An engineer remembers the good old days running experiments on his siblings
Looking back on it, although I certainly didn't think so at the time,
maybe my five siblings had a point when they complained about some of
things I put them through.
For instance, after trying to get the longest possible spark out of my
hand-cranked van de Graaff generator (a couple of inches through the
air!), I enlisted my siblings and most of the neighborhood's supply of
children to see how many people could simultaneously feel the shock. I
got them to all hold hands in a line while the child on one end touched
an earth ground and the child at the other end held a metal bar close
enough to the van de Graaff generator to draw a nice long arc. Results?
All 20 kids got shocked. Some of them didn't seem to enjoy the
experience and tried to express their displeasure by attacking me. No
appreciation for science. Made me appreciate what Galileo must have
gone through. Coincidentally, my supply of volunteers dwindled after
As a child, I used to sleep on the bottom bunk and my brother was in
the top one. He used to dangle his arm over the side while sleeping.
Very foolish. Immediately brought a question to mind that needed
answering: would my van de Graaff generator find his fingertip
electrically enticing even if he's not grounded? Answer: yes. And once
again, no commitment to science -- he told Mom on me.
My brother and I used to fly Estes model rockets. And rockets are fun,
but they're only the start of what you can do with those little rocket
engines. We couldn't afford the big ones that would have turned Barbie
into Rocket Girl, but fortunately those little green plastic Army men
(like the ones in Toy Story) volunteered for the hazardous missions. We
quickly discovered why rockets should have fins at the back, because
the little Army men happened not to have any, and they were uniformly
chaotic about directionality. In fact, they traveled quite a long
distance per flight, but usually all within a cubic volume about 5
My sisters liked Barbie dolls. I did too -- they were a good size to
use as test pilots in the Erector set airplanes and spaceships I was
making. Unfortunately, in the unmodified state, Barbies were too big to
easily use as a parachutist, but once you jettison the non-essentials
like clothing and legs, they worked very well until their owners
happened to witness the research and retroactively disapproved of the
mods. After that, science was stymied again as they stormed off.
Luckily, plan B was intact: the backup parachutist, Barbie's little
sister Skipper, was retrieved from a secret stash. Back in business.
Yes, my siblings still speak to me. Can’t quite figure out why, though.
Bob Colwell was Intel’s chief x86 architect in
the 1990s and has worked as a computer designer at VLIW pioneer
Multiflow, Perq Systems, and Bell Labs. Author of The Pentium
and the At Random column in Computer Magazine 2002-2005. He is
currently an independent consultant.