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.