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The Engineering Life Starts Early

When I was a kid, I had interests that spanned many technological fields. I enjoyed disassembling and reassembling radios, clocks, motors, and my uncle’s photoflash unit (much to his annoyance).

Generally, things worked when I did the reassembly. I wasn’t quite as good with internal combustion engines, so when a friend down the street built a go-cart with a lawn mower engine, I built one with my dad’s ¼ HP bench grinder motor. I had a go-cart that I could drive up and down my driveway, but no further, since it was powered by 120V via all the extension cords I could find in our house.

Even at an early age, I had the “hacker” mentality: Figure out how something works, figure out a way to bypass normal operations, and create some mischief. I also had a fascination with trains, but I was more interested in the signaling circuitry than the prototypes. I had learned that the signaling circuits detected the presence of a train by detecting when the rails were shunted by the wheel sets.

One day, I gathered up a pocketful of my Radio Shack (or was it Olsen Electronics?) clipleads and pedaled my bike over to the nearby DL&W tracks. I made sure there was nothing in sight in either direction, clipped together five clipleads, hunkered down in the gauge (kids, don’t do this!), and shorted the rails. To my delight, the nearby semaphore signal move from clear to stop. On another day, I pedaled to the nearby NYC tracks and repeated the experiment at a grade crossing. The bells rang, the lights flashed, and the gates lowered. Yay! Incredible power for an 11-year-old kid. I also determined that I could do the same trick if there were a nearby turnout (switch) using nothing more than a coin.

A couple years later, I discovered that our streetlights were controlled by a master photoelectric controller on a nearby utility pole. I assembled a government surplus 12V Ni-Cad battery pack and a car headlight on my bike. That evening, I rode down the street, turned on my headlight, and pointed it at the controller. After about 20 seconds, the streetlights went out. Again, incredible power for a 13-year-old.

By 15, I had learned about the Bell Telephone switching systems and the “blue box” and “red box.” At this point, I was doing the precursor to modern hacking. But I was enough of a wimp law-abiding citizen that I avoiding the use of the equipment once I had established that it worked as it should.

All this experimenting (and more that goes beyond the scope of this essay) laid a strong foundation for the engineer that I became. I still have that same inquisitive desire to see how something works and to see if I could do it better. Often I can.

I’m older and wiser now. I know better than to hunker down in the gauge, and I don’t try to place my long-distance phone calls for free with a blue box — not that it would actually work with today’s system. Still, I expect I’ll find some other occasional mischief to get into.

When were you first bitten by the engineering bug? Let us know below.

9 comments on “The Engineering Life Starts Early

  1. Brian Dotson
    January 15, 2013

    Loved your early “war stories”, Brad!

    Sure, I destroyed things around the house early in my experimentation days a time or two, but I never experienced the thrill of subverting public infrastructure like you did, LOL!

    I think I actually got bitten by the bug when I was 11, and got a Sears 20 projects – in a box electronics set. Being a music lover, I was all over the audio projects. There was an intercom project with 2.25″ speakers at either end of wires, and a DPDT knife switch to change from send to receive. I discovered feedback, of course. I remember my older cousin on my mom's side was visiting with us over the holidays, and my feedback noise kept waking their baby.

    I moved on to Radio Shack P-Box kits pretty soon after tiring from the original Sears set. The first working radio that I built was actually a two – transistor FM radio in a P-Box kit. I learned a lot from those! It's a shame they dropped from the retail line.

  2. MClayton
    January 17, 2013

    Hi Fi (before stereo) was my introduction to kit building (Heathkits, Fisher, speaker enclosures) but my first college roomie had a 1KW single sideband transmitter in our dorm room, and I helped him string an antenna to the nearest light pole, and tune it by hanging out the window with flourescent tube in hand.  My major was metallurgical engineering, steel, aluminum, mining, with visits to US Steel (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Tech, US Steel, all in the neighborhood).  

    But to pay for school, I got a job at Westinghouse as technician, and noticed it was much cleaner than a steel mill, was air-condutioned, and the new silicon SCR's and Diodes behaved according to laws of physics and chemistry, while steel processing was dominated by the shop floor chief melter, who simply sent metallurgists off to the lab to verify that his latest addition was correct.  By the time we got the results, he had already made two more tweaks.  

    Suddenly, I was moved to a new group at Westinghouse, headed by Dr. Herb Henckels, that was making “batch electronics” which they dubbed “molecular electronics.”   I had the job of building equipment, then running it, as the transistor and diode industry had few suppliers for some of the newer processes, like Epitaxy, which was necessary for the early bipolar IC's.   So Herb's team saved me from a life in the Steel Industy or the Mines.   And being a “materials” guy was unique since Westinghouse was mostly Electrical Engineers.  We were dubbed “the cooks” and while they tried to design new structures, we had to make them some way.  No simulators, no implanters, no plasma tools, no CMOS, NMOS or PMOS yet, just BiPolar structures (very analog in many ways). 

    So part time work in college really guided me to what I learned was “real engineering” surrounded by “scientists” (we had many PhD Physicists as well as the ciruit design EE guys).  And the early military contracts created the first dedicated IC plant in world…Westinghouse at Eklridge Md.  They beat our Fairchild for the Minuteman II contract (shared with Texas Instruments). 

    And it was years before the Bay Area caught up with East Coast (Bell Labs, ATT, Route 128,and Texas), but they survived thanks to Jean Hoerni's Planar Process Patent, which kept Fairchild from dying an early death.  Those that left Fairchild for National (Bob Widlar and Dave Talbert…a designer and a process “cook”) gave us the first Linear IC parts that could survive in the industrial world, without military cost-plus guarantees.  Bob Pease and Bo Lojek have written extensively about Widler and National in those days.   Teams of designers and “cooks” worked side by side, less so today.

  3. Brad Albing
    January 17, 2013

    Good stuff. Thanks for the post.

  4. jwlehman
    January 17, 2013

    “I enjoyed disassembling and reassembling radios, clocks …” An ah ha moment. These things were supposed to be reassembled? What an idea.

  5. Brad Albing
    January 17, 2013

    Reassemly seemed prudent. My uncle (the photoflash guy) was a tough guy colonel in the Air Force. Best to stay on his good side.

  6. eafpres
    January 18, 2013

    I definitely got the engineering genes from my dad.  When I was very young my dad was assigned to the USS Amphion out of Virginia Beach.  It was a repair ship; an amazing place where every conceivable shop existed right on the ship–electronics, optics, mechanical, welding, etc.  My dad was always building things; he built a refracting telescope with a 5″ main lens; it was huge but fun to look through.  Eventually I learned my dad had gotten into the Navy at 17 and learned electronics so fast they made him an instructor.   Eventually he got his commission and ended up on the Amphion.

    I was soldering stuff from an early age, and remember well a Heathkit electronic stopwatch that was about 5 times the size of a mobile phone these days; it was a hard kit and I had to do some rework since it didn't quite work on my first try.

    Once my dad built a 2-phase to 3-phase power converter out of an electric motor; he took it completely apart, rewound it, built the supporting electronics, and used it to power a large lathe in our garage.  Listening to that thing spool up was always cool.

  7. larryparts
    January 18, 2013

    I clearly remember the exact moment when it all started.  I was 4 years old and I was playing outside behind our house.  The neighborhood was marginal and there was junk laying around.  I found a lamp socket and I found it interesting; I washed off the mud and put it my sock drawer.  A few days later I found a broken light bulb, and I immediately new that it was somehow related to the lamp socket I had found the other day.  I can still remember racing upstairs as fast as I could, anticipating that the parts would somehow fit together.  I trembled as screwed the shell into the socket.

    I didn't know what an engineer was, of course, but I knew I had to make things fit together.  60 years later, things still fit.

    How are you Brad?  I guess you made the rounds like I did.  Rapid to 55th st; Pioneer Electronics, Repco, Olsen's,  and, of course, Electronic Surplus.

    Regards,  Larry Sears

  8. Brad Albing
    January 21, 2013

    I believe I inherited some of my engineering smarts from my dad (a tool & die maker) and an uncle who was a self-taught refrigeration technician. So I know of what you speak. And I also tinkered with optics (besides electronics) as a kid.

  9. Brad Albing
    January 21, 2013

    Hi Larry – nice to see you're still around and involved with the design world and especially with Planet Analog. Yes to all the places you mentioned, tho' for me, a slightly different sequence of events. I grew up in Buffalo where we had our own surplus stores. Then I came to NE Ohio for college. I could see the main HQ building for Olson Electronics from my dorm room. Now that was exciting. And we made regular trips to Electronic Surplus in downtown Cleveland to buy parts for the university's carrier current AM radio station that fed news and music to the dorms. Then later to buy parts for our own 8-track recording studio. Good times….

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