My Personal History of Electronics 1950-2019

I was born in 1950 when very few homes had any kind of electronic device.  In the early 50’s television started to be broadcast in black and white and 2 channels which shut down at 10.30 pm I think, and wished viewers a good night before displaying the ‘test card’ which was a geometric pattern so installers could ‘tune in’.  My parents weren’t too sure whether TV was a good idea, and might displace family activities such a sewing, games, conversation and sleep, so I had to wait a couple of years until they relented.  They were totally right about it displacing family activities.  The television arrived resplendent in a polished wooden cabinet casing, with half of the front a screen and the rest large dials and switches.  It was of course powered by valves.  These are large glass vacuum tubes with heaters in every one.  The TV sucked a huge amount of power, got very hot, and I dare say it was possible to cook one’s evening meal on it.  Giving new meaning to ‘TV dinners’.

The valves burnt out with great regularity, so TV aficionados often had a box of spare valves to plug in in place of the blackened ones.   “Dad, the TV’s gone again and I want to watch Noddy and Big Ears” was the frequent cry.  I also remember having a portable radio with valves and a 67 V battery which lasted about half an hour.  The battery was also used as a child bravery test by putting one’s tongue across the terminals.  Voluntary torture.

Then somebody invented a workable transistor.  My, how the world has changed.  You probably own 20-50 million transistors.  They used to be worth $1 each, but you will be disappointed to learn they have not retained their value, so you cannot retire yet.  There are several million on a computer CPU, or smart phone, or even your fridge or washing machine.  Not to mention your TV, where we started this electronic adventure.  Your car has more computing power than available to Armstrong at the first moon landing.  In the 1960’s an IBM executive said the world market for computers would be about 10.  Which is why they are still making pencil sharpeners.

I really got to the cutting edge of electronics when I went to university to do mechanical engineering, a heavy user of number crunching.  In the labs we had a PDP8 computer to process lab tests.  It was programmed in machine language.  That was digital, or all it could understand was 0 and 1.  I can’t tell you how laborious that was to code onto a strip of paper with punched holes a program, then the data, and instructions to output the results.  It made a slide-rule look good.  Another lost art I mastered.  However there was a mainframe computer in the university that understood high level languages such as Algol, Cobol and Fortran.  One computer for 3000 students.  It didn’t contain any stored programs.   I had to create the internal logic with iterative operations such as ‘if I=20 then go to line 486’ for the program to take each step in computing a result.  I went to a room with typewriters where I punched holes in cards.  Hundreds of them in exact order that I bound with elastic bands and left on the stack of in-going programs.  I got the result perhaps 2 weeks later by daily checking the out stack.  Usually the result was failure with “Failed to compile” with error routines 27,104, 337, 582 etc and it would give a line number.  Then go back to the massive tome of errors and look up the number to find the cryptic words such as “integer not declared”.  I did so declare that integer!!  Then back to a previous line not mentioned as an error to find the card, pour over it to see I had mis-typed a semicolon instead of a colon, obscured by the fuzzy pin printer.  Then wait another 2 weeks for the next try.  Probably another failure.  In my entire time at uni, I managed to get 2 programs to run.  I could see computing was the future of engineering, but that was probably why I went to smoke hash in Kathmandu instead.

All the above is a lengthy preamble to try and convince you that I am not the world’s worst plonker when it comes to electronics and stuff.  Or perhaps to convince myself.  I have recently had a major problem with a mouse.  No, not that thing close to your right hand, or to be stroked on a pad, this was the real thing with fur and whiskers.  It got into the box housing the hydro governor, crept under the circuit board that controls it and got toasted.  It’s boiling body fluids shorted the circuit board, burned holes in it and coated the board with a thick layer of carbon residue.  Not surprisingly, it ceased to function.  Both mouse and board. The first I knew of this was the smell.  I was at the computer and got the stench of burning insulation.  Oh bugger! this isn’t good.  I got down on hands and knees like an airport beagle but couldn’t sniff it amongst the computer/internet equipment.  I went to the laundry where the washing machine was thumping away.  No problem.  Then outside to the mass of electronics that controls the electrical system.  I got the acrid stench of burnt electrics and could see the thick carbon deposits.  It took a while to see the tip of the nose of the mouse peeping out from under the circuit board.  I pulled it out with pliers and had a moment of sympathy with the hapless animal.  Just a moment, before I tossed it off into the bushes.  Oh bugger!  This electronic device was made especially for me as a one-off.  By a company that no longer exists, commissioned by my father-in-law now long dead, composed of components 37 years old, and made by an unknown person who is probably retired.  For those of you who have pursued warranty clauses, you can possibly see a problem.

I dismantled and surveyed the charred remains of the circuit board with little comprehension.  Time for phone a friend.  My techie mate Martin is in Canada but has a mate in Cairns who has been to Possum Valley.  He is willing to look at the problem and thinks he may be able to resurrect this ancient piece of electronics.

Here’s hoping.


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