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.


New Sauna Completed

After much delay by the weather and other commitments such as running a business and one or two days a week looking after young grandkids, I have finally managed to complete the rebuilding of the sauna hut and it is now open for use.  The weather in particular has been most uncooperative with persistent rain up right up until late August.  The very narrow, unsurfaced track is very slippy and one tiny mistake would see me, my vehicle and building materials sliding sideways into the dam below.  The slope at the site is very steep and most times I could hardly stand up on the slippy ground, let alone attempt work.  I am sure you understand it is miserable working in the rain and things go wrong so easily, especially on makeshift scaffolding with muddy boots and power tools.  So weeks went by with no progress.  Also a highly unionised work site so two drops on a shovel and I’m out of there.   So here it is.

New sauna hut

I actually prefer the previous model of old timber boards scrounged from around the place, But I’ve done so much scrounging in the last decade, there’s nothing left.  The last bits went into the tree house.  So I had to actually buy the materials and that was a shock to the system.  Not just having to put my miserly trembling hand into my pocket, but also the cost of building materials seems to have moved on in the last few decades since I have done any substantial building.  Especially timber.  I had to settle for Hardi plank compressed cement boards which are strong enough when fixed, but a nightmare for one person to pick up.  They are not that heavy but 4.2 m long and awfully wobbly and when you try to carry one on edge it twists itself at the ends and snaps in the middle.  I had to clamp them to a long stick of wood to even pick them up.  I bought for the first time ever a few metal studs to use around the stove and chimney so I wouldn’t have to build a Mark 3 hut.  Compared with the 3 by 2 hardwood studs they are meant to replace, they are awfully light and flimsy.  Accidentally step on one and it would just crumple.  I understand that most new houses are framed with the stuff.  Hmmm.

I gave myself a holiday in early September, the first one in years.  As I’m the boss here, I can have a holiday whenever I like and for as long as I like.  All I have to do is scan my booking diary, find some patch of white paper and scribble “hols” across it.  In practice, it is not quite that easy as the weekends at least are booked up months in advance, so I have to think ahead.  I’m not very good at that.  So I went to see my daughter Josie, partner Kairne and two grandkids Huon 6 and Evie 4 in September.  I would have liked mid-winter for Darwin, but missed booking it in with myself (how dumb is that!), so went later.  They have bought a post-cyclone Tracy house, known locally as a ‘bunker’.  The walls and ceiling are solid reinforced concrete.  Now that’s something to fix a roof to!  The garden is nice with well established trees and Alexandria palms.  They are fortunate enough to have a pool to flop into on hot days, which is pretty much all year.  While I was there it got up to 36.6C with 80% humidity.  My first day back at Possum Valley the max was 16C.  More than 20C difference.  Somewhere in the middle would be nice.

In Darwin Josie and Kairne had work to do of course, Huon was at school, so I was dutifully hosted by Evie aged 4 in her serious mode as she took me on a tour of the house and gardens, naming the chickens and most of the plants as well as she could.   A most charming host.  This was what I was there for, some one-on-one time with Evie that I had not really had before.  So then we were taking each other’s measure until a little trust was established.  Later I saw her fun mode with squeals of laughter and wide shining eyes.

Evie 2019

On that first day I disgraced myself.  I failed to pick up Huon from school.  I didn’t even know it was required to pick up kids from school.  The house is only 200 m from the school grounds.  As a primary school kid I walked over a mile through a city each way, every day, rain or shine.  Evie gently said “Is it time to pick up Huon?”.  Though I hadn’t explicitly been told to pick him up, both parents were at work and I should have been able to work it out.  As I dashed out of the house in panic, Kairne drove up with Huon.  He had been summoned from work concerning an unattended, abandoned child languishing in the principle’s office.  I suspect that will go down in family history.  Perhaps history will also record it is sad that kids can’t walk the streets and roam as I did.

Later I did get to see a lot of Huon’s school.  I spent a day on a school outing to the NT Wildlife Reserve sponsored by the government and very professional and interesting.  I attended classes to assist Josie give a small group assistance to cook choc-chip cookies.  I was fortunate to attend the school concert.  I was blown out by the difference in philosophy and practice from my day of ‘talk and chalk’ and quills and inkwell in the desks.  Yes quills, just like Shakespeare except that we had up-graded to metal quills rather than feathers.  They had giant touchscreen monitors which the kids confidently manipulated with sweeps and taps to bring internet news and events.  The whole open plan area was stocked with physical resources just waiting to be used.  The kids went in small groups without direct supervision and later reported back to the class what they had achieved.  Another positive is the huge cultural diversity and ethnic mix of Darwin.  Innuit were a bit thin on the ground, but all the world’s people were there and celebrated at the school concert.

In Possum Valley news, it is sarsaparilla season with the trees blooming in profusion.  This pic from my bedroom window.

saspirella from my bedroom window

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