Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Apprenticeship to a Radioman

This Christmas, I received a unique present. I suspect I am perhaps the only person in the continental United States who got for Christmas a gift-wrapped Supreme Model 333 Deluxe Radio Analyzer. It’s in a polished wooden box with copper hinges, about the size of an old typewriter case. You open it up to find an esthetically pleasing control panel with black enamelling and copper lettering and decorations. In the top center of the panel is a Weston-style needle-and-dial meter in the classic “fan” shape: not rectangular, but curved at the top like a fan. And symmetrically arrayed on either side are control knobs and jacks and sockets for four-, five-, six-, and seven-pin vacuum tubes.

Because there were no eight-pin (octal) sockets on the panel, I said that the thing had to have been made prior to about 1938, which was when octal tubes started to become popular. My brother-in-law told the story of how he’d been walking down the street in New Orleans and spotted this thing in an antique store window. When he said he had to go inside and his wife asked him why, he replied, “I’ve just seen David’s Christmas present.”

Nowadays you can find a website for almost any piece of obscure and obsolete piece of test equipment. It took me about fifteen seconds to find www.stevenjohnson.com, which is operated by a collector of Supreme equipment of all kinds. Supreme was unusual in that it was located far away from the radio-company concentrations of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—in Greenwood, Mississippi, of all places. But for a time in the late 1920s and 1930s, it was a major player in the small field of suppliers of test equipment to “radiomen” as they were known: the entrepreneurs who entered the booming field of radio by opening repair shops in hundreds of small towns and cities before and during the Great Depression.

Mr. Johnson’s website provided me with both a schematic diagram and a manual for my prize. The manual appeared to be a hand-typed original, perhaps reproduced by mimeographing. Possibly it was a printer’s manuscript from the company files. At any rate, reading the schematic and the elaborately-worded manual told me what I wanted to know: what was this thing used for, and how did a radio repairman use it?

The Analyzer was what the Supreme Company termed a “free point tester.” It is likely that many radiomen made house calls, especially when you consider the size of the larger floor-model radio cabinets of the 1920s and 1930s. The small table-model sets such as the “All -American Five” (a five-tube transformerless model popular during World War II) did not come into favor until after about 1935, when economic pressures on manufacturers forced them to standardize designs and tube complements. So the problem the early radioman faced was how to investigate voltages and currents in the tubes of one of those large floor-model sets in the customer’s home, without turning the living room into a radio lab by pulling the chassis out of the cabinet and upending a live working radio on the dining-room table. (I’ve tried this at home and it did not meet with a lot of favor.)

The answer Supreme (and several other test equipment firms) came up with was the following. You chose a tube in the radio to analyze, pulled it out of its socket in the radio chassis, and inserted it in the appropriate socket in the Analyzer. Then you selected the proper adapter cable, plugged one end into the Analyzer, and plugged the other end into the socket of the tube you had removed. In this way, you were able to check all the voltages and currents for that tube with special jacks and pin plugs provided in the Analyzer, using that fan-shaped meter to read DC and AC voltages and DC currents. This relieved you of the need to pull the chassis and go poking around underneath the sockets in the radio itself.

Sadly, my Analyzer is missing the adapter cords. But I don’t do a lot of fixing of 1930s radios these days anyway, though I did in the past. In fact, I learned a few things about the lost art of fixing tube radios at the feet of a genuine radioman: Jewell Howard Dowell.


As well as I can recall, the year was 1964, or possibly 1965. I was about ten, at any rate, and was wildly ambitious to learn and do everything I could about electronics. Around that time, my particular obsession was oscilloscopes.

It is hard to explain the position that the oscilloscope occupied in the public mind in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a thing with widespread symbolic significance, and not merely some obscure instrument known only to electrical engineers and technicians. Comedian Ernie Kovacs, of all people, had popularized an oscilloscope trace by including it in his televised comedy routines. The TV show “The Outer Limits” had scared the daylights out of me numerous times, and they always began the show with a closeup shot of a scope screen displaying a dot which widened into a horizontal line and then a vertical one as a sententious offscreen voice intoned, “We control the horizontal. We control the vertical.” And at the Fort Worth Zoo’s aquarium, I had seen an oscilloscope in person, so to speak. Built into the wall above the tank containing an electric eel was an old scope connected to electrodes in the tank. Whenever the keepers would put on an electric-eel display, they would rouse the creature from its normal torpor by poking it with a stick, and it would oblige by putting out several-hundred-volt pulses that were enough to make the green line on the scope screen twitch and wiggle. If the fish really got annoyed, it gave enough of a jolt to light up the neon-sign display above the tank that read “Electric Eel.”

From this experience I had concluded, incorrectly, that electrons were green, because I knew electrons made the line on the scope screen, and the line was green. I thereupon decided that my favorite color was green, and it has been so ever since. Not only was my favorite color green, my favorite ambition of all time was now to possess an oscilloscope of my very own. This presented difficulties.

From the Eico catalog I had sent off for with a coupon cut out of Popular Electronics magazine, I knew that new oscilloscopes were out of my reach financially. Why, a good one for TV repair use might cost as much as a hundred dollars or more. It might as well have been a million, because the balance in my little savings bank I kept in my bedroom rarely rose above seven dollars, and I’d felt rich then. But not now.

At this juncture, there entered a kind soul whose sympathy for my plight I fully appreciated only years later. Buck Sloan was a neighbor of ours who lived behind a high fence in a tumbledown old house cluttered with woodworking machinery, old radios, and even the model of an invention he had actually patented to do something or other at his job at the Texas State Steel steel mill. My father and I would occasionally walk down the street on a Saturday morning and spend some time chatting with Buck. He was a smooth-faced man, already balding, with a rather skeptical attitude toward nearly everything. In later years he retreated to the countryside and built an even bigger fence around his house. But in me he may have recognized a kindred soul—a kid who idolized Edison and was constantly tinkering with any piece of machinery he could get his hands on. Buck had already donated to me an old cathedral-style radio, which I had promptly demolished down to the individual resistors and volume controls, learning much about radio construction in the process.

One day when we were visiting him, I told him I wished I could buy an oscilloscope. He wanted to know what an oscilloscope was, and when I told him, he said, “You know, that sounds like something Mr. Dowell might know about. He runs that little radio-TV shop down on Berry Street. Next time I’m in there I’ll ask him about it.” And then I forgot all about the conversation in the press of my fall semester at Lily B. Clayton Elementary.

But a few weeks later, Buck phoned. He’d spoken with Mr. Dowell, and it turned out that Mr. Dowell had an old scope he might be willing to part with. One day when we had time, he said we should go down there and talk to him.

By the time we could do that, it was winter. Finally, my father said he had time to take me down to meet Mr. Dowell and talk with him. So my mother made me put on a heavy coat and we got in the new blue VW Beetle my father had recently bought, and drove down to Mr. Dowell’s shop on Berry.

Mr. Dowell’s shop was in a small wooden shack, really, next to the Gospel Temple, a stucco monstrosity with a towering neon sign in front that some evangelist had erected in the 1930s. It had long ago been abandoned, and the whole neighborhood was beginning to go to seed, Mr. Dowell’s shop being no exception.

A bell jingled as we opened the glass door and entered the small shop. A counter ran almost the length of the whole room. The front windows provided most of the light in the place, and from where I stood I could see row upon row of shelves holding old radios, TVs, and the occasional appliance (irons, toasters), all in various stages of repair. The room had the faintly sour smell that free-standing gas heaters produced, combined with another aroma I have always associated with old radios. It was the slightly sweetish smell of warm beeswax, which was used to insulate and waterproof capacitors and transformers before World War II and the development of better plastic compounds. Whenever you soldered a capacitor covered with beeswax, you would get that smell.

Mr. Dowell was hunched over a radio chassis at a workbench behind the counter. He looked up when we came in and asked us what he could do for us. I wish I could describe him physically. But one tends to remember what one is interested in at the time the memory is formed. When I was ten, people were mainly just a means of my doing things with machinery and electronics. That sounds terrible to say today, but it pretty well explains a lot of what I did until I was an adult. And this attitude influenced what my memory recorded. Therefore, I can describe in great detail the tube socket Mr. Dowell showed me how to modify in order to repair an old radio that needed a tube which was no longer available. But if you ask me what he looked like, what his voice sounded like, or what conversations we had, I cannot tell you.

This is why engineers seldom make good novelists. Novelists need good imaginations, and the imaginations of engineers run in different courses.

At any rate, we asked to see the oscilloscope that Mr. Dowell might be induced to sell. He went in the back and hauled out a large steel-cased object. The case had what was known as a gray crackle finish—a method of painting that gave a textured or wrinkled surface to the paint. The front panel had white lettering on a blue background.

It was a Philco 5-inch oscilloscope. Like the TVs they were intended to help you repair, scopes were known by the diameter of the cathode-ray tube (picture tube) that produced the display. This one had a plastic graticule over the screen to aid in measuring the voltages and timing of the waveform.

I asked Mr. Dowell if it worked. Rather than answer, he plugged it in and turned it on. In a minute a wavy green line appeared on the screen. He handed me a cable with a pointed tip and told me to touch the tip. When I did, the screen display went crazy. “That’s power-line hum. Your body picks it up.” I was thrilled.

Then came the time to negotiate. I think he wanted forty dollars, but my father wangled him down to thirty (all I could save or borrow at the time) plus an offer for me to come help him some on weekends. To this day I don’t know whether this was something we did to get the price down, or whether Mr. Dowell offered to just teach me a few things and I persuaded my father to take me to the shop. Realistically, I don’t believe an elderly radio technician would think that a ten-year-old boy would be any help around his shop, and he would more likely look on the situation as glorified babysitting. But maybe I struck him as somebody who could really be of assistance, I don’t know. Be that as it may, I do recall that for at least a couple of weekends afterwards that winter, I spent all morning in Mr. Dowell’s shop trying to help him, before my father picked me up at lunchtime.

I wish I could write more about Mr. Dowell and his shop, but these memories are about all that I can recall. The shack was pretty cold even with Mr. Dowell’s single space heater running. I don’t remember ever seeing any customers, though a few may have wandered in. Even as early as 1965, demand for radio repairs was falling as the price of new radios fell and it became almost pointless to get an old one fixed. Either Mr. Dowell didn’t do much in the way of TV repair or he didn’t have that much TV business. But other than adapting a tube socket to get that old radio running again, I recall no details about anything else I did for him.

Finally, having fulfilled my term of indentured servitude, I came into possession of the scope. I happily took it home and installed it in a prominent place on my workbench, an old desk in my bedroom. Having that scope did more than any other single thing to help me understand what was going on in my circuits. I could actually see amplifiers amplifying, oscillators oscillating, and see what the sound of my voice looked like when I spoke into a microphone connected to the thing. It also impressed my friends, but that wasn’t the main reason I wanted it.

When the renter of our downstairs garage apartment moved out and my father had trouble renting the space again, I said I’d like the room for a lab. He consented, and so I moved my collection of Popular Electronics magazines, oscilloscope, power supplies, tubes, parts cabinets, and other miscellany to the single-room studio apartment, complete with bathroom, closet, and gas stove I could run in the winter to keep from freezing while I played with transistor circuits. The humidity made by the gas burners fogged up the windows in the winter, and probably contributed to the early demise of the high-voltage transformer in the scope. Whatever the cause, one day I turned it on and it didn’t work—no trace. I pulled the chassis out of the case and went to troubleshooting, which wasn’t hard when there was no high voltage. I eventually ended up mounting another transformer in the thing and hooking it in to substitute for the opened-up winding of the original.

It never worked quite as well after that, but I kept using it until I went away to college. After that, other scopes came into my life: first a foot-and-a-half-cube 3-inch military surplus unit, and later an old portable Tektronix scope that I eventually gave to a young man who I thought might be interested in electronics. He wasn’t, as it turned out, and when we moved from Massachusetts to Texas in 1999, I realized that practicality finally outweighed sentiment. It was time to get rid of the Philco scope, which wasn’t even any good as a collector’s item because I had modified it so extensively. My last sight of it came when I left it on a pile of trash at the city dump. This was in the days just before it became easy to sell things on eBay, and I was in a hurry to move. But I still have the manual somewhere.

And what happened to Mr. Dowell? Some time between 1965 and the eighties, his shop closed and the shack was torn down, along with the Gospel Temple, and replaced by a strip mall that has itself gone into decline since.

The whole enterprise of electronics repair has been transformed beyond recognition, limited now to high-dollar items such as flat-screen TVs, and regularized by the fact that nearly all repairs are under warranty agreements that require the device to be returned to an authorized repair shop. The manufacturers impose training and other requirements on shops, which now have to meet standards that were not enforced earlier. This has had the effect of making most of them disappear. The remaining few shops are in large cities and have to operate in a way that satisfies both the customer and the manufacturer. Hiring ten-year-old assistant technicians, even for in-kind payment, is not in their purview, I suspect.

I am pretty sure Mr. Dowell has gone to that Great Repair Shop in the Sky, otherwise known as purgatory, if not to a worse reward. I knew nothing of his personal life and we never discussed religion. But he did at least one kindness that I know of: putting up with a nosy, inquisitive, and not very helpful boy, and selling him his very first oscilloscope. For these things, I thank him.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stereo Typing: Radioteletypes Recalled

Many old films about the newspaper business feature a newsroom scene with rhythmically clunking teletypes pounding out yellow reams of copy. The occasional closeup in which dramatic words appear on the paper as if by magic told the viewers nothing about how a teletype machine actually worked. Nor should it have. I have long outgrown the private misconception that most moviegoers were just like me, and would have enjoyed ten-minute disquisitions on the details of any technology featured in a film, while the plot ground to a halt. But one day in my teen years, still under the spell of that delusion, as I perused the remoter regions of a surplus-equipment warehouse I was delighted to find an army-green metal box with a keyboard sticking out the front. Inspection proved the device to be an old Kleinschmidt-brand tape-printing teletype, probably scrounged from a small-town telegraph office two or three decades before (this was about 1975). I probably paid about ten bucks for the thing, and the owner was glad to get it off his hands. It weighed a ton and I could barely get it in the tiny trunk of my VW Beetle, which was noticeably down at the head as I drove home with my prize.

My mother, accustomed to seeing all manner of indescribable junk brought home after my surplus jaunts, was nonplussed at hearing I had procured a teletype machine. “Just don’t get any oil on the carpet,” she said. The thing did have a characteristic smell, composed of equal parts of machine oil and burned carbon brushes. After hoisting it up on the workbench in the garage, I removed the case and pondered my purchase.

Back in the 1920s, teletype machines were as cutting-edge as Kindles or 3-D Nintendos are today. They spelled eventual doom to the old-style hand-copying telegraph operator, who had been the mainstay of the telegraph business since its inception in the 1840s. With a teletype, one skilled typist (typically a woman) could do the work of several hand operators. Plus which, she could type out copy in advance on paper tape for batch transmissions, and the paper tape copy disgorged by the receiving teletype could simply be pasted on a telegram form and delivered, almost untouched by human hands (except at the transmitting end). So by 1950, as Western Union experienced its own “peak message” year and saw its business head for eventual decline, teletype use was nearly universal.

How did a teletype circuit work? As I learned by reading old radio-amateur books, the teletype was simply an automated form of the old make-and-break telegraph key. The original Morse code consisted of dots (short electrical pulses) and dashes (by convention, three times longer than dots) in specific patterns. The teletype used the same idea, only mechanized and synchronized so that once a human being at the transmitting end pressed the key for a given letter, no further human intervention was required.

Suppose the letter pressed was “R”. Here’s what happened next. Pressing any key released a cam follower which opened a switch for a few milliseconds. Then for the next five equal intervals of time, the cam opened and closed the switch in this sequence: open-close-open-close-open. Then the switch closed and stayed that way until the next keystroke. By convention, the presence of current was called “mark” and the absence “space.” All characters began with a single space pulse.

My teletype machine used what was called a “5-bit” code. During each of the five precisely timed intervals, the switch was either open or closed. This allowed the transmission of 25 = 32 unique characters—in other words, the alphabet plus a few more symbols. Numbers had to be sent after the transmission of a special “uppercase” signal that shifted the receiver carriage to uppercase mode.

The same kind of telegraph wires that Morse & Company used carried teletype signals too, at least to the smaller stations. The transmitting equipment consisted of a high-voltage power supply—100 volts or so—with enough series resistance to limit the closed-circuit current to 20 mA. In this way, about the same current flowed through the circuit regardless of the length of line, and all telegraph circuits connecting different stations along a line were in series. In that way, transmissions from one circuit-interrupting station could be received by all the other stations along the line.

At the receiving end, things really got interesting. My teletype was both a transmitter and receiver, which was fortunate, because I would have been hard put to come up with a receiver for a transmit-only unit or vice versa. The transmitted current went through an ordinary relay coil that operated an adjustable armature. As soon as the armature was released following the initial space pulse, a rotating cam began to throw a kind of feeler lever at the armature five times. Each throw corresponded to the most likely time that a mark or space was present. Depending on whether the armature was pulled in (“mark”) or released (“space”), the feeler lever landed on one side or another of the armature. In sequence, this landing on one side or the other shoved five stacked semicircular bars of metal slightly to the left or right of their original positions, before the character was received.

The bars of metal were arranged in a semicircular basket shape rather like an old-fashioned manual typewriter, and rods connected to each of 32 typebars rested against the edges of the semicircular bars. Each semicircular bar had precisely positioned notches cut in it in such a way as to decode the particular character sent by the transmitter. For example, when “R” was received, the bars were pushed left-right-left-right-left, going from top to bottom of the stack. At the end of the character transmission, another mechanism pressed all the typebars against the five semicircular bars. The slots in the semicircular bars were cut so that only one typebar—the “R” bar, in this case—fell outward, because all five of the slots in the five sheets of metal lined up, and none of the other bars had all five slots clear. So for each character, only one of the 32 typebars could clear all five movable slotted bars and get to strike its character. It was rather like a complicated lock mechanism that rearranged itself every time a character was received, and only one key—the correct character typebar—would fit the lock each time. Yet another mechanism used the fact that the “R” bar fell outward to actuate the typebar carrying “R,” and only that typebar, to strike the paper tape. That is, if one had a paper tape to strike.

That was one of my many problems in getting the thing to run. I wasn’t about to sit around with a roll of calculator paper and manually cut a long strip of paper of the right width. After much experimentation, I discovered that ordinary (at least, ordinary back then) quarter-inch reel-to-reel magnetic tape fit through the tape-feed mechanism with only an occasional tape jam. It wasn’t too easy to read the dimly printed characters struck from the worn-out ribbon onto the dark-brown acetate tape, but after a lot of fiddling, I was able to strike a key and get the corresponding letter to print.

I left out a lot of other stuff I had to do first. One reason the machine was so cheap, I discovered after taking it home, was that it had a 110-volt DC motor. That’s right, not AC, but DC. It took me a while to come up with a power supply beefy enough to provide the amp or so that the motor needed.

Then there was the governor, a large disc-shaped thing on one end of the motor shaft that spun around dizzily whenever the motor was powered up. Especially if more than one teletype was involved, you had to ensure that the motor in your machine was turning at exactly the same speed as the other guy’s motor, if the marks and spaces were going to line up properly. With AC motors, this is a simple matter of using a type of motor called “synchronous,” but mine wasn’t that way at all. It had some kind of weird centrifugal switch that would gradually cut in and out as the motor reached the proper speed. I’m not convinced it ever really worked properly. As long as I was transmitting only to myself, it didn’t matter because the same machine was doing the sending and receiving. But when I got more ambitious and decided to try and receive radioteletype signals, things got even more complicated.

Back then, not only did radio amateurs do a fair (non-profit) business in the transmission of what was termed “RTTY” contacts, but there was a great deal of international short-wave news traffic transmitted by radioteletype. The notion of reading that news right off the air fascinated me, and I spent most of a spring vacation during college trying to pick up RTTY transmissions. Such was the life of a truly dedicated nerd in those days.

There were two main problems in the way of my getting the radioteletype signals to print. First, I had no way of measuring what the actual speed of the motor was, so it was a matter of guessing an adjustment and hoping it would have the right effect. Second, and worse, was the RF interference that the DC motor produced. It had brushes that sparked and flashed and smelled like the air after a thunderstorm, and that plus the contacts in the governor trashed most of my attempts at reception of any but the strongest signals. Finally, after many fruitless tries, one afternoon I tuned in a strong commercial RTTY station that I’d gotten familiar with, and was rewarded with the sight of two or three sentences’ worth of genuine pirated news—in Spanish. It was probably some South American regional service.

Having achieved that triumph, I gradually lost interest in the thing. My amateur radio license lay a few years in the future, so I had no way of actually using the thing for two-way communications unless I convinced a friend to buy another teletype and we rigged up a private telegraph line. In suburban Fort Worth in 1975, this was not practical.

The year after I bought the teletype, I flew home from Caltech during the spring break of my sophomore semester. My grandmother (my father’s mother) was very ill with stomach cancer, and we planned a visit to her house the day before I was to fly back to California.

I had spent most of the week trying to get my teletype to work, and had succeeded in getting the Spanish-language news copy just a day or two earlier. In my myopic world, this was the big news, and I am afraid that the teletype might have been the main subject of my conversation to her that day. Then I asked her how she was doing. By her looks, she was doing pretty awful. She was propped up on a pillow in her bed, and when she raised her arms to hug me, her flesh hung limply from her bones.

I do not remember much about what she told me, except for one thing. I do not recall how the subject came up, but she began to talk about the time she visited the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and what a good time she had there. She was probably about eighteen in 1904, about the same age I was at the time we spoke. Maybe that’s why she brought it up. I don’t remember. So the last thing I talked to her about was some old piece of machinery I had managed to get going, to no one’s satisfaction or benefit other than my own. And the last thing she told me about was the time she saw a glittering new vision of a glittering new country in a glittering new century, when she was glittering and new herself.

The next day, my father and I got up early so we could get to Love Field in Dallas in time for my flight. For reasons having to do with packing as much as formality, I always flew in my suit in those days, so I suited up and got in the car. We didn’t say much on the drive over, except that my father talked about how we might handle the eventuality of Big Mother’s death. (That was what all her grandkids called her, in the old Southern tradition.)

We got to the airport and had an hour or so to wait. This was long before terrorist-inspired inspections and metal detectors, so he and I had the run of the place. At one point I had to go to the bathroom. As I stood there taking care of business, I heard the PA announcer page my father for a phone call. That could mean only one thing.

I rushed outside as fast as I could and caught up with him as he was running for a courtesy phone in the middle of the large open two-story lobby or atrium they had back then. Once on the phone, his face looked like he was speaking with a past-due loan customer. He listened a moment and broke in to say, “Is she dead?” She was.

My Aunt Fanny, who lived with Big Mother, had gotten up that morning and found that her sister had died during the night. As she recalled later, she “had her little emotion,” as she put it, then called my mother after we had left for the airport. My mother called the bank, thinking maybe they could get hold of my father faster, and a secretary there had the notion to call the airport. Thus were emergency messages conveyed in the days before cellphones.

Needless to say, I missed the plane and stayed for the funeral. At times during the proceedings, I recalled something that happened the night before she died. My spiritual state at that time might be best described as conservative-agnostic. I knew I was a conservative politically, but as for God and all that, why, I wasn’t sure. But I knew Big Mother was sure there was a God. In the spirit of Pascal’s wager, I had been in the habit of praying a highly ritualistic prayer of my own invention every night before I went to bed. This was just in case God happened to be there, so that at least I would have some prayers to my credit at the great reckoning. (The “Now I lay me” prayer my mother had taught me I had long since discarded as morbid and childish.) But that night, after seeing Big Mother in such pain, I put aside all ritual and asked God, in my mind, either to make her well or take her to Himself. And maybe it is retrospective revision of memory, but I seem to recall a sense that something, or someone, was there listening to my thoughts, and as soon as I finished praying, moved off into the moonlit night. And the very next day, she was gone.

Like most (not all) alleged miracles, this one is susceptible to a number of naturalistic explanations. People can will themselves to live a few more days if a particular event has meaning for them. Perhaps this is why Thomas Jefferson died (or chose to die?) on July 4, 1826. So maybe my grandmother hung on a few more days to see me off to school before she let go. I will never know for sure in this life.

That situation—the answered prayer and the end of a life lived wholly in God’s care despite my blind ignorance of its depths—made an impression on me that never left me. I now believe in the God of my grandmother. If there is any justice in the universe, she is there with Him, and in the communion of saints we will be able to talk again. Only this time, I won’t bring up teletypes. At least, not right away.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Magneto-Hydro-Dynamic Flop

Speaking of success and failure, not everything I tried along the lines of experiments and projects always succeeded. Of course, when you’re doing something as a hobby, success has a different meaning than if you’re under the pressure of a contract where there’s a lot of money involved. Still, whenever I started to work on a new idea, I had at least a vague idea in my mind of what it should do, so I could always judge success by whether the experiment lived up to my expectations for it.

Even in the 1960s, people were aware that the supply of oil wouldn’t last forever, and so you would see in the news every so often reports of new technologies for generating power. I have no idea where I first saw the word “magnetohydrodynamic,” but when I did, I fell in love with it. Anything you could apply that word to must be exciting and cool.

Even without reading the articles, I was able to figure out roughly what the word meant, since I knew by personal experience exactly what “hydrodynamic” meant: it was the name of a toy chemical-plant kit I got one Christmas when I was about ten. You built a scale-model framework out of plastic girders shaped like the real thing, and then installed these clear plastic tanks and pipes and valves, filled them with water, dropped in a food-color tablet for entertainment value, and turned on the pump. If you’d piped it right, you were rewarded with the sight of colored water running around in the pipes and valves—at least until the cheap battery-powered motor burned out, whereupon you had to rely on gravity feed for everything, which took the thrill out of it. That happened to me not once but twice—the second time, my mother refused to order another pump unit, since it cost almost as much to buy as the whole kit did in the first place. I am bemused to find that unlike the Lionel Science Kit, the Hydrodynamic Kit was resurrected in 2006 by some Boston engineers who offer it online for about a hundred bucks, which is about five times what Kenner Industries asked for it in the 1950s. But hey—if you have any budding chemical engineers in your family, I can’t think of a better gift.

So if that’s what hydrodynamic meant, magneto-hydro-dynamic must mean water or something flowing and magnetism is involved too. And that’s more or less correct. As I learned from news articles, magnetohydrodynamic power is generated by taking some fast-moving fluid like a rocket exhaust or vapor heated in a nuclear reactor, and running it through a magnetic field. Any conductor moving in a magnetic field will generate electricity, and once that happened, all you had to do is connect to it somehow and get your electricity with no moving parts, unless you count the fluid.

As often happens, it is easier to describe than to do. Magnetohydrodynamic generators are somewhat like their related technology, fusion energy—for both fields, practical use has been about twenty years in the future, for the last half-century. But I knew nothing about the technology’s track record at the time. All I knew was that this would be a great topic for a science-fair project.

I had finally reached the age at which science, if not physics, was actually something you could sign up for at school and take classes in. I must have been in about the seventh or eighth grade at this point. Part of the school science program involved encouraging students to participate in science fairs. The history of science fairs has yet to be written, but as far as I can tell, they were an outgrowth of the big governmental push for improving science education following the revelations in the late 1950s of a “missile gap,” meaning that the Soviet Union was ahead of us technologically, or so we thought. Whether it was true or not, it resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of funding, programs, books, curricula, equipment, toys, and new institutions like the science fair, which was structured like a national sporting event but involved science instead of muscles.

To participate, you had to do a project, get results, and assemble a poster describing your work. I had been doing projects and getting results for years, so I figured adding the poster part wouldn’t be too hard. I had read somewhere about magnetohydrodynamics, and thought I understood the basic principles well enough to build something that would work.
First, I needed a strong magnet. That was no problem: I owned the strongest magnet I’d ever encountered, fresh from a dissection job I had done on a hi-fi woofer. Did I buy the woofer? Not hardly. It was given to me by one of my numerous, well, I guess you’d call them today “donors,” though back then I didn’t think of myself as a non-profit organization and I didn’t keep a list of people who contributed in the past to send begging letters to. But that was what happened, only without the letters. Over the years I’d developed a reputation among family and friends as some kind of techno-nerd, and therefore our house was a great place to drop off unwanted and non-working machinery and electronics of all kinds. I encouraged this behavior, of course, despite the fact that it gradually turned my bedroom, and then a garage apartment we owned, into something resembling a badly run appliance-repair shop’s storeroom.

The woofer, a fifteen-inch speaker out of a monophonic hi-fi set discarded when stereo came out, was the latest victim of my addiction to tearing up any piece of machinery or technology that I could get my hands on, even if it worked. I gradually conquered this addiction late in high school, by which time numerous items which would now be regarded as heirlooms or antiques or both, had succumbed to the bespectacled kid armed with a pair of pliers and a hacksaw. Of course, taking things apart is one way to learn how they’re put together, and in an age where most technology was roughly human-scale (rather than being about the size of a pneumonia virus, as it is today), you could learn a lot by taking things apart.

What I learned from taking apart the woofer was that the black paper cone was attached to a thin aluminum ring that had a few turns of wire wrapped around it. Before I destroyed it, this ring resided in a circular slot at the face of a big chunk of metal that was about the width of my hand and must have weighed six or eight pounds. This was the field magnet. After the cone and the coil had bit the dust, I tackled the field magnet, which was shaped kind of like a thick half-donut or bagel slice, if you can imagine a hollow bagel slice with four cutouts on each of four corners. (I would draw a picture, only it wouldn’t look any good since I’m not an artist.) Anyway, I managed to pry off a field-concentrating piece of steel on top of the thing and got to the magnet itself. Somewhere along the way I dropped it and a small piece broke off, revealing a shiny, glistening complex of crystal facets unlike anything I’d ever seen before. But the magnet was still strong enough to lift ten or fifteen pounds after that mishap, and I was sure it was going to be my best shot at getting something in the magnetohydrodynamic line to work.

The next problem was to get a fluid to flow between the poles of the magnet. I didn’t have access to any rockets or plasma generators, so first I tried water. To get it to follow the curved path through the magnet, I got some plastic tubing that my father used to connect our swamp coolers to the outdoor water faucet with. (Swamp coolers—evaporative air conditioners—are a topic I’ll have to deal with sooner or later.) I cut slots in the tubing and stuck some wires along each side and slathered some epoxy on it in the hopes of making it watertight.

To get the water to flow, I could have used my Hydrodynamic Kit, but the motor had burned out long before. So I just rigged up a big funnel at the top of a piece of wood on a base, attached the funnel to the tubing, and put the bottom end of the tubing into a tray to catch the runoff.
In order to tell whether the thing was producing or not, I got my most sensitive Radio Shack meter, one that measured down to fifty microamps, and hooked it to the wires. Then I put some salt in the water to make it conductive and poured it down the funnel, my eyes eagerly watching the meter needle for movement.

Nothing. Not even a twitch when I managed to get water flowing past the wires pretty evenly for as long as two seconds. I must have fooled with this thing all one Saturday afternoon, and never got a thing out of it.

I was stuck. The science-fair deadline was only a month away, and I had nothing so far. At this point, a friend of the family I’ll call Mr. Hoenig came into the picture.

Mr. Hoenig and his wife had known my parents since before I was born. He had received the closest thing to a scientific college training of any of our friends or acquaintances, having taken a six-week course in meteorology at Caltech after he was drafted into the Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war he started a drug warehouse which subsequently made him a millionaire, but he didn’t act like one. I wasn’t exactly sure what millionaires were supposed to act like, but Mr. Hoenig didn’t act that way. Instead, he was friendly, down-to-earth, and seemed to like me for reasons I couldn’t fathom. My mother once told me Mr. Hoenig had always wanted a son, and his wife had produced only daughters, so maybe that had something to do with it.
Anyway, one day Mr. Hoenig was over at the house or having coffee with my dad, and I told him what I was working on and the problems I was having with it. He asked me, “Would mercury work? I can get you some mercury if you think it’d be worth a try.”

The only dealings I’d had with mercury up to that point was when I’d broken a glass thermometer and played with the shiny globule of metal that fell out of it. How accidental this incident was I’m not sure, but I think our family managed to go through at least one mercury fever thermometer a year, back when that was the only kind there was. When Mr. Hoenig made his offer, I jumped at the chance of getting a serious amount of mercury to play with, and in a few days he showed up with a small brown-glass vial that was very heavy for its size. The label read “Mercury-distilled” and I was back in business—or so I thought.

There was probably about two fluid ounces of mercury in that bottle, about a jigger and a half, so I knew I had to be careful with it. Not because it was dangerous, but because I wasn’t likely to get any more if I lost it somehow. Any idea that mercury was a hazardous substance to fool with was entirely absent from our minds, as far as I can recall. I was certainly ignorant of any danger, and if Mr. Hoenig, manager of a drug company that dealt with all kinds of narcotics and poisons, said it was okay for me to fool with, I wasn’t going to ask troublesome questions. Besides, I’d played with the stuff before and suffered no ill effects, so experience was a strong voice in favor of going ahead.

Mr. Hoenig asked if he could be there when I tried the experiment, so we arranged for him to come over again on a Saturday morning a few days later. That gave me another deadline to work against. I decided to put in a valve to control the flow. We had an old enema bag that was missing pieces and no longer useful for its intended function, so I acquired the rubber hose and the metal clip that squeezed the hose shut. A piece of the hose fit nicely between the bottom of the funnel and the rest of the plastic tubing, which was about three feet long in order to give the fluid some space to fall in and speed up before going through the magnet. The tube felt a little loose, so I wrapped a few turns of wire around it and twisted the ends together to improve the seal. When I tested it with water, the mechanics worked fine—the valve didn’t leak and neither did the joints.

Since Mr. Hoenig had asked to see the first try, I dutifully restrained my desire to try the thing out until Saturday morning and Mr. Hoenig arrived.

The site I’d chosen for the demonstration was the carpeted floor of my bedroom in the front of the house. I had been given to understand that this room had originally been something called a “conservatory” or music room. It was a light, airy place with windows covering most of two walls. Mr. Hoenig, my mother, and my sister gathered around. My father would have been there too, though that particular Saturday I think he had to go up to his office at the bank and work past dues.

All was in readiness: I had connected the meter to the wires, made sure the valve was shut, and I held the open vial of mercury above the funnel. I enunciated a countdown—during the lunar space program, any technical or timed feat of any description was usually accompanied by a countdown. “Three—two—one—hu-u-uh what??!”

As soon as I started pouring the mercury into the funnel, it forced its way past my wired-shut connections like they were tissue paper, and squirted out into the air in a glorious stream that shimmered in the morning sunlight coming through the window. For a second, I was too awe-struck to do anything. Then I came to enough to open the valve and let the remaining mercury run down through the magnet into the catch basin, whereupon it did Precisely Nothing to the meter. But I was hardly paying any attention to the meter. Instead, I faced the challenge of trying to gather up the hundreds of little shiny balls of mercury scattered all over the carpet.
What I hadn’t figured on was how impressively heavy mercury is, and how only a few inches of height gives a huge pressure at the bottom of any container charged with the task of holding it in. Thus the gorgeous fountain of mercury effortlessly fleeing its entrapment to airborne freedom.

Gathering the spilled mercury took some time, and Mr. Hoenig even tried to help. But I abashedly thanked him and said I could do it myself. I think he was a little embarrassed for me, and might have even felt partly responsible for the debacle. But I wasn’t thinking of how he was thinking. All I was thinking was how mortified I was to have concocted this experiment that ended so badly.

It took the better part of an hour, but I picked up all the visible mercury there was and put it back in the vial, much the worse for wear. It now had a tarnished-looking scum on it, and the whole experience turned me off from further experiments with mercury for many years. I kept the vial on my dresser with other mementos and memorials of past exploits, until one year when I was a grad student and the lab I was working at staged a hazardous-waste cleanup day. I brought the thing in and got rid of it that way.

By that time I had realized that, while explicit examples of modern-day metallic mercury poisoning were still hard to come by, it was not a good idea to keep the stuff around in a home setting where it might spill. Still less was it a good idea to keep on living in a room with a mercury-contaminated carpet, as I did for the next couple of years until we moved to the suburbs. The family who bought our house must have ripped out that carpet along with nearly all the other insides of the house, because a few years later we saw the place written up in the Star-Telegram’s remodeled-home feature section. They showed a picture of our kitchen with the original high plaster ceilings carefully restored. “The previous owners,” ran the article, “had installed an ugly false drop ceiling, which we took down as soon as we moved in.” The false ceiling was my dad’s idea. He rigged up the suspended lights in it himself, and prided himself on the fact that a good old boy of his acquaintance had done the job for just a fraction of what it cost the bank to install a similar ceiling in their break room. Of course, our kitchen did look like a bank’s break room there for the last few years, but frankly, it was an improvement over what it had looked like before.

So I’m not too worried that some child grew up sucking on my mercury-laced carpet and lost thirty IQ points as a consequence, though I suppose something like that might have happened. Where mercury is part of the history of a place, it makes sense to take precautions, as I learned once on a tour of Thomas Edison’s West Orange laboratory, now a national historic site. A good many incandescent-lamp experiments were performed there, and the most effective way of evacuating the lamps back in the 1890s was by means of a thing called a Sprengel pump, the operation of which involves tediously raising and lowering guess what?—a vial of mercury attached to a rubber tube. In the nature of things, Edison and his coworkers had encountered some leaks as well, and a good bit of this mercury had found its way into the wooden floors of the lab. The guide told us that we were one of the last tour groups to go through the facility before it closed for a planned multi-year renovation, which included ripping out all the boards with any trace of mercury in them.

And who knows? maybe some half-recollected memory of an old movie on the life of Edison prompted me to build the magnetohydrodynamic rig the way I did, with an elevated funnel of mercury and a long tube. The roots of inspiration lie mostly underground, and it is never easy to tell where our ideas come from. And when they don’t turn out just the way we want them to, it’s just as hard to say why we didn’t think of a reason for the problem, unless we can blame ignorance.

Just the other day, I was conducting an experiment with some equipment I wasn’t that familiar with. I’d made a change in the setup that I didn’t think would cause a problem, but a few hours into the project, the glass door of a vacuum chamber cracked with a loud bang and hiss, humiliating me in front of my student and putting an abrupt end to the experiment. I guess that’s the difference between a novice and an experienced expert: the expert has had time to make more mistakes.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Lionel-Porter Science Kit

One fall day in 1964 or so, on a Saturday, likely, my sister and I were watching cartoons on TV. It was one of the things we looked forward to all week during school. On Saturdays, the TV played from as early as the earliest cartoons came on (probably around eight) to lunchtime or “My Friend Flicka,” whichever came last. That was my sister’s favorite Saturday-morning show, but I usually made fun of what I considered to be sappy, sentimental music in the background as a little girl dashed across the screen to hug her pet horse. She put up with my watching “Watch Mr. Wizard,” and we both enjoyed most of the cartoons earlier in the morning.

The thing I want to describe is not a TV show, but one of the ads we saw that fall. It began with a closeup of a crying baby in a crib. We saw the baby breathe on some mysterious piece of equipment suspended above her head. Then the scene changed to a nerdy-looking guy with whom I immediately identified, seated at the controls of a fancy-looking gizmo that was connected to the baby sensor, or whatever it was. As soon as the kid howled again, lights flashed, a fan went buzzing on, and the boy was congratulated by his parents, who presumably couldn’t tell the baby was hot and needed the fan turned on without the help of Boy Genius’s inventions.

At this remove, the logic of the ad escapes me, if there was any to start with. But it had me hooked, and I listened eagerly as the announcer pitched the latest Lionel-Porter Science Kit, with over two dozen different experiments! Get yours for Christmas!

And I did. With no independent income or ability to earn money, I was totally dependent on begging to support my research. (It’s not so different today.) By the time I was ten or so, I had honed my nagging skills to a fine point by cautiously steering between the Scylla of insufficient frequency of mentions, and the Charybdis of asking for a thing so many times that my mother finally said, “I told you if you nagged me one more time about that thing, you weren’t going to get it, and you did, so you won’t!” Anyhow, that Christmas, I must have nagged the right number of times, and so under the tree that year (which was one of those ghastly all-aluminum things lit up by a single blue floodlight on the floor—what were people thinking?), I unwrapped a box with the picture of the very same control panel that I had seen on national TV. And now it was mine.

The ad had portrayed the proto-nerd as having altruistic motives, but I was innocent of any such thing. I was much more likely to be the cause of my baby sister’s crying than I was to draw sympathetic attention to her, electronically or otherwise. I wanted the Lionel-Porter Science Kit for the simple reason that I liked playing with batteries and wires and switches, and this thing had plenty of those and more.

It may have been advertised as an “electronics” kit, but with one small exception, there was nothing electronic about it: no transistors or even tubes, which were running about neck and neck in designs around then. Instead, there were three-position switches, incandescent lamps behind red plastic jewels (the light-emitting diode was still about ten years in the future), a Sensitive Relay, a Thermostat, a Photocell, a Humidity Sensor, and a lot of wires connecting all these marvels to a big plugboard sort of like an old-fashioned telephone switchboard—that is, if you had the patience to do all the wiring yourself. It was a kit, after all.

I say “big”—the whole thing was perhaps the size of a small portable manual typewriter, with the same general shape: a perforated plastic project panel taking the place of the keyboard, and where the carriage would be was a more steeply sloped plastic panel that housed the switches, lights, and plugboard. But it suitably impressed me, with its two-tone gray and white molded plastic case. When assembled, it would have looked at home among the knobs and flashing lights of an IBM computer of that era.

But when I opened the box, finishing the assembly was a long way off. Using the white insulated wire they provided, it was my task to mount the various pieces on the project board and run wires to designated spots on the plugboard. Still other pieces of wire, with a quarter-inch of insulation duly stripped from each end, served as patch cords between terminals on the plugboard, allowing you to wire up any desired experiment by plugging wires into the proper holes.

Expecting ten-year-old kids ot read and follow wiring diagrams that were probably more complex than those of some of the cars of that era was perhaps not the wisest business move for Lionel-Porter, which, as I learned recently, went bankrupt a few years afterwards. But not knowing that I was doing anything particularly hard—didn’t all budding scientists have to do stuff like this?—I persisted, fixed my numerous wiring errors, and finally got to the point when it was time to insert the four D-cells in the battery box and see if it would go.

It did. One of the simplest experiments was titled “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” You turned a switch one way, and one light lit up—the other way, and two lit up. One if by land and two if by sea—get it? The lameness of this “experiment” is embarrassing at this remove, and in fact, that one got old pretty quick, but it was a good check of my wiring for the lights and switches.

Another experiment used the Thermostat to light a lamp when it got hotter than a certain temperature. The thermostat was made with a bimetallic spiral spring mounted in an open black plastic frame on which you pasted a temperature scale and poked some wires through at the temperatures you wanted to sense. As I recall, it never worked that well, but you could see the spring move slowly to the right if you warmed it in the sun.

Several of the devices made such feeble currents that you had to use the Sensitive Relay to detect them. The Sensitive Relay used a coil of fine green wire wound on a clear plastic bobbin and mounted on a steel framework that held the relay armature, a spring, and two contacts, all adjustable. If you were patient and tried over and over with small, finicky screw adjustments, you could get the Sensitive Relay to where it would trip at the slightest change of light intensity.

The Photocell was a cadmium-sulfide unit that looked like a large shiny vitamin tablet made of clear plastic, with a piece of reddish stuff inside and two wires coming out the back. You mounted it in a slick-looking housing made of two-toned plastic (black and gray) that looked sort of like a ray gun. I used the Photocell in some of my favorite experiments, including what I called the Logical Contradiction (I didn’t really, but that’s a good name for it now).

Say you rigged up the Photocell so that when it detected light, it would turn off a light bulb, and when it got dark, it would turn the light bulb back on. And what if the light it was detecting came from that very same light bulb??!! What would happen? If the light was on, it would turn off, but if the light was off, it would turn on. Wiring this up, I felt a little like Prometheus sneaking around to steal fire from the gods. I wasn’t following the instructions in the manual. I was asking the machine to do a logically contradictory thing. I’d seen some TV shows with computers that blew up when you asked them to do contradictory things, and I wasn’t sure but what that would happen now.

Tremblingly, I brought the light slowly within the field of view of the Photocell. As soon as it saw the light, it went out—then came back on—then went out. Oscillation! Only I didn’t know the word for it. All I knew is it was flickering, which was totally unexpected. And totally cool. This gave me a new appreciation for trying things that weren’t in the manual.

There were a few other experiments: a Rheostat you had to make by winding nichrome wire around a black piece of cardboard, which I didn’t do neatly enough and so it never worked right; a Humidity Sensor that never seemed to sense humidity, even when you dropped it all the way into a glass of water; and an Electromagnet that lifted small nails and screws but nothing much bigger than that. I think the Lionel outfit was out of New Jersey somewhere, and that might explain why the Humidity Meter may have worked very well with rainwater in the acid-rain-ravaged Northeast of the 1960s, but I was in Texas, where we had pristinely clean rainwater and even very soft tapwater. So unless you cheated and put table salt on the Humidity Meter before getting it wet, it didn’t do a thing.

The big disappointment for me about the whole kit was that it had no Power Relay. The Power Relay was the key that opened the way to all kinds of possibilities, because the Power Relay plugged into a wall socket and would control anything you plugged into it: a TV, a radio, a floor lamp, a fan, you name it. And you could control these big appliances with the Photocell, the Thermostat, or even the Humidity Sensor (if you could get it to work). That was how the nerdy kid on TV had cooled off his baby sister, with the Power Relay.

It was my fate to be born to parents who were too cheap to pay the extra four bucks or whatever it was to get the top-of-the-line Science Kit, the one with the Power Relay. So I swallowed my pride and just had to be satisfied with the experiments I could do.


Like nearly all toys of mine, the Science Kit later underwent modification, then deterioration, then decimation, and finally incineration (at the garbage dump). I still have the coil from the Sensitive Relay. Its lead wires are gone, its black tape insulation is partly peeled away, but I can still see the two ends of the winding, and if I so desired I could solder a couple of lead wires to it and—what? Figure out what current it actually triggered at? Such information is of no use to anybody now. The rest of the parts have vanished long ago, borrowed for other experiments, or broken, or lost, or something. When I became a man, I put away childish things—sort of. But not as much as you might think.

It turns out that one’s personality is usually pretty solidified at a frightfully early age. I have known engineering professors who chose their specialty based upon the good they perceived it could do for humanity. One such of my acquaintance designs high-tech robotic prostheses for people who have lost their natural limbs, for example. Even at the tender age of ten, however, I never had those kinds of thoughts. I might like to think that if only my parents had splurged on the high-dollar Science Kit with the Power Relay, I might have built something for the convenience or safety of my younger sister rather than some of the things I built that actually teased or tormented her. But I know better. The top priority I had in building and using the Science Kit was my own pleasure—an abstract and obscure pleasure, to be sure, but one just as real and selfish as the more comprehensible pleasures other kids took in winning baseball games, or beating up smaller boys, or any number of other things. Since then, one of the few constants in my life has been the fact that I cannot turn my energy and skills to tasks that I have no intrinsic interest in. And my interest is independent of how important or significant a problem or technology is to the world at large. If I do not see a problem as fun to work on, I can’t get interested in it, no matter how important it is in general. Consequently, I have spent most of my career (once I left industry, where people like me are not welcomed) pursuing private hobby-horses that I find fascinating but lie far afield from current topics of technical interest or importance.

Looking back, I don’t know whether my engagement with the Lionel-Porter Science Kit helped me along my tortured path to technical success or not, such as it was. For one thing, the kit was not exactly cutting-edge technology, even for 1964. Plugboards and switchboards were once used extensively in computer programming, believe it or not, but by the 1960s they were well on their way out. For a company to advertise an electronics kit that contained not a single transistor was bordering on misrepresentation, if not outright fraud. Lights, switches, relays, photocells—this was 1940s technology at best, dressed up in a fancy 1960s-looking plastic cabinet. I have since learned that the Lionel firm—of the famous model trains—was struggling to reinvent itself at the time, and saw science kits as a possible path to a future that never came about. My guess is that they used the same engineers to make these science kits who had designed a generation of electric trains, which also used molded plastic parts to cover electromechanical hardware that was basically out of the 1930s. It is quite possible that the Lionel-Porter Science Kit I received had no transistors, because no on on Lionel’s technical staff knew enough about transistors to design a kit that used one. They were apparently too afraid or cheap to hire a young engineer who could help them design a real electronics kit—but they weren’t too cheap to pay an ad agency to make them a set of fancy TV ads to sell the things. But that’s the way consumer products are sold. Marketing calls the shots, and engineering is regarded as an expensive nuisance overhead item.

Around 1967, Lionel went bust. In the meantime, I discovered Radio Shack, real electronics, and went on to bigger and more sophisticated things. But that Science Kit taught me several things, including feedback, electromagnetics, and probably some other things its designers never intended me to learn, like patience, attention to detail, and the ability to be at least somewhat content with one’s lot in life. Failures don’t always really fail, and successes don’t always succeed.

What This Blog Is About

This blog will contain recollections of things I did from about 1960 to 1976 having to do with electronics, science, technology, and so on. They will come as the mood strikes me—if you’re expecting regular weekly posts, look for those on my engineering ethics blog (http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/).

I write these recollections, not because I think that anything I did back then was particularly unusual or striking, but because I think experiences such as mine should be part of the anecdotal historical record of what it was like to be a technically-inclined American boy at that time. As subsequent events have proved, the period was itself unique, and so I think these things are worth writing about because, as time goes on, the 1960s rise above their surrounding decades as a critical time in many ways. And anything we can use to understand what happened then, and why, may help us in retrieving good things we have lost, and avoiding bad things we may otherwise repeat.