My experiences as a teenager building simple do-it-yourself automobile and radio electronics projects found in some volumes of "The Boy Mechanic" published between 1910 and 1915 and how it has affected my view of work.
Even though I do not have much time for it now, I have always had an abiding interest in almost any DIY electronics project. One of my favorite pastimes during what little free time I have available, is to use Google’s Video search capabilities to look for a variety of DIY electronics videos on You Tube and elsewhere on the Web.
Other than a period in the mid to late 1970s after the introduction of the first 8-bit CISC controllers from Intel and later Motorola and Signetics, my most active period of DIY “electronics” activity was much earlier - in my early teen years just before high school - during time spent on one of several family farms in Oklahoma where I was sent during summers to learn the value of hard work.
One summer I was on a farm in a rather isolated part of the state with a minimal amount of television reception and only slightly better AM/FM radio. In what little free time I had available after completion between the many manual chores assigned to me around the farm I was bored out of my mind. Then I found a treasure trove of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines collected by my uncle out in a work area in the barn.
While reading the articles occupied my time, most of the how-to projects they included were beyond a teenager’s budget and all would have taken more personal time than I had to myself after ten hour dawn to dusk work days. Then I discovered deep in the stacks of magazines four volumes of “The Boy Mechanic: A book that tells how to make things,” published between 1910 and 1915 by Popular Mechanics Press.
Written for what then was still primarily a rural readership living on farms and in isolated villages, the volumes contain hundreds of tips on how to build a variety of devices and systems that 50 years later we take for granted and which can easily be purchased at a local store. At the time of the volumes were published they provided a real service by providing guidelines to building many of the appliances that we now take for granted.
The volumes also had dozens of projects relating to the high technologies of the day: aeronautics, radio transmitters and receivers and automobiles. One volume had instructions on how to build dozens of different types of model airplane gliders and even a detailed guide to building a full size version of one of the Wright Brother's early unpowered gliders. Another volume had the complete instructions on how to build a working version of their first engine powered airplane.
But what caught my attention initially were the dozens of how to projects on things to do to keep a Model T Ford working, which between 1910-1915 was THE automobile of choice. Half a century later, those tips were invaluable because at the time my cousin and I were responsible for distributing fresh produce, and dairy products to surrounding small towns throughout rural Oklahoma.
The vehicle we depended on was a Model T Ford. He had inherited from my uncle, who had in turn inherited it from his father. It was a constant day to day effort to keep the Model T in good enough working condition for delivery of fresh farm products each week. So my initial DIY efforts involved following the Boy Mechanic instructions on such projects as:
Priming the auto engine
A switch to brighten auto headlights
An auto theft alarm
Preventing corrosion of battery terminals
Removing carbon from auto engine valves
Using clothing cuff links as spark plug terminals
A simple emergency electrical-resistance coil
Testing the electrolyte levels in auto batteries
Building an oscillation transformer
Starting a car with a shorted ignition
Individually each project was pretty simple and had the benefit of helping my cousin and I keep the Model T working. It also gave me the confidence to take on even bigger and more ambitions radio electronics projects, including:
Building an adjustable bridging condenser
Making high frequency Tesla coils
A concealed loop aerial
Winding hollow wireless coils
By the end of the summer I was ready to start on my most ambitious project yet: a simple radio receiver capable of picking up signals from radio transmissions up to 250 miles away, enough to hear broadcasts from stations in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City and sometimes as far away as Austin, Texas.
The reason I took on DIY projects from these circa 1910-1915 volumes rather than those in much more recent Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines was simple: cost and availability. Where the most recent magazines had projects that often involved purchasing a lot of components, the Boy Mechanic volumes offered the possibility of building things based on the odds and ends of components that are available on any working farm.
Here’s the parts list for the radio receiver I built – most of the components of which I found in various work spaces on the farm, or through trading, from nearby farms: 1 variable condenser, 1 grid condenser, 1 UV-200 detector vacuum tube, 1 tube socket, 4 binding posts, 2 angle irons, 1 bakelite panel, 1 variocoupler, 2 switch levers, 12 contact points, a 22.5 volt B-battery, a six volt 40/60 ampere storage battery, and one pair of 2,000 ohm radio headphones.
By the end of a long grueling summer full of manual labor, I managed to get the receiver up and working once. By that time, though, I was preparing to return to California to attend school.
Did the summer provide me with an appreciation of the value of hard work? Sort of.
Hard work of the manual kind has no redeeming features. It is something to be endured and accomplished as quickly as possible. If it is repetitive and mindless, hard work of any sort, manual, mental, or clerical, is also something to be endured.
But my DIY electronics projects did change my view of "hard work" and my attitude toward it. On these various simple DIY electronics projects, I regularly spent many hours working into the night to finish them, often at the cost of not enough sleep nor enough energy to make my way though the chores for which I was responsible on the farm during the day.
What I learned is that hard work is not hard if what you are doing is interesting, intellectually compelling and creative. That insight about myself is one that I carry with me as an adult and provides the motivation drives me in every aspect of my work life.
Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also editor of the twice-a-week Embedded.com newsletters as well as a partner in the TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 928-525-9087.
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