Reading time ( words)
It’s fun to think back to the days when I first saw Star Trek on TV. In September 1966, I was a sophomore in college in chemical engineering. Being a science fiction fan for many years, I was looking forward to this new show, so I would go over to the student union building early in order to get a seat in the TV room. I got interested in science fiction from a few good movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Forbidden Planet (1956). Then I took up reading the magazine Scientific American at the library. Many a night, after listening to my favorite radio programs (we did not own a TV in 1954), I would walk to the public library and check out the classic science fiction books by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, among others (Figure 1).
Figure 1: From elementary school until college, most of my science fiction was a few good movies and the classic SF books from the masters.
Viewing Star Trek for the first time as a 19-year-old was a far different experience than viewing it years later as reruns, especially after 1977, when Lucas brought out Star Wars. The special effects in Star Wars changed your perspective, even if the story line was still “Cowboys and Indians in Space.”
Even before college, my interest in electronics had grown because of building my own short-wave radio and the San Diego public school system that required I attend middle school wood shop and graphics arts (drafting and photography). In eighth grade, I took metal shop (fabrication and welding) and electrical/electronics shop (electrical fundamentals and basic electronics). It was all from the perspective of hands-on, hand-crafted wiring.
To pay for my education, in addition to scholarships, I worked part time for the Geophysics/Oceanography department at Oregon State University as a lab tech. This involved field paleo-magnetic/gravity surveys and ocean patrols on the university’s exploration ship. During this period, high school friends wrote a time-share program for the university’s CDC-6600 and thus every student now had access to BASIC and Fortran. The university sold this software to Control Data for a new CYBER-70 and the computer department expanded their DEC PDP-8 to now handle nearly 2,000 nodes. In 1968, I moved up to a job as the electronics tech for the psychology department. This was my introduction to military surplus, as the university personnel could drive up to Salem, Oregon and pick over old and excess military gear.
Since they were tearing down the old IBM-based SAGE Early Warning System, there were vast quantities of electronics and components available to salvage for student laboratories. Old blood plasma containers made perfect Skinner Boxes (once I had modified them). Also in 1968, the psychology department got a $8,300 NSF grant for a new DEC PDP 8/L minicomputer for the student labs (Figure 3). That would be equivalent to about $86,000 today. It was my job to design the interfaces for the Skinner Boxes I had built and program the computer to replace the old electro-mechanical steppers and relays that had previously powered the lab.
To read this entire article, which appeared in the June 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.