Posted 25 February 2016
At the house I grew up in, there was a shelf in the dining room with a toaster on it.
I’m not sure how old I was, somewhere around 8 I’d guess, when I noticed that the wire from the wall outlet to the toaster was actually two separate wires.
This didn’t make sense to me. The power came out from the wall socket and flowed into the toaster. Why have two wires? I wanted an explanation.
This marked the start of a long period of my parents — principally my dad — being challenged by my questions. He took me to the stores that had the electronics supplies I wanted, and spent money he probably didn’t have to support my projects.
By the time I was about 12, my dad took me to sales of surplus equipment that was available only to people connected to the schools, as he was. It was all sold by the pound!
I got all sorts of equipment, generally non-functional at least in my hands, which I disassembled into its parts. I still have some of those parts.
The Lone Repairman
I remember taking our TV to a local repair shop, which was in fact the garage behind someone’s house. To me, his TV repair shop looked the ideal workplace.
I said something like that to my father, and he responded unusually sharply, that I can be much more than that, a degreed engineer with a job in a big company.
My passion for all things electronic drove me all through my teenage years, and then to UC Berkeley, where I got my BSEE in 1977. My preference remained for running my own small companies. My father’s ambitions for me helped ensure that I got a degree, but ultimately being in a big company was not where I wanted to be.
From Analog to Digital
By the time I was in college, the hot topic was not television but computers. This turned out to suit me well, because I was tired of spending years learning advanced math so I could apply it to analog electronics. The true and false, one and zero, and AND and OR of digital electronics made perfect sense to me.
I never did really come to understand how radios and TVs worked. At Berkeley, those were subjects too practical for discussion at the university.
Into the Working World
My first job out of college was working for Hewlett-Packard, back when it was all one company. I helped design a training computer for technicians and wrote the self-instructional manual that went with it.
Within a couple of years, however, I had consulting clients on the side, and that itch — part entrepreneurial, part independent — led me to leave HP after three years.
My insatiable curiosity, desire to be independent, and fascination with making things have continued to shape my life.
It was 1980 when I left HP, and the 35+ years after that will have to wait for future articles.