Thursday, June 8, 2006

Formative Events


Every adult can look back at their life and identify some key events that determined the path their life has taken. These are what I’m calling “formative events”.

For myself these formative events come in several flavors. Some have a nature such that I might have been able to identify them as formative events even as they happened. Others I can only identify long after the fact. Some have an element of intention about them; others are accidents — fate, some would say. But what they all have in common is that (at least now) I can look back and say “If that hadn’t happened, my life would have been much different."

The purpose of this (intended) series is to chronicle those formative events in my life. I’m going to write about them not in any organized way (for I’ve never organized these thoughts and memories before), but in whatever haphazard fashion I happen to think of them.

Part 1

A conversation with my mother about my cousin Mike brought this event back to mind. It’s an event I’ve thought of many times over the years, as it had a huge impact on the direction of my life — but I would never have known it at the time.

This event occurred during a visit to my Uncle Earle’s home in northern New Jersey, in the early 1960s when I was about 10 or 11 years old. Uncle Earle (who died several years ago) was my father’s eldest brother, some ten years his senior. He had a career as an electrical engineer, starting back in the days of vacuum tubes; eventually he became the editor of EDN (Electronic Design News) magazine. I’m actually not sure what Uncle Earle was doing, career-wise, at the time of this event, but all that matters in this context is that he was an electrical engineer.

Parts of my memory of this event are quite fuzzy, especially about how it got started. Uncle Earle had a study, or office, or something like that, where he worked on things at home. I was in this room, looking around, and I saw a strange object on a shelf, between some books. This object consisted of a rough sphere (about the size of a softball) of some stuff wrapped up in black electrical tape, with a rat’s nest of bare wires emerging from the top. Interspersed in that rat’s nest of wiring were some tiny neon lamps — and every once in a while, one of them would flash briefly. Years later I built one of these things myself. I’ve forgotten the details, but basically it was some kind of an oscillator coupled with a voltage-multiplier; when the voltage out of the multiplier reached the neon’s breakover voltage it would flash, the voltage would drop, and the cycle would start over.

I was standing there staring at this “thing” when my Uncle Earle walked into the room. He was a very tall, thin man, and I was a little frightened by him — I’m not sure why. I knew, of course, that he was my father’s brother…but he wasn’t anything like my father. I remember that I expected to be in some kind of trouble when he caught me looking at the “thing”.

But instead, he noted my curiousity and started asking me a bunch of questions. This caught me completely by surprise, especially the nature of the questions: he was trying to find out if I was particularly interested in electronics, or even more generally, science and technology. And I was particularly interested in those areas (in other installment, I’ll explore the “whys” of that a bit more) — but nobody had really paid much attention to that before. The closest thing was when my father gave me an old crystal radio that he had built — but he couldn’t explain anything about how it worked.

After a few minutes of questions, Uncle Earle had me come sit down next to him at his desk (or perhaps it was a table, I’m not sure). The next hour or so is something I have a much clearer memory of — not really the precise happenings, but the nature of those happenings. What Uncle Earle did was to give me a very broad, very high bandwidth “introduction to electronics”. A whole lot of what he lectured me about went right over my head, of course. But a few things stuck like glue; they were revelations to me. Perhaps the key one, which seems almost funny at this distance: that you didn’t have to be some kind of Einstein to understand electronics. Anybody — including me, even as a kid — could do it. Another: that you didn’t have to be rich to pursue electronics as a hobby — components could be purchased relatively cheaply, and TV repair shops would give you old dead TVs for free that were chock full of perfectly good components. There were also some very basic electronics concepts that he managed to convey to me, in general form: Ohm’s law, and more generally, the notion that one could predict with certainty how a circuit would behave; and the general notion of what an amplifier actually does. He even put together a very simple circuit — I still remember exactly what it was — to demonstrate Ohm’s law to me. He hooked up a 6V lantern battery in series with a 270 ohm resistor and a 100 ohm resistor, then went through the math to predict the voltage divider’s result, then showed me with a meter that it matched. Amazing stuff for me as a kid. And my Uncle Earle, in that hour or two, covered a huge amount of ground.

I left that room with my brain going a mile a minute, filled with ideas and questions about electronics. And electronics has been a lifelong interest of mine, a continuous thread in my life from that event onward. Over the next few years, I learned much more completely many of the things that my Uncle Earle introduced me to on that day. I scrounged parts from TV shops, exactly as he suggested. I built power supplies, audio amplifiers, and (eventually) radio transmitters and receivers. I did all kinds of experiments (scaring the hell out of my mother, who banned them from our basement and made me perform them in a shack detached from our house). I learned some rudimentary design skills, successfully building a high voltage power supply (using vacuum tube rectifiers) and a primitive super-regenerative receiver of my own design. All of these things I’m sure I would never have done had it not been for my Uncle Earle taking an interest in my interest on that day. And while I’m not actively working in electronic design as a career today, my electronics background did lead rather directly to programming (more on that in another installment).

Years later — in the 1980s sometime — I had a rare telephone conversation with Uncle Earle. I brought up this event with him, as I was curious how he remembered it. He didn’t remember it at all! He did remember the neon lamp blinker, but had no memory of sitting down with me to “talk electronics”. But he was very amused to hear how much impact that event had had on me…

Right after that event, while my head was still spinning, I walked outside the house and smack into another formative event. One of my cousins (Mike, I believe) was tossing a frisbee back-and-forth with my brother Scott. But I had never heard of a frisbee before, and what I saw looked like magic to me: a bright orange disc flying around in a very stable, predictable way — for astounding distances. My first thought was that the frisbee was powered somehow; it’s low-drag flight was very counter-intuitive to me at that moment. I remember getting the frisbee in my hands, and discovering — to my great surprise — that it was simply an orange plastic molded disc (by Wham-O!). And I wanted to know why that damned thing could fly like that.

What made this a formative event was that desire to know why, which (when I got home) turned into my very first adventure in research. I turned first to the encyclopedia we had at home, but didn’t get very far at all, as I had no idea how to look it up (because, amongst other things, I had no idea that the word “aerodynamics” existed!). Frustrated, I asked my teacher at school — who sent me to the library and the librarian. The librarian was someone I knew well, as I checked out a lot of books (more on that in another installment) — but up to that point I had no idea that a librarian could help you find answers to questions (remember, this was in the days before Google!). Our school’s librarian was a sweet little old lady (I can’t recall her name) who was, I think, very bored. She absolutely leapt on this chance to help with some research, and lickedy-split we had a stack of juvenile science books that discussed basic aerodynamics. For the next few days at home, I happily discovered things like Bernoulli’s law, drag vs. lift, and so on — and came away with at least a rough idea of why frisbees could fly so well. It took me a long time, I remember, to figure out that the rotation of a frisbee has little to do with its aerodynamics, but everything to do with its stability — but figure it out I did.

This was a very satisfying experience for me…the very first time I asked “why” or “how” about something in the world of technology or science, and was able to get the answer. It was the first example of many such experiences in my life, a major pattern, really, that continues to this day.

And all because my cousin threw a frisbee.


  1. In the old blog, Mike Dilatush said:
    Dear Tom, I remember that day well! You asked me how the frisbee worked and darned if I could tell you. I guess I lacked some of your curiosity but none of your joy in playing with it.Dad’s (he called it the idiot light)black ball facinated me for hours too, trying to guess whick light would come on next. My brother Dave took more to electronics because of that thing and now is a circuit designer for a high tech company that manufactures extreme flow controllers and impact devices that are way over my head.Some of my memories of that period are being up to my elbows in peat moss and tobacco stems “helping” your father plant holly seedling (cuttings?)and scaring the bejabbers out of your Uncle Don by speeding around the farm on his tractor with him hanging on for dear life.I miss the farm Tom, and now when I have occasional need to go down Rt. 30 I could cry at old memories going the way of “progress” (commercial development).Best to you and Deb, and thank you for the Blog. It brightens every morning.Cousin Mike

  2. Hi, Mike!

    I’m amazed that you can remember the frisbee affair — I must have been a real pain in the patoot!

    And I feel bad that I have no memories of you on the farm. I can only imagine how dour old Uncle Donald must have reacted to you tootling about on his tractor — he was sure good at those disapproving looks, wasn’t he?

    The farm… I confess that I am still in denial about its demise. The first time I drove by after they built the Interstate was shocking enough — but then that development behind it, Harry’s turning into some kind of big box, and finally the ultimate humiliation: becoming part of a Walmart complex — it’s too much for me. I much prefer my memories, and I now strive to avoid driving by…