Learning ElectronicsMy earliest recollection with electronics was when I was about 10 years old. My father was an Electricians Mate in the Navy during WWII.
He would always repair our TVs and radios, and many times I would get to go with him to the local drug store to test the vacuum tubes in the tube tester.
The tester had many configurations of tube sockets and usually a wire and clip for some of the tubes. You would simply select the tube socket, plug in your tube and press the test button. An analog meter would swing a needle to "Good" or "Bad". If the tube was bad, you could buy a new tube which were stored in a cabinet below the tester.
My father realized I was interested enough in electronics to invest in a single vacuum tube radio kit for me to build. It consisted of an open metal (aluminum) frame to mount all the hardware and components. The major components were a coil, the vacuum tube and a variable condenser with interlacing fins for tuning. It had an AC power cord and a large flat speaker that you could hold to your ear or slide under your pillow at night.
For better reception I tied the antenna wire to my bedroom window screen. I have fond memories of lying in bed at night watching the warm amber glow of the tube reflecting on the wall and listening to the speaker under my pillow. Especially the night I reached down to adjust the condenser and put my fingers under the open chassis. I got a tremendous shock – a learning experience not to do that again.
By the time I was in my senior year of high school, I was in an Industrial Arts class called Industrial Research and Development. I needed a project to create. My father, who had many patents in inorganic electrical plasma chemistry, gave me a book called Plasma Chemistry and Electrical Discharges. I decided on building a high voltage glow discharge system.
I took a 2 inch diameter glass tube and put rubber stoppers on each end. I made two brass ball electrodes and pushed them through the stoppers. One stopper had glass tubing connecting a dry ice cold trap and a vacuum pump, and the other stopper had tubing connecting various bottles of gases – nitrogen, argon, helium and carbon dioxide.
I connected a 25,000 Volt transformer I found to the electrodes. I would start the vacuum and plug in the transformer. Just air alone would ionize and glow. I would then turn on the different gas valves and get different colored plasma glow discharges.
My teacher was asking me about the project and how it worked. As I pointed to one of the electrodes, a lightning like spark jumped out and zapped me. The teacher jumped back really far and then instructed me to put a spring loaded dead man’s switch to turn on the system and off again if I let go. The purpose of the cold trap was to try to separate the carbon and oxygen from the CO2 using the plasma. Although a great learning experience, I didn’t have time to perform that experiment. After I graduated, that project was put on display in the Industrial Arts hall cabinet display.
The following year my father asked me if I would like to join his company Plasmachem Inc. as a full time technician. As a boy I used to go to his lab to do everything from washing chemistry glassware and cleaning offices, to wiring control panels and soldering copper gas piping. Plasmachem Inc. had four engineers, a machinist and two technicians. The engineers did everything from mechanical engineering to machining parts. My Dad was the electrical, mechanical, chemical and thermodynamic engineer. He never went to college.
Being the young son of my Dad got me the nickname "The Kid", and I did all the mechanical and electrical drafting. I wired all the control cabinets and other systems – all 115VAC relay logic, timing relays, rotary timing cam switches, limit switches and sensors. Some of the time delay relays were bimetallic tubes. I would feast on the knowledge of the other engineers and my Dad.
I still have the notes I would leave for him, asking him things like "what is ohms law, what is a capacitor, inductor and resistor and how do they work". The next day there would be the same note with his answers written below each question.
A few years later the company was bought out and dismantled. I moved on to work for companies like Fluor (Control System Designer), US Divers (Engineering Lab Tech) and other such technical companies.
I then got a position at Renal Devices a hemodialyzer manufacturer as Equipment and Maintenance Manager. The person who interviewed me, Dr. Chuck M., worked with my Dad previously, and said "if you are anything like your father..." and hired me on the spot.
I designed more than half of their manufacturing automated machinery. One day I ask Chuck an electronic question – much like I had done in my past careers asking and learning from very smart people. He said – in a not so kind manner – "You should know that". I quickly responded that I will learn it and I would know it better than he did. This caused me to sign up for my first college course – "Basic Electronics".
I was 27 years old, a husband and father, and the one night course was almost overwhelming for me. However, after that course was completed, I got hungry for more. I ended up taking night college courses for the next eight years full time – 12 to 16 units a semester. Still working full time at my job; as well as, husband and parent. I took every course they had covering electronic technology, digital electronics and computer science under electronic technology.
I learned electronics from being open-minded, curious and listening and learning from very intelligent people. Then taking that practical education to college and learning even more. But mostly, I learned electronics from being my Dad's son – "The Kid".