Becoming an Electrical Engineer

By Charles Knell

When I was a little kid, my parents bought a Zenith console television, which was manufactured in Chicago. It included an AM/FM radio and phonograph, and everything was mounted in a gorgeous dark brown wood cabinet. The television could receive channels 2, 5, 7, 9, 11, and sometimes 13. Yes, it could receive only 6 channels. I loved that television and was completely fascinated by it. I knew how to use all of the adjustment controls in no time. But every 8 weeks or so, it would stop working. Then, I would beg Dad to call the television repair man. At that time, home television repair was a business. It must have cost a fortune because Dad would put off calling the repair man for what seemed then like an eternity. The repair man would come to our house, and I would watch him work. He had a box into which he plugged the television tubes, one at a time. When he was done, the television would be working again. I was in awe of this person and what he knew. The television was connected to an antenna on the roof of our house and its two wires made their way to the back of the television. Naturally, I disconnected these antenna wires to see what would happen. All that you could see on the screen were black and white dots which moved around, and you could hear noise from the speaker. I put my finger on the disconnected antenna wires and I couldn’t feel anything. But connecting them back to the television made it work again. So, there must have been something coming through these wires. It was a mystery that I wouldn’t understand for quite a while.

When I was old enough, my parents bought me an electric train set. My Dad and grandfather set it up in the basement on a table my dad had made out of plywood and grand piano legs. I played with it for hours. It had a whistle house which opened its door when you blew the whistle. It had a barrel loader which loaded little wooden barrels into the gondola car. It had an inner loop and an outer loop of track and two manually operated track switches. The speed of the engine and the whistle was controlled with handles on a transformer. The transformer supplied different voltages to different parts of the set, the track, the whistle, and the barrel loader. I noticed that the engine would run slower on one part of the track. My grandfather, an electrician by trade, showed me how I could solder the track together to fix the problem. He also gave me my first soldering gun. One day I decided to add a switch in the power cord from the transformer. I accomplished this, but not before I got an electric shock. I really should have unplugged it first. That was the day I learned to have more respect for electricity.

In eighth grade science class, one of our projects was to make an electric motor. I carefully constructed it according to the teacher’s instructions. Then, at home, I connected it to my electric train transformer. There were lots of sparks, but I couldn’t get it to run. I was very disappointed. I took it to school and explained to my teacher that I had connected it to my train transformer and that it didn’t work. My teacher took a look at it, didn’t see anything wrong, and connected a battery. Then, it worked fine. Surely, there was nothing wrong with my transformer, because it ran the train engine motor without any problem. There must have been some difference between the voltage from a battery and the voltage from my electric train transformer. Again, it was all a big mystery to me. I would need to study electricity a lot more before I understood what had happened.

My dad owned and ran a scrap yard. He would bring home all kinds of useful things that people had thrown away. Among these were old phonographs and radios. I was lucky to hear some of the old radio programs before they faded away because of the advent of television. These radio programs were similar to television programs of today, but without the picture. People would gather around the radio and listen to these programs together. When some of the radio receivers my dad would bring home stopped working, I would sometimes take them apart and play with the parts. Once, I had the hairbrained idea to plug the parts into a wall 120 VAC outlet. I know now that this was extremely dangerous. Something could have exploded in my face.

When I was older, I discovered a vacuum tube tester at the local drug store. I would take vacuum tubes from radio receivers that didn’t work to the drug store and test them. If they tested bad, I would buy new ones and most of the time, replacing the bad tubes would fix the radios. I did the same thing with televisions that were broken. A television set at that time was actually a radio receiver which could display a picture. Even though tubes are mostly obsolete now, they are still used in amplifiers prized by audiophiles and in amplifiers where very high power is needed. Audiophiles claim that tube amplifier sound quality is better than a modern transistor amplifier. I would have to study electrical engineering in order to learn why this is true. Before long, my friends and family were asking me to fix their broken radios, television sets, and phonographs.

When I was in high school, my mom bought me an “electronics lab”. I had to assemble it and when this was done, I could make different circuits with lamps, switches, a photocell, and a relay. Playing with this was great fun. My favorite project was with the relay, the photocell, and a lamp. Hooking these up the right way, I could get the lamp to flash on and off continuously. Then, I discovered that my dad would get relays in the scrap he would collect from the Guardian Electric Manufacturing plant in town. My dad would take these apart so that he could sell the silver contacts. This company routinely put working relays in their scrap. I pulled some of them out of the scrap, took them home, and played with them to see how they worked. My dad never complained. I still have some these in my garage. My knowledge of relays really helped on a job interview once.

You would think that, at this point, it would be a no brainer for me to study electricity in college. But that almost didn’t happen.

In boy scouts, my scout master was a machinist. He was very impressed with metallurgy. He suggested that being a metallurgist was a very good job. About all I really knew then was that I wanted to be some kind of engineer. So, I started out in engineering college in the metallurgical engineering program. But, before long I discovered that there were many more jobs for electrical engineers. Since I had always been interested in electricity, I switched to electrical engineering. Why not study something where the job opportunities were the best? I ended up really liking my decision. When I graduated, I was an electrical engineer.

Next article to read: My First Real Job