short time, then reentered it during the Korean
War. Much of his work with the army involved public relations
and in the late 50's, right after the Sputnik launch, he
was put in charge of a program to instruct amateur rocketeers
in safety. This lead to his first book published in 1960, Rocket
Manual for Amateurs.
This is ancient history - even to me - but the launch
of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 sent the United
States into a crisis. The successful orbiting of a satellite by
America's rival after the failure of several of our own rockets
created the impression of a scientific gap between the two countries.
In 1958 the U.S. would orbit its own satellite, Vanguard,
but by then the idea that America was behind the USSR in science
and technology was firmly planted in the public's mind.
To close this supposed "gap," money was poured into
education for the next decade or so. The introduction of new curriculum
- such as the so-called New Math designed to promote engineering
and science-was common. While it is doubtful that New Math really
turned ten-year-olds into rocket engineers, it is indisputable
that these events had Americans thinking about science and technology.
It was in this atmosphere that Brinley conceived his stories.
In 1961 the first of Brinley's tales was published
in Boy's Life. Boy's Life was, and remains, the
official magazine of the Boy Scouts. The story, The Strange
Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake, told of a group of small-town
teenagers whose genius for technology gets them both into and
out of trouble when they build a fake sea serpent. The story of
the club was continued in two more stories that year in Boy's
Life. In 1965 the first seven of the short stories were gathered
into book form and published under the title The Mad Scientists
Club. It was a paperback copy of this I came across and purchased
at a book fair several years later.
R. Brinley worked in press relations for the army before
creating his well-loved series.(Used with
permission from Purple House Press)
To say that I liked this book would be quite an
understatement. I read the seven tales contained in it over and
over again. Each, while involving the same characters and setting,
were very different and engaging. My personal favorite is The
Secret of the Old Cannon, where the club probes the mystery
of what is in the breech of a giant civil war cannon in the local
The stories were told in first person by character
Charlie Finckledinck (who didn't have a last name until the first
novel came out) but clearly the club's most prominent member was
the bespeckled teenager Henry Mulligan. Henry, the group's resident
science genius, was just as likely to come up with some outlandish
prank as a legitimate experiment or invention. Other MSC members
included Jeff Crocker, the president (by virtue of the club meeting
in his father's barn), Homer Snodgrass and Mortimer Dalrymple
(experts in electronics and radio). The club membership was rounded
out by Freddy Mulldoon and Dinky Poore, the group's Mutt and Jeff
The adults of the mythical town of Mammoth Falls
where the stories were set found themselves forever involved in
some scheme or prank the club had thought up. These, for example,
took the forms of a fake monster in the local lake, an electronically-haunted
house at the city limits and a mad balloonist in the town square.
When the boys weren't giving Mayor Scragg, Police Chief Putney
or Constable Billy Dahr problems, they often found themselves
at odds with a rival gang formed by Harmon Mulldoon who had been
a MSC member but had been thrown out for activity unbecoming of
It always amazed me how the characters in the books
were so clearly and finely drawn. Unfortunately Bertrand Brinley
is no longer with us, but I contacted his son, Sheridan Brinley,
and asked if he knew how his father had come up with the characters.
Like many authors, Bertrand Brinley's own personality found its
ways into the people he created. "Henry is my father through and
through," said Sheridan. "A guy who thinks before he speaks, has
an unusual perspective on things, has a vivid imagination, secretly
feeds the dog at the table, is late to dinner because he is thinking
about something, etc., etc."
"Dinky Poore, I have always thought, was in part
me, as I was small and skinny as a child and a bit of a whiner,"
said Sheridan. "The Poore name is a family name in Westbury, Massachusetts,
which is the source of a number of the names and places in the
stories. For example, Billy Dahr is based on the constable in
West Newbury in the '30s. He was a bumbling sort of cop, as is
At least some of the events in the stories were
inspired by real incidents that would have appeared in the news
at the time. The accidental loss of a nuclear device off the coast
of Spain in 1966 surely provided inspiration for the first novel,
The Big Kerplop!, where an atomic bomb splashes into Mammoth
Fall's Strawberry Lake. The Air Force's Project Blue Book,
which investigated UFO sightings, may have also been material
for Brinley's imagination to chew on. "The Unidentified Flying
Man of Mammoth Falls was, I think, a parody of the Air Force
program spending taxpayers' dollars to trace down UFO sightings,"
muses Sheridan. "What a great joke: create a flying mannequin
that makes fools of the town elders and police and scrambles the
planes from the nearby Air Force base. Some of the same stuff
is in The Flying Sorcerer."
I've heard a lot of stories over the years about
how the original Star Trek TV show in the 60's influenced
people to become scientists and engineers, and as a longtime Treker
myself, I believe it is true. However, I think there may quite
a few people who made their career choices based on Brinley's
work. A gentleman named Mark Maxham runs a MSC tribute site and
has collected some quotes from anonymous fans including this one:
rocket that launched Sputnik into space. The successful
flight made Americans worry about a gap in science and education.
I have had at least 5 copies of the Mad Scientist's
Club over the years. I just gave away my only duplicate set. [...]
They too were my favorites when I was younger. I am now a spacecraft
flight engineer (worked with NASA controlling the Magellan Spacecraft
to Venus) thanks in part to those books.
I suspect that this sentiment is widespread. There
aren't as many MSC fans around as Trekers, but those that exist
seem to cherish their memories of the stories just as much as
episodes of that seminal TV series. I even suspect that my own
choice of career as a software engineer hearkens back to Brinley's
I never lost my little paperback copy of The
Mad Scientists' Club that I bought at the book fair, though
it became tattered with use and the back cover eventually got
detached. When my children reached the right age I was able to
read the stories to them. (I also managed to hang onto The
Andromeda Strain and read that with them a few years later).
While researching the book on the web I became aware there had
actually been a second volume of short stories published called
The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists' Club and a novel
entitled The Big Kerplop! Unfortunately by this time both
of them had been out of print for many years and were almost impossible
to find. This was bad news as I desperately wanted to get a hold
of them for both myself and my kids. I eventually managed to find
The New Adventures, but the novel, of which only a 1000
had been printed, escaped me.
House Press Reprints
Sheridan Brinley had been trying to get his father's
works republished for a number of years without success. No publisher
wanted to risk the money necessary to run off several thousand
copies of the books no matter how ardent the small fan base might
be. Fortunately, Brinley came in contact with Purple House
Press (PHP), a new publisher formed by a woman named Jill
Morgan. Morgan had been locating and collecting out-of-print children
books and had come to realize the cost of these original volumes
were being driven through the roof. Parents who wanted to share
their favorite children's books with their own kids were priced
out of the market. Morgan started contacting authors and their
heirs and arranging for these works to be reprinted in small volumes.
The company now has thirty-two books in its catalog including
the original Mad Scientists' Club, The New Adventures
of the Mad Scientists' Club and The Big Kerplop!
In fact for MSC fans there was perhaps an unexpected
bonus from this alliance with PHP. Bertrand Brinley had written
a second MSC novel, but it had never been published in the United
States. After some editing, The Big Chunk of Ice - the
story of the Mad Scientists entangled in a mystery in Austria
- became available for readers for what was probably the first
time. Of course I ordered all four books.
I truly believe that one of the secrets of getting
your kids to be great readers is not just to read to them, but
to read to them stories you yourself are in love with. The kind
of excitement you radiate can't be faked and kids pick up on it.
That is one of the reasons why I am so happy to see efforts like
Purple House Press succeed.
As a teacher I've had the opportunity to not only
share MSC stories with my kids, but students as well. From a technical
point of view the stories show some signs of age - the radios,
model rockets and remote controls the MSC kids used aren't exactly
cutting edge technology anymore (one can only wonder what trouble
Henry and friends could get into using computers, the Internet
and various wireless devices), but the stories are still great
and worth sharing with a new generation.
Bertrand Brinley died in 1994, but not without having
left a significant mark in a lot of people's lives. I still can't
see more than two hot air balloons together without thinking of
The Great Gas Bag Race. I was ecstatic a few years ago
when I visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore and found they had a
15-inch Rodman cannon (the same one featured in The Secret
of the Old Cannon). I stood there pondering, could Homer Snodgrass
really have wiggled his way down that barrel to find out what
was inside? Years ago when my wife suggested we name our younger
son Jeff, my mind flashed immediately to Brinley's president of
the MSC - a smart, upstanding, leader - and I quickly agreed.
In a way I like to think of this website, The
Museum of UnNatural Mystery, as partly a tribute to Brinley's
work. I'm sure his stories inspired my interest in weird science.
I'd like to think that the halls of the museum are a place where
the spirits of Henry Mulligan and Jeff Crocker, embodied into
the children of today, can still find some adventure, or at least
some mischief, to get into that would vex Mayor Scragg and the
citizens of Mammoth Falls.
Mad Scientists' Club Series
The Mad Scientists' Club - Seven Short Stories
- The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake -
The club decides to shake up the town with a fake lake monster,
but things go frather than they ever envisioned.
- The Big Egg - The kids find a dinosaur egg
and it hatches, or does it?
- The Secret of the Old Cannon - What is hidden
in an old civil war cannon up on Memorial Point?
-The Unidentified Flying Man of Mammoth Falls
- A mad ballooner upsets the town's Founder's Day celebration.
- The Great Gas Bag Race - The club enters a
balloon in the annual race and find themselves up against their
old rival, Harmon Mulldoon.
- The Voice in the Chimney - The old house on
Blueberry Hill is haunted, or is it just peoples' imagination?
- Night Rescue - The club tries to rescue a downed
The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists' Club
- Five Short Stories
- The Telltale Transmitter - The club goes up
against bank robbers.
- The Cool Cavern - The kids try to rescue Harmon's
gang from a cave in.
- Big Chief Rainmaker - The club tries to bring
an end to a devastating drought.
- The Flying Sorcerer - A UFO seems to be visiting
- The Great Confrontation - Harmon Mulldoon's
rival gang goes too far.
The Big Kerplop! - A full length novel
that tells the story of the formation of the club during a scare
when an atomic bomb is lost in Strawberry Lake.
The Big Chunk of Ice - A full length novel
that tells the story of the club as it goes on a scientific expedition
to Austria and gets entangled in the mystery of a lost diamond.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2008. All Rights Reserved.