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The Night the Politicians Were Silent

Electronic Components take center stage in a presidential election.

By Greg Harris

Don't get me wrong, I love the election season. The speeches, the investigations, the interviews and the scandals are all fascinating to me. But nothing compares to the presidential debates. This is where everything is on the line. The pressure is huge, and you never know what will happen. My wife, on the other hand, is not a big fan of debates. She gets nervous for the candidates and doesn't want to see anyone make a mistake. She would just assume not watch the debates live because she gets stressed watching.

We normally don't think of electronic components of having an opinion, although I think it is fair to say that they can get stressed at times. This is the story of when an electronic component couldn't handle the stress of a presidential debate and took matters into its own hands.

Politicians Were Silent

In September 1976 Governor Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford faced off for their first debate. While many of us are familiar with the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, what I didn't realize was that presidential candidates wouldn't face off again on live TV until this night 16 years later.

The first debate was orderly enough, but with just nine minutes to go until the debate was scheduled to end, Jimmy Carter was answering a question when the audio cut out. Viewers were assured that this was not some political trick or conspiracy, but viewers ultimately waited a full 27 minutes before audio was returned.

Maybe even more fascinating was that the two candidates stood like statues during the audio outage as if someone had hit the pause button before it had been invented.

Audio engineers scrambled. Talk about stress! When the audio was finally fixed, Carter was allowed to complete his answer although at that point most must have forgotten the question. Both candidates proceeded to make their closing statements, and this first debate ended.

Engineers would later blame a single electrolytic capacitor in the amplifier system that sat between the studio and the feed that was delivered to all the networks. At the time Phil Levin, ABC’s Chief Engineer, said the part cost between $1 and $1.25. He went on to say that in the past it had been so reliable no back up system was ever considered. Of course with most electronics the problem was not fixing the problem but isolating what needed fixing.