Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Electronic Media and Me

I can remember all the way back to 1947, when I was three. At that time I was still illiterate, so my contact with the outside world came from the radio. We had a wonderful one, a Silvertone made by Sears Roebuck. As the years passed the Roebuck name got smaller until it disappeared, then the Silvertone store-brand name also disappeared. Today in 2021 Sears itself has just about disappeared. So anyway, back to my pre-literate information acquisition: I loved staring into the back of the radio and seeing the glowing tubes. I wasn’t sure they had anything to do with the sound coming out but they had a cozy appeal like a tiny campfire. I was pretty sure the sound came from a little metal cube that (looking back) was probably the power transformer or the magnet housing of the speaker. Initially I didn’t really realize that the human contact was from the outside world. I theorized that the cube was where tiny people who spoke, sang, and played music for us were housed. It made perfect sense. How else could motionless lifeless parts communicate to us if there weren’t intelligent life inside? Eventually my parents explained that there were no little people in the radio. We were hearing real full-sized people elsewhere, like when our friends called us on the phone. That seemed more inconceivable than my little people theory, because phone wires were hollow (or so I assumed). But, I believed it because my parents were smart and trustworthy. Soon after my radio education I encountered and admired record players. I understood that they reproduced music that people had made in the past. That seemed almost more miraculous than the radio. I didn’t understand the principles of operation, but I observed them carefully and decided I could make one for us. They somehow worked by a needle scraping on a large thin disk. My first prototype experiments involved getting a shallow round pan from the kitchen and scraping a sewing needle around in circles on it. It didn’t sound like music; it sounded like a needle scratching on a metal pan. I had to be missing something, but I didn’t know what. My parents to the rescue again: They explained that the sound was placed in the tiny spiral groove that the needle rode in. They said it took the form of special microscopic bumps and wiggles in the groove, but they didn’t know much about how they were put there. One day when I was perhaps five, my mother came home with some exciting news. There was a new kind of radio that showed moving pictures like when we went to the picture show. “Picture show” was what we called the movies. This fabulous invention was called “television”. I wanted one! Not long after, we went to visit a friend who actually had a television. It was a huge piece of wooden furniture with a modest-size screen in the middle. I was impressed that it worked, but not too impressed with the picture quality. The nearest television broadcast station was in Charlotte, 90 miles north of our home in Columbia, so anyone who had a TV had to have a huge super high rooftop antenna aimed at Charlotte. Even with that, they had to endure snowy reception. We didn’t get a TV any time soon, but the radio was pretty darned wonderful. My mother listened to the soaps in the mid afternoon while cleaning or ironing. In the late afternoon I listened to Ruth Gotlieb’s story hour and the Uncle Remus show presenting tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Then there was the Lone Ranger and Tonto! In the evening we split our sides laughing at the Amos and Andy show. Saturday night was super special after bath time. Tarzan came on! I loved Tarzan; I wanted to be Tarzan. I perfected the Tarzan yell, which he judiciously used to either call his significant other, Jane, or to proclaim victory over some attacking lion. Oh, he also used the yell to call Cheetah who was not a really a cheetah but Tarzan’s chimpanzee friend. My best buddy, the girl over the back fence, became Jane as we role-played for years. We’d call each other to the back fence with the blood curdling Tarzan yell. That brought us lots of kidding from the adult neighbors. “Hey Johnny, give us your War Whoop”. OK, four more years had to pass before TV came to us Douglasses. During this time we took lots of Sunday afternoon drives. A big thrill during these drives was to look for houses with TV antennas and envy the lucky occupants. TV proliferated. In a bit of sour (but healthy) grapes, my parents began to repeat the theory that TV spoiled people for reading books, and our broader education might suffer because of it. I reluctantly began to believe them. After all, they were smart and trustworthy. Then one day in 1953 my daddy came home from Southeastern Freightlines -- where he was a bookkeeper -- with a mile-wide grin on his face. There had been some freight damage and the customer had refused to accept a TV that had a cracked cabinet leg. My father paid a pittance for it and it was his. Hallelujah! Thereafter my afternoons were filled with Howdy Doody, Pinky Lee, Superman, and the Little Rascals. In the evenings we all enjoyed I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Gunsmoke, Have Gun; Will Travel, etc. Columbia had about three channels by then. TV was still black and white, remotes hadn’t been invented, and somebody had to jump up every minute or so to delicately adjust the horizontal and vertical hold knobs, or just give it a hard spank on the top to get it to behave properly. But it was worth it. About every six months it would poop out altogether and the service man would have to come. I had my nose in his business all the time, and pretty soon I had realized he was always replacing the same one or two vacuum tubes. Then I started doing the repairs myself by pulling out these tubes and taking them to the nearest mini-grocery store. These always had do-it-yourself tube testers and a good inventory of replacement tubes. This minimal TV repair success (plus a donation from a generous neighbor of obsolete telephone parts for experimentation) convinced me that I wanted to become an electrical engineer. The generous neighbor was a telephone serviceman and he was the same man who teased me about my war whoops. I made a slight career goal adjustment to mechanical engineer after I became old enough to yearn for a motor scooter or a car. I figured I could always maintain a stylish and powerful set of wheels with mechanical engineering skills, so I went to Clemson to become a mechanical engineer. I finally ended up with claim to the title of electrical engineer in the last years of my career. In the energy field my mechanical engineering had eventually taken me to industrial electrical motors, which put out mechanical energy thanks to an input of (Ta Da…) electrical energy. Some big contracts that my employer had gotten for training and writing of guidebooks on motors gave me exposure. The Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) decided to elevate my standing to “Senior Member”. The big secret was that I was not a member at all. I had to rush and join IEEE for my elevation in the institute to take place. Today I’m out to pasture, but I can still install a new electrical outlet, sometimes with a little counsel from my electrician daughter.

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