Circuits

When I was ten years old, my father gave me this electronic projects kit as a gift. That same evening, we spent a few hours tinkering with it as he explained the different types of electronic components in terms I could understand and helped me learn to solder them together into the different projects the kit was designed to provide. My favorite was one of the oldest and most simple circuits: an AM crystal radio receiver. When I soldered in the final component and applied power to it, Dad put the bakelite headphones over my ears and showed me how to slide a contact arm over the wire coil to tune across frequencies of the AM band until I found a station.

I soon landed on a strong signal of the town's own local AM station located just two blocks away down the street and I imagine my face lit up when the signal came through because a broad smile spread across my father's face when it happened. I could see he was happy that we had accomplished the little project together and he said something he frequently told me over the decades: "You can do anything you set your mind to."


I kept the kit for several years until it disappeared when we moved to the pig farm in rural Illinois. Mom probably decided it was time to get rid of it as she did sometimes while sorting and packing accumulated stuff each time we moved. I had grown bored with it until the fourth year I had it and began wanting to do something more than the projects it described in the little booklet that came with it. An opportunity to do something new with it arose in the winter of 1969.


Staggering to the kitchen one morning for breakfast, I noticed this book on the desk in my father's office. I thumbed through it wondering how much different transistor circuits were from the tube-driven circuits I had been building with the electronics kit that was now almost a half-decade old. I had been hearing about transistors for a good while and how much better they were than tubes, and a lot cheaper too. I had recently burned out a tube in the kit and was saving for a replacement after finally finding a TV repair shop willing to sell me one, but it wasn't cheap.


In the book I found a project that interested me–a transistor amplifier. I hastily wrote down the transistor part numbers as Mom yelled at me to get my butt to the table for breakfast. It was a Saturday so I rode my bike over to the TV repair shop and asked if they had the transistors in stock. They did and I had enough money to buy the ones I needed. I rushed home and began studying the schematic for the amplifier in earnest to understand how I could put it together on the old electronics kit framework instead of the breadboard I didn't have the money to buy along with the transistors. As I studied it, I could see it would be possible to put together on the old kit and started in on it the following week in Mr. Lewis' Arts & Crafts class at school. It was the only class I enjoyed that year and Mr. Lewis was very patient with me as I struggled over several weeks to get the circuit working.


It was a struggle because I didn't understand the importance of grounding a circuit to allow electrons to flow through it. I knew that the symbol on the schematic stood for ground but I didn't think it was necessary and just ignored it, thinking the most important thing was getting all of the components soldered into their proper places and orientations in the circuit instead.

After meticulously assembling the circuit as describe by the schematic in Dad's book, it just wouldn't work. I used Dad's little, black DC volt meter to make sure I hadn't burned out any of the components while soldering them onto the framework of the kit–especially the transistors–but they all checked out okay. Then one day while working on it in Mr. Lewis' class, I was tinkering around with it, accidentally grounded the circuit and immediately heard the racket of the classroom through the bakelite headset as it was picked up in the bakelite biscuit mike and amplified into them. My heart jumped a beat or two as I gasped and twisted the volume pot to make sure I wasn't imagining what I was hearing. To my delight, the sound of the noisy classroom full of kids working on their different Arts & Crafts projects ramped up and down as I turned the pot.


I leaped up from my cramped little desk and yelled "IT WORKS!".


All of my classmates stopped what they were doing to look at me as I stood there wearing the bakelite headphones, gripping the biscuit mike in my right hand with the biggest (probably dumbest-looking) grin I imagine I've ever had on my face. I was the only kid in the class working on an electronics project and most of them thought I was nuts for spending all of my time on it. I had started thinking they might me right about that. Mr. Lewis laughed heartily at my outburst, came over to have a listen, congratulated me on my success and perseverance, stating that he wondered if I would ever get it functioning after so many weeks doggedly working on it. There was no credit or grades granted for Mr. Lewis' class at that parish school in 1969 but it was his class that I learned the most useful stuff in that year.


A small victory, but the first of many significant ones achieved in life simply because I set my mind to them.