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What happens when a bright kid plays around with electric equipment

When I was 12, a guy who was a ham radio operator moved in. My uncle had gotten me started on radio, but then he went off to the war–he worked in Britain on the radar project. Anyway, this guy had a background in electronics and he was willing to teach me what he knew. That was just as the war was ending, so there was all this war-surplus electronics on the market, dirt cheap. With the little bits of money that a kid could earn, I could buy piles of electronics, and try to figure out what they were and why they were that way and how I could modify them. That was how I got my start–you could afford to do experiments, because the stuff was so cheap. You could build up equipment and try things, just to see what happened.

Carver Mead, quantum physicist, as he later became. He helped drive some of the inventions of the modern age, such as hearing aids. His brief reflections on how and why he became interested in science make me wonder whether today’s schools are doing a very good job in the West of firing such enthusiasm. Or maybe I am being grumpy: why don’t commenters share their stories of how they got interested in a particular field?

31 comments to What happens when a bright kid plays around with electric equipment

  • Myno

    I started my adult working life as a physicist, got my piled higher and deeper in Information Theory, and spent most of my career as a software architect in Silicon Valley. Then I had the opportunity to re-read a series of young person novels I had inhaled as a young’un, the Rick Brant Science Adventure series, and (re)discovered a whole load of clues as to how I had become interested in all these topics I had ended up pursuing through life. Twas quite eye opening.

  • Roue le Jour

    I was building radios and amplifiers when I was 12 (1963), my dad taught me. Never made it to quantum physicist, though.

    As to whether schools can do anything, I think not. People like this are one in n, where n is a bigger number than a typical school role. I did know some other ‘resin heads’ but they were from all over. No two in the same school. I was always the only kid in the component shop. (We don’t have those anymore, either.)

    Also, I was growing up in the golden age of sci-fi, the real, hard stuff. You don’t see much of that around these days. Raymond Baxter’s Tomorrow’s World was obligatory viewing, after he left it became a kids programme.

  • That story reminds me of Richard Feynman, who was prone to blowing things up with electricity in his bedroom as a child.

    My father bought a series of home computers when I was small: Commodore Vic 20; Amstrad CPC 6128. I’m not sure why he bought them, other than to satisfy his own curiosity. I played some games, of course, including one called Blitz involving an aeroplane that flew across the screen getting lower, and you had to bomb the buildings before you crashed into them. And eventually Elite, the (recently rebooted) space trading game, which also served as an early introduction to electronics.

    I spent a lot of time playing with a program called DR Logo, which would draw patterns on the screen in response to simple programs. That was my first encounter with programming. Then I would make simple things in BASIC. At times typing in code from magazines, imagine that! And figuring out the rules and making my own things.

    I played text adventure games, and attempted to make my own, with varying degrees of success. I remember drawing maps on paper and figuring out little tables of which room lay in each direction, north, south, east or west, from each room.

    As a child I was always going to be an airline pilot, because I was fascinated by all the buttons and displays. I am definitely in the right job now, though. Airline pilots need to scrupulously follow procedure, and that does not fit my personality at all.

    I ended up doing embedded software because I had a very good electronics teacher at A-level, and chose a degree with a lot of electronics in it. I’ll certainly be encouraging my own children to play with electricity.

  • View from the Solent

    Maybe grumpy, maybe not, JP. The materials just aren’t so easily available nowadays with everything being micro-electronics. I built a crystal set back in the 50s – coil round a toilet roll inner with loops off for tuning, crystal & cat’s whisker, ex-MOD headphones. Learnt how to solder without burning my fingers or the surface I was working on. Nothing to do with school, I was just curious.

  • Paul Marks

    No you are not being grumpy J.P.

    There is a bias against hands-on technical education (and experiment) in most of the Western world.

    Even where there is not such a bias – Germany, there is a division between technical and academic education.

    That is better than, basically, having no technical education at all – as with Britain and the United States.

    But, I am told, once one is on the “hands-on” technical track in Germany, the academic physics is the track one is NOT on. And vice versa.

  • War surplus and my uncle was a ham operator. Didn’t hurt that my cousin owned “World Radio Labs”. Met my cousin in 2009 a year before he died (he was in a wheelchair with a nurse). Told him I had worked my way up to aerospace engineer. He beamed a million watt smile. One of the best days of my life.

  • Microchips are not hard. My eyes don’t work well and my hands shake and I can do this:


    Scroll down.

  • Bob Grahame

    I started by poking about in old radios (this is very late 60s, so old stuff was valve but transistor stuff was appearing). Then I got a subscription to “Everyday Electronics” magazine for my 12th birthday, started building radios, sound to light units, etc, and eventually a small computer. From then, a UK101, TRS-80, and a 30 year career in IT. Though that misses the wasted year doing chemistry at uni, and another two doing econometric modelling for a living (trying to predict Prestel uptake…), before finding out that they’d PAY me to play about with computers.

  • RogerC

    My own experience was similar to Rob Fisher’s, and from his comments about Tomorrow’s World I suspect we grew up at about the same time. Late enough for the first home computers to be on the market, early enough that electronics kits and chemistry sets were still popular Christmas presents (at least, they were with me). Almost everything useful that I know, I know because a pre-existing interest caused me to want to learn about it.

    However, I do feel that the school system has a lot to answer for. I remember how useless I was on leaving school and entering work, because school simply had not inculcated in me any useful skills or habits. After a year or two I was a useful employee, but as a school leaver I was a disaster. My school had not fitted me for work at all, my employer was forced to do that. Experience in my professional life has shown me that this is not at all an unusual case.

    After a few years in work I topped up my A-levels at night school and went to university. After my bachelor’s degree I stayed on and did some post-graduate research, a mistake in retrospect but it did give me the experience of teaching first and second year undergraduate students.

    I found there that the poorest students were those straight out of school, while the best were mature students who had had to survive in the real world for a while. School leavers did the bare minimum and if they didn’t understand something, tried to bluff it out by keeping their heads down and hoping they wouldn’t be called on it. School had taught them to blend in with the herd, to not stick their heads above the parapet. In contrast, mature students had long ago learned the lesson that what you don’t know will almost certainly come back to bite you eventually, and had no problems making it known when they didn’t grasp a concept or it seemed at odds with one they’d learned elsewhere, which often led to some fine discussions and helped everyone’s understanding. I knew it was going to be a particularly good class if I saw someone in their 50’s in the audience.

    So, school does not fit you for work, beyond the acquisition of basic numeracy and literacy, but it apparently does not fit you for higher education either. This makes me wonder what it’s good for. Since it’s purpose doesn’t seem to be to educate, indoctrination seems the only logical answer.

  • Libertarian

    Victim of public school here. I never really became interested in anything. So I take that as evidence that you are not being grumpy.

    (I was as interested in sailing as much as anything, but that can’t be linked to anything I was exposed to in school.)

  • Alex

    @RogerC it is my opinion that school no longer even provides most students with basic literacy and numeracy. Those who leave school with acceptable literacy and numeracy are those who come from a literate and numerate family and therefore already had plenty of access to such skills. Those who most need to be taught such skills at school are utterly neglected by the education system today.

  • Greg

    One of my brothers and I loved buying old tube radios at the local thrift shop and swapping bad tubes until we could get one to work. We had a shoe box full of old tubes and could test them down at the Safeway store a short bicycle ride away. If we were careful, we could get stations from San Franscisco at night (we lived in Portland). While not as skilled an activity as dissecting or building electronics that some here have reported doing at age 12 (kudos!), it was fun.

    That was grade school. I was fortunate enough to go to a (public!) high school that offered a 2-track system, perhaps a bit like the German system. One track was “trades” and one was “college prep”. But everyone took 8 different shop classes their first 2 years, then you decided which track you were on. Those 8 shop classes were wonderful, we got to build useful things. And watch movies showing metal shards being removed from eyes. This was the “safety culture” of the time. Of course, being 15 year old boys, we would heat up tools in welding class and leave them on the floor just before clean up time at the end of the period! I still have several ball peen hammers I made in machine shop, a tool box I made in sheet metal, but somehow lost the electronic gizmos I made.

    But the PhD statists who run our schools have now gutted that program. That school (Benson High School in Portland) is a shell of what it used to be.

    Early in my career, I had the good fortune to invent something that has actually made money (a new kind of mass spectrometer). My good fortune was being in the right group with instruments that others had set up. That invention happened in no small part because I was a postdoc at the time and had the freedom to “play” in the lab. It’s hard to write a proposal that includes dollars to allow for “play” and while it’s easy to simple slip that activity in as a “given”, I’d prefer addressing it directly with funding agencies; let them know that it’s important. But I don’t (it doesn’t work with any I’ve tried).

    I still think I might contribute more by being in the lab, by making observations, by learning how new mass spec components work, and figuring out new combinations and applications. But my employer believes I’m more valuable managing the younger set. And they may be right. Guiding these younger staff and trying to get them to play and invent is not a bad contribution.

    In my current job (“seasoned” researcher at a US national lab), I hire, or comment on the hiring of, lots of young staff. I’m now looking for physicists or physical chemists because the folks we’ve been hiring (analytical and other chemists, geochemists; I will NOT hire an “environmental chemist”, because I don’t know what that is), while good at what they do, are not as “hands on” and do not have as good a theoretical underpinning for how the instruments we use work and thus, how to improve them.

  • Roue le Jour

    I would like to add that when I was messing about with valves and transistors and ICs as they became available we experimenters weren’t that far from the leading edge. For the current generation that isn’t possible and inevitably takes some of the excitement out of it. To work with discrete components now would be like my generation playing with steam engines. The same would be true of software. A teenager now can’t build his (or her) own iPad or sweet 3D graphics engine whereas I could make a radio or HiFi as good as anything you could buy and when microcomputers first came out only the home brew people had one at all. I could look at the circuit diagram of the Apple ][ and see how Woz had saved a gate here and a gate there and eventually a whole chip. Neat. But back then we were looking at a fairly shallow learning curve, now, fifty years later, it’s a daunting cliff face.

  • When I was young, oh, say, 1946, I read everything. (In first grade I went through all the readers, then the readers for second, third, and fourth grades. After that, the teacher stopped me reading stuff I wasn’t – ready – for. But there was Tom Swift, and books by John W. Campbell and Doc Smith, and my father had quite a library of mysteries …

    Basically, I read and dabbled. Did a bit of everything. Somehow ended up with a PhD in nuclear physics (though by that point I’d decided I liked computer programming better). Ran away and joined the museum world, and spent my last quarter-century of employment as a museum curator. Now as I’m retired, I’ve written a murder mystery – and somebody else published it, not me! And I read. It all comes back to reading.

    I blame Tom Swift.

  • I haven’t been a public school inmate since the 1980s, but at the time public schools were very good at killing enthusiasm, certainly not at firing it. It sounds like it’s been that way for a while, too–notice that Carver Mead was writing about his uncle, not his school.

  • patriarchal landmine

    he’s male.

    so yea, schools aren’t trying to encourage young people like him.

  • lucklucky

    Public Schools and not so Public Schools – the school culture is more or less the same – exist to create equality.
    Not for students to propel their capabilities, specially the more capable ones.
    A student going faster than the school is obviously going against the school.

    I go further than Ken Hagler, i went to an Architecture University and lost the drawing pleasure for a couple years.

  • Russ in TX

    “I’ve seen things you people here wouldn’t believe
    attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion
    I watched C-beams glitter in the night near the Tannhauser Gate
    All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

    Thus I became an historian.

  • Greg
    January 12, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    I’m looking for a physicist too. I have a little more leeway. Doesn’t have to be a US national. Only needs good English. Need not live in the US (for now). Hands on preferred but not essential.

  • William Newman

    “But back then we were looking at a fairly shallow learning curve, now, fifty years later, it’s a daunting cliff face.”

    On the other hand, it’s quite impressive what can be done with cheap parts and free software these days. Yes, the easy-to-prototype parts (not just discrete components, but things DIP integrated circuits) are 10+ years out of date, and yes cheap low-power single-board computers are at least a hundred times slower than the ones Google uses for self driving cars. But they are very powerful and very cheap nonetheless. We have a fairly active robotics group here in the Dallas area, and it’s impressive what can be built for hundreds of dollars; and if you wanted to scrounge and spend only dozens of dollars, it could still be impressive. Old-time electronics hobbyists used to spend a lot of money to build things like voice or even video amateur radio gear, or model train sets with behavior that seemed impressively complicated back in the day; today a hobbyist can spend rather less to build things like ad hoc wireless networks or self-balancing 2-wheel autonomous robots.

  • Barry Sheridan

    Some enjoyable memories. Thanks to all.
    My schooling ended in the mid 60’s so was able to read and write and do some maths. The real learning came later via no end of courses and projects. Built an electronic ignition system for my car during an era when I tackled a Microtrol radio control setup, a Linsey Hood design stereo amplifier (very sensitive to mains borne interference) and even an FM tuner. Good days when my father in law helped me out when I got stuck. Those days had plenty of chances for the dabbler, today there are less chances. Used to read Wireless World that kept one up with the changes, all got so small it’s hard to even see the circuitry now. Sad really.

  • Mr Ed

    Rather OT but Raymond Baxter fans who like aviation and the Cold War may enjoy this programme called Skywatch from 1974, filmed 21st June to show the capabilities of the RAF, proper reality TV, basically a live-for-TV exercised narrated by Raymond Baxter, himself a former Spitfire pilot.

  • Snorri Godhi

    The story that i like to tell is as follows:
    I was not yet 10yo when i decided to be a jaguar tamer.
    I opted for jaguars because lion tamers seemed to be a dime a dozen, and tiger tamers were not unusual either: i spotted a gap in the market.
    I told my uncle of my decision, and he said that he’ll buy me a whip and then i can go straight into the jaguar’s cage.
    At that point i decided to work my way towards jaguar taming:
    The best way to start seemed to be ethology.
    Unfortunately, instead of working my way towards jaguar taming, i moved away from it: from ethology to neuroscience (after barely a year in university) and on to AI.

    There is more truth in the above than in many NY Times articles: basically the only thing that i made up is that my interest in ethology grew when i had already forgotten about jaguar taming. What made me interested in ethology were Konrad Lorenz’s popular books. The Sherlock Holmes stories, and a a very basic introduction to British empiricist philosophy, were also important in making me interested in science generally. A very different start from Mead’s and Feynman’s, i guess.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Would never be allowed these days – ‘Elf n’safety would see to that.

  • rxc

    I had a chemistry set with all sorts of chemicals that I believe are forbidden to non-college-age pupils. Maybe even until post-graduate level. Better to teach them the hazards of evil chemicals with nice pictures and propaganda than have them actually do a chemical experiment.

  • Roue le Jour


    As a kid I built 250v power supplies for my valve projects, luckily electronics doesn’t need those kinds of voltages any more. Anyway, the Victorians thought electric shocks were good for you.

    Mr. Ed,

    As an unashamed Raymond Baxter fan that was on topic for me, at least. I also got the feeling that what I was enjoying there was exactly what our enemies wish to destroy.

  • Richard Thomas

    RogerC, my experience exactly.

    I’m not sure exactly what drove me but I know for sure that the 8-bit computers in stores such as WHSmith sure gave a boost to my drive to computers until finally I had a ZX81 of my own.

    I won’t say school was useless. Mine wasn’t bad and certainly gave a reasonable grounding in maths and science (which was useful) but was completely inadequate for computing.

  • Richard Thomas

    M Simon, how about someone who used to physics once upon a time? 🙂

  • Dale Amon

    I was disassembling old TV’s and radios and using the parts for projects when I was 13 and 14.

  • Today’s tubes are open source and low cost commercial modules that can be lashed together without much electrical engineering know how to create all sorts of new real world applications. This was built mostly on a weekend for $80 to force Microsoft and other manufacturers to beef up their wireless security:

    This sort of electronic hunter-gathering is only going to accelerate as 3D printing becomes more mainstream. While the tools change, the innate curiosity to explore and employ them should be strongly fostered.

  • Hmmm, the link didnt come through in my comment. Here it is:

    USB Keystroke Logger