Kit 1: Putt-Putt Boat

I have a blog over at ThreeStepsOverJapan (TSOJ), where I ran my original reviews of the Gakken kits. I figure that now I’m starting up this dedicated blog that I might as well reprint the earlier reviews. Please note that when I started out, in the middle of the kit series, I wasn’t reviewing them so much as just documenting what the finished product looked like, so the entries are short and perfunctory. Sorry about that. Additionally, I don’t want to pay the mark-up to get the out-print kits from auction sites, so there aren’t any reviews of kits 3, 4, 5, 7 and 12 right now.

I am cleaning up the reviews and breaking them into single-kit entries for those which were written as 2 kits per post. In some cases, I had follow-up posts for mods or additional information that I may recombine into one big entry for the kit. So, these following posts aren’t going to be word-for-word clones of the TSOJ entries.


Gakken is a publisher of textbooks and DIY magazine books (AKA: mooks). There are currently 32 “Adult Scence Kit Mooks” on the market, from simple guitars and crystal radios, to theremins and a build-it-yourself film projector. Most mooks in this series are in the $35 to $50 range now. Originally, they had a 4-kits-per-year release schedule, but now it’s getting closer to 2 a year for the numbered series. There are several other unofficial series, such as Mechamo, With Kids, unnumbered mooks, higher-end kits without mooks, and the new Sound Gadget series. There’s also the mook-without-a-kit, including the “history of rockets” book and the Theo Jansen DVD book. For the most part, I focus on the numbered mook kits, because they’re inexpensive, yet fun to build.

Kit #1, the Putt Putt Boat. These kinds of boats have been around for years, and there are a number of vids on Youtube showing how to make your own out of plastic soda bottles or sheets of tin. So, it’s not like Gakken is giving us anything really new here in the very first kit from this series. It’s also a fairly simple kit, with a one-piece plastic body for the boat, 3 pontoons, a candle tray, holder and 4 candles, and the steam chamber. The science behind this kind of boat is very straight-forward. A small amount of water is placed in one tube of the engine to prime it, and then a candle is lit and placed under the steam chamber. Steam builds up in the chamber and the pressure expels it out the other tube, pushing the boat forward. More water flows into the chamber from the primed tube and the process repeats until the candle burns out. As long as the boat is in the water, it creates a closed circuit for the water flow.

The problem is that this kind of boat isn’t designed for being used outdoors. I tried launching it from the nearby river, and the couple-mile-an-hour wind put out the candle, and the 1-2 inch tall waves swamped the boat and soaked the wick. At best, I need a perfectly calm day, or to use an indoor pool or bath tub. The candle is tiny, so it’ll only burn for a few minutes, too. Which makes it kind of silly to have a small hole in one fin of the boat for tying a thread to it for hauling the boat back if it gets too far out from shore. It may be possible to use a slightly larger candle, though, to make it run longer (the size of the engine limits how big a candle you can use). The mook suggests taking foil to make a tray, pour in salt, add whiskey and then light the whiskey. But the wind again blew out the flame. I’m wondering what would have happened if I had used sugar instead of salt.

But, the real value from this kit is in the mook. Published in 2003, it is interesting on multiple levels. First, it’s the first of the series, and shows how Gakken initially thought the series would run (mostly by including ideas for cheap DIY science projects). Second, it contains a photographic history of 40 years of science toys for kids, most or all of which had come from Gakken. Third, this mook is a treasure trove of mods for other Gakken Adult Science kits, including the Edison speaker amp, and has a circuit for the 150 block electronics kit to make a theremin. Finally, there’s a series of science experiments for performing magic and bar tricks, such as smoke from your fingertips, and how to make a ping pong ball stick to the bottom of a bottle of water. And, I did translate the manga at the back, showing the rivalry between Edison and the inventor of the first flat-disk record player, Emile Berliner.


I decided to go back and look at the various Gakken Otona no Kagaku mooks more closely to see what I might have missed the first few times through them. One of the more egregious oversights regarded a group of people that were featured in Vol. 1 of the series. This group had been interviewed on their favorite science kits from when they were kids. Of the 7 primary people, 6 had URLs given for them (the seventh is a writer that shows up in all of the subsequent mooks). Of the 6, Iwai is the only one “left without a forwarding address”. Tosa is president of Maywa Denki; Furuta is at the University of Chiba doing some cool stuff with robotics, and Sakana-kun is just a wild and crazy fish boy with his own children’s show. Check them out.

Maywa Denki
An Art Project Company
Featured Person: Nobumichi Tosa
(I like the “nervous knee” electrical generator toy.)

Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences
Featured Person: (Iwai, Missing)

Japan Science and Technology Agency
Chiba Institute of Technology
Featured Person: Furuta Takayuki
(Got some great articles on robots, and videos of wind-up toys)

Artist – Anime, Manga and Other
Featured Person: Tanaka Katsuki
(Interesting Website)

Osaka University
Department of Multimedia Engineering
Featured Person: Tsukamoto Masahiko
(Cool gadgets)

Art and Other, Children’s Entertainer
Featured Person: Sakanakun
Looks like Sakana-kun has his own children’s show. Weird stuff.

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