Story Telling – Electronics and the Snake in the Can

One of my kids’ favorite activities when we have new visitors over for dinner is to try and get me telling stories.  I’ve told many of these stories so many times that the kids like to start to tell them on their own if I don’t comply with their requests.  I imagine some of these stories are among the things they will take with them long after I am gone, but to ensure that they are correct (according to my flawed memory), I’ve decided to write several of the more popular ones down.   These stories are true to the best of my ability to remember them.  It’s possible that some of the memories have been contaminated or that my role in them has been exaggerated, but any of these types of artifacts are purely unintentional.   Unfortunately, some of the names are gone from me forever, so if I leave one out, it’s either out of respect or simply because I can’t remember anymore.

The Snake in the Can

You might say I had a non-traditional upbringing in many senses.  My parents seemed to believe that kids should explore their environment and follow their curiosity without substantial interference beyond subtle suggestions and gentle manipulation.  While other kids were playing little league soccer and baseball, I was wandering the streets collecting junk to see if I could fix it.  When normal kids were watching sports on the TV, I was taking broken TVs apart to see if I could figure out how how they worked.  From lawnmowers and motorcycles to trucks, TVs, and stereos, I was constantly taking apart, figuring out, and reassembling anything I could get my hands on.

One outcome of that kind of freedom was a love for electronics.  My next door neighbor Mikey, my brother Tolon, and I all had a great deal of fun dismantling junk garage door openers, computers, and any other electronics we could find for free on the curb or for a few dollars at the local thrift store.  As time wore on and we became more adept at dismantling stuff, we started to experiment with some of the components we found inside.  One incident in particular stands out as a prominent story…  Mikey’s dad installed garage door openers for a living and would generally bring the old ones he took out home to scrap for copper and steel.  One afternoon, we were doing our best to pull parts out of one of these openers and had succeeded in pulling several capacitors and a transformer off of a circuit board, stringing them together to form a “circuit.”  Not knowing what they were, how they worked, or much more than the concept that if you made a “circuit” and plugged it in the circuit was supposed to do something, we decided to try the experiment.  Tolon and Mikey took the pile of wires and other things and plugged it into a switched outlet while Tolon went inside to turn on the switch.

We wanted to see the “circuit” do something, and weren’t disappointed.  As I would later find out, we had connected a small electrolytic capacitor directly to 120V AC.  These particular devices don’t react well to either AC or high voltages, and we exposed this one to both with the end result being a loud bang and a cloud of smoke.  Tolon, who had been inside to flip the switch, ran out believing he had killed Mikey only to find a large scorch mark on the driveway that remained visible until after I had grown and moved away.  Mikey, for his part, was stunned.  Mikey’s dad was probably curious why the breaker tripped and how the mark had come to be on the driveway, but never made a big deal about it to my knowledge.

We were continuously doing something with junk, but managed to progress from dismantling with a hammer and rocks to carefully pulling components, building custom circuit boards, and designing/building light sequencers, sirens, and anything else for which we could find schematics.  Why and how my mother and Mikey’s mother could stand to put up with all that junk and constant fire hazard is a mystery to me, but I’m grateful for it.  These early experiences started an interest that ultimately set the course of my professional life.  One of the earliest impacts of this “freestyle education” was that I opted to follow these interests in High School and delved into science and technology with particular focus on electronics.

My electronics classes, and more specifically the patient, kind, and supportive teacher — Ralph Dammann — gave me the latitude and focus to delve into the topic where I found applications for math and physics and an outlet for my creative energy.  With that focus, combined with the fact I had begun working part-time after work and didn’t have time to screw around any more, I managed pulled my grades up from mediocre to stellar almost overnight.   In addition to the academic benefits, I had great fun with the projects Mr Dammann had for us to build.

Among the many things that beeped, squeaked, or did something funny was my personal favorite and the one that resulted in the most entertainment — the snake can.  This particular project was quite simple, consisting of a step-down transformer, a mercury tilt switch, a 9V battery, some electrical tape, and a small metal film canister.  The primary leads of the transformer were connected to the lid and base of the film canister, and a line of electrical tape was put around the rim to insulate between the two.  The 9V battery was connected through the tilt switch to the secondary windings on the transformer.  When the can was sitting level, the tilt switch was open and no current was flowing – nothing happened.  Pick it up, however, and the tilt switch would momentarily close, sending a pulse of electricity to the can which the transformer stepped up to about 240V.  Courtesy of the way the thing was built, there was no risk of real harm because the current was basically limited to below harmful levels.

This was our snake can.  Just like the cans in cartoons, ours had a fake snake inside waiting to surprise you.  Unlike the cartoons, though, our snake didn’t run on springs, was invisible, and bit… hard!  Outwardly, the can was completely innocuous.  Inwardly, it was diabolical.  It wasn’t long before the can had several dents and dings in it where an otherwise manly, strong, and unsuspecting victim had dropped it suddenly with a womanly scream or screech.

Perhaps the most entertaining interaction with the can came in Seminary.  Our teacher, Brother Dunford, was a biology student at the local university and was running late one day.  I had brought the snake to class and had surprised a few people in the room with it while we were waiting for the teacher to come in.  Since there weren’t any unsuspecting victims left, I decided to leave the can on the podium for the teacher to find.  However, that plan was modified some when the teacher next-door came in to check on us.

Brother Sanders, the teacher next door,  had been told we were unsupervised and had come over to see what kind of trouble we were causing.  In spite of the fact that he taught religion for a living, he was probably one of the most funny, animated and dramatic people I’d ever known.  “Brother Sanders,” I said, “Brother Dunford left that can on the podium.  We think it’s some kind of gross biology object lesson.  Will you go see what it is?”

Brother Sanders knew we were full of crap since he’d come over to check on us knowing Brother Dunford hadn’t been there yet.  He knew something was up, but was glad to oblige us with some of his antics.  He crept slowly to the podium…  circled it slowly, closely inspecting the foreign object… he pulled out his keys and tapped it before jumping backwards… etc…  The entire room, knowing how this was going to end, was roaring with laughter.  The laughter reinforced the dramatic showing, the two feeding on each other for a few minutes before Brother Sanders finally decided enough was enough and picked up the can.

Immediately, he shrieked like a little girl who had been stung by a wasp, jumped about three feet in the air, and threw the can about half-way across the room.  The effect on the crowd was as expected.  We were rolling on the floor, and nearly everyone was tearing up with laughter.  In fact, I was beginning to wonder how much trouble I was going to be in since everyone in the building was sure to hear the ruckus in our room.  I decided it was time to calm things down and fess up.  When Bro. Sanders had finally collected himself and the roar died down enough for him to speak, he asked who’s the thing was.  I answered that it was mine — ready to accept my fate.  I explained how to hold it without getting shocked, and he ran out of the room with it, headed for the principal’s office.

Rather than the stern voice I expected to come at me from that direction, I heard another scream, then two people gigging as they headed for another classroom.  Then another shriek followed by three giggles crossing to another room and another shriek.  The snake was getting lots of exercise.  For several days I wondered if I would ever get my little can of goodness back.  After almost a week it was brought back to me looking rather battered and bent, and handed off with the explanation that it didn’t work anymore and that I shouldn’t bring things like that to school.   It turns out that even after the beating it took, the only necessary repair was a new battery which had been exhausted by the “responsible adults” in my school who passed it from one to another until it quit working.

I’ve long since forgotten what happened to that little treasure of an electronics project —  I assume it finally broke in such a way that it wasn’t worth repairing and I threw it away — but I will never forget the reactions that it garnered.  While I didn’t necessarily fully understand how it worked, the very visual and visceral reaction it created in people who were unfortunate enough to encounter it did prod me to wonder about the fundamentals that made it work.  That wonder, followed up by study and experimentation, led from one thing to another to make me who I am.  It’s funny how small things add up to be monumental in the grand scheme of things.

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