My first memory of being interested in science was when I was ten years old, in grade six in Penticton (in Ottawa I’d done grades 3 and 4 in one year).
Also my first experience with failure.
I was sitting in the classroom during a break reading a book on atoms (neutrons, protons, electrons, pretty simple stuff). My grade six teacher, Mr Morris, came by and was intrigued. Perhaps he was skeptical that this little kid understood atomic physics. Anyway, he spotted a term on the page, and asked me, “what’s an isotope?” I hadn’t reached that yet so to my intense embarrassment I had to say, “I don’t know”.
To this day I kick myself for missing an opportunity to impress my favorite teacher.
This was my first frustrating experience but far from my last.
I eventually mastered isotopes and next year when I got to junior high I moved on to chemistry. Penticton High School had a good school library with books more advanced than required by the courses taught. I found a thick one on chemistry and studied it from cover to cover. It was a good book and explained everything, though if course it was 1950’s (or earlier) chemistry.
Naturally I got a chemistry set – my parents were very supportive of my interest in science. Chemistry sets nowadays are pretty uninteresting for safety reasons. But in those days you had fascinating powders like potassium permanganate (which turns purple in water) and sodium ferrocyanide (which sounds scary).
Initially I mixed chemicals to see precipitates form, some of which were spectacular. When I was done I dumped them in a jar, whose content got stranger and stranger. At one point a very hardy mold started growing on the surface.
My incompetence in chemistry was literally broadcast over the Okanagan. I was part of a team that went to Kelowna up the lake to take part in “Reach for the Top”, a TV quiz show that pitted teams from high schools against each other. They briefly interviewed team members and the host asked me what my hobby was. “Chemistry – I have a chemistry set”. “What do you make?” “Junk, mainly.” The host moved on to the next contestant.
(Even Reach for the Top was frustrating. Pen High did well on this first outing and when we came back we were doing well again until they started asking about Federal cabinet ministers. “Who is the minister of finance?” etc. One gal on the opposing team had obviously memorized them all and that was the end of my and Pen High’s TV career. At the beginning of next week’s Reach for the Top they issued a kind of apology).
Eventually it dawned on me that doing chemistry seriously involved measuring: weighing reagents and so on. This didn’t seem like much fun so I moved on …
… to explosives. I learned about gunpowder, got saltpeter at a drugstore (potassium nitrate), ground charcoal and made sulfur. However my gunpowder flared but didn’t explode, not sure why. I was frustrated again but after all pretty lucky.
The chemistry book had a companion book about physics but I never got into it. Newton’s laws? Yawn.
My dad had one of those popular paperbacks about quantum physics but it made no sense. I loved math books because they explained things. This physics book (and so many like it) delighted in presenting phenomena like entanglement and superposition as impenetrable mysteries. As is still the case, the double slit experiment was a favourite.
This book insisted that I would never understand quantum phenomena. I was frustrated but conceded the point.
I was also curious about relativity, but again the explanations didn’t make a lot of sense. What caused the twin that traveled to age slower? Any more detailed explanations required these annoying frames of reference. As for general relativity, you needed tensors, which I still find frustrating. I decided to give modern physics a miss.
Math was next up. I don’t remember how I got interested in math but I was lucky and got hold of the book “What is Mathematics?” by Courant and Robbins. A truly excellent book which I still recommend.
I made rapid progress in math mainly because I was fascinated, and also worked obsessively at it. Some young people spend endless hours in their room practicing guitar. I practiced math.
I also found some good tutorial books on calculus in the town library. It’s crazy that young people don’t get calculus till university, it’s not rocket science. Our traditional age segregated learn-by-stages educational system is a recipe for boredom and … frustration.
I was absolutely fascinated by the power series formulas derived by calculus could be used to do numerical calculations of trigonometric functions, exponentials, logarithms and the like. Some of them converge very quickly and only a few terms are enough to get accurate results.
This sounds weird but I got great satisfaction doing these computations by hand. It was like magic.
However i got more ambitious and decided I needed mechanical assistance – to my regret. Remember, in those days there were no pocket calculators. However there were calculators, and my dad had access to them. He was the director of the Okanagan branch of the tax office, and they had Friden calculators.
Friden’s were electromechanical and looked like big heavy typewriters. They had nine decimal digits and could add, subtract multiply and (and this was a site to see) divide. They were dream machines.
I persuaded my dad to bring one home for the weekend and I sat down happily computing e, pi, square roots and logarithms. But I was also a normal kid and combined computation with watching Saturday cartoons. At one point I got distracted by Bugs Bunny and pressed the wrong key.
The Friden jammed. Faceplant.
Nothing could unjam it and my poor dad had to return it on Monday in nonworking condition. He wasn’t in trouble because he was the boss, but it must have been embarrassing.
As it turned out it wasn’t a big deal. The operators said it happens all the time and gave it a whack on the side. That freed it up. If only I’d thought of that.
I knew kids who could collect old electronic parts and assemble a working radio. So I decided to try my hand. I got a diode (vacuum tube) and a transformer and some resistors etc and put together a power supply. When I turned it on the diode gave out a green flash and died. I decided I wasn’t cut out for electronics.
On a trip back to Winnipeg my cousin Don gave me some old microphones that he collected from old fashioned farm phones that had been uninstalled. When I got back to Penticton I decided to make an intercom with my friend Lloyd who lived across the lane.
I decided to to it properly. I got two small planks of wood, attached the components and made terminals with nails and soldered all the connections. We strung a wire across the lane and got installed in our bedrooms. We lifted the microphones and began talking.
Nothing. Couldn’t hear a thing. Complete mystery.
It took a while to figure it out. Trying to help, my Mom had given me “Liquid Solder” to make the wiring easier. Unfortunately Liquid Solder was plastic and didn’t conduct electricity. The Boy Wonder faceplants again.
My folks got a subscription to Scientific American, which I devoured every month. It had frequent articles about computers, which in those days were big expensive mainframes. The closest computer was at UBC in Vancouver, and later I would get to know it well.
If you like Friden calculators you’ll love computers, and I did. On one family trip to Vancouver we went to a sort of public exposition about the UBC computer – they had a line printer in a classroom connected to the mainframe. I can’t remember what they did with the computer but they let me take some fanfold output as a souvenir.
I especially loved Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column. In one he described a way of simulating a machine that learns to play hexapawn. It used match boxes with tokens inside. I quickly assembled a dozen or so match boxes and started training the simulated computer. Sure enough, it got better and eventually beat me.
About this time I learned about Boolean logic and gates and switches. I couldn’t build gates, that needed electronics, but I could build switches with wood, nails and bare copper wire. In fact multiple pole double throw switches.
I worked out various circuits on paper and was able to do binary addition with triple pole double throw switches. So far so good.
A plan started emerging. I would build a machine using switching technology. A machine to play not hexapawn, but tictactoe. Not a learning machine, but a perfect player.
I started right away. I should have done some feasibility tests but I was young and naive.
I began by drawing the switching circuits. This was not easy, because I had switches but not gates. There was a circuit for each of the nine positions. When the corresponding light turned on, the corresponding move was recommended.
The machine had 18 multiple pole double throw switches, nine for X and nine for O. You were X and indicated your move by throwing an X switch. The light indicated the machine’s move as O, but you had to throw the corresponding switch for it.
I don’t remember my strategy for designing the circuit. Presumably it made winning moves if possible, blocking moves if necessary, otherwise clever moves. In particular I don’t remember how I stopped multiple lights from going on — for example, when there was both a winning move and a blocking move possible. Easy if you have gates, not so easy with just switches.
The circuit was several pages even with the restriction that X play their first move in the upper right hand corner.
Then came the wiring. My best friend Mike Barrett came over with his soldering gun and we connected many dozens of wires to the terminals of the switches, which took the form of nails sticking through plywood. We somehow translated the switching circuit into paths connecting one nail to the next. I’m pretty sure we got it all right.
Finally, and only then, did we start trying it out. And got a very unpleasant surprise. It failed intermittently. We’d throw the switches and no light would go on. Sometimes.
We checked the diagram and the wiring but everything was OK. The switches, which were super simple, didn’t work reliably.
Eventually we found out that metal surfaces accumulate oxides that don’t conduct electricity. So it’s possible that a bare copper wire could be pressed against an iron nail without making an electrical connection. We were stumped.
There was a promising development. My uncle Bill Haney visited us from Ottawa, where he was high up in NRC.
Uncle Bill was an electrical engineer and I said, uncle Bill, want to see my tictactoe computer? “Sure” … God knows what he expected.
So I disappear into the basement and emerge hauling this big contraption made from wood, nails, and copper wire. He was astounded.
I explained the problem and he told me about the oxides. He suggested using a 90-volt battery and explained it as using a high speed drill.
I tried that but it didn’t work reliably. I abandoned the project. Chalk up another triumph for the Boy Wonder.
After the tictactoe machine fiasco my luck – or skills – started to improve. Things started to work.
I convinced my folks to let me have sulfuric acid for my chemistry experiments and promised to be careful. I was, and there were no accidents.
My goal: hydrogen. All I needed was Zinc.
I made a tour of various plumbing shops and finally two guys got a chunk of zinc for this crazy kid. I sawed pieces off, poured sulfuric acid over them in a flask, and up came bubbles of pure hydrogen. I constructed a sort of pressurizing system and before you knew it, I was inflating hydrogen balloons. That actually floated.
I got a great kick of releasing them and watching them float off to the horizon. Once at night I did something crazy, I hung a lit candle from a balloon. What a fire hazard. Mike Barrett insists that the RCMP came by to investigate but I don’t remember that … Boy Wonder, criminal firebug.
Needless to say I had an elaborate Meccano set. At first I built bridges, cranes, and elevators (!) but got more ambitious. I tried making a mechanical hand but failed – it was too heavy.
Then I had the idea for a programmable xylophone player. I made 8 electromagnets and attached them to arms, each one over a key on a one-octave toy xylophone. This time I tested. Close circuit on one electromagnet, bong! Worked so far.
Then I made 8 copper contacts that pressed on a short rod. I prepared an 8 column punched paper tape that passed over the rod under the contacts then on to a roller. I wired a couple of contacts to electromagnets and the other pole of the battery to the rod and reeled in the paper. The holes in the paper passed under the contact, the contact briefly pressed against the charged rod and …
It was oxides, my old nemesis.
But this time I had an idea. I put in an extra gear so that when the main crank was turned, the contact rod rotated. Then when the copper contact passed through the hole in the paper and pressed on the contact rod, it scraped.
This worked! Soon my machine was serenading me with Old Macdonald and the like.
My next project was a machine that would draw curves, in particular Lissajous figures.
You get these by having a pen whose x and y coordinates vary harmonically at different rates and phases. Mechanically, this part was easy. The pen was attached to the intersection of two long rods which gears made move harmonically.
The problem was the pen, if it didn’t press hard on the paper, no image. I solved this problem by making the flat surface under the pen hinge downward against a strong spring. To make a new drawing, you tilted the drawing surface down, inserted the paper, and released it. The spring would pull it up and it and the paper would press hard against the pen.
I followed up with an elaborate machine whose drawing surface rotated. It was big and complex but it also worked. The graphs it drew were amazing.
Advice for boy and girl wonders
I’ll keep it short.
The main thing I learned is that it’s one thing to make something, it’s another to make it work.
The second is that inevitably you’ll get frustrated and even faceplant. Don’t let it discourage you. Boy/girl wonders don’t give up.