‘The Trouble with Tribbles’

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The original Star Trek series came into my life in 1966 as I was entering sixth grade. I was fascinated by the technology being used, such as communicators and phasers, and the crazy assortment of humans and aliens in each episode. My favorite episode is “The Trouble with Tribbles,” an episode combining cute Tribbles, science, and good/bad guys—sprinkled with sarcastic humor.

During the second season I started my hobby of repairing and stripping tube TVs and radios in my bedroom for friends and family. These events, along with Mr. Keller’s electricity class I took years later as a senior in high school, started me on my path to becoming an electrical engineer.

Did Star Trek subconsciously send me down this path? Who knows? But I have every episode in my video library to this day. It showed us that anything was possible. Little did I know that my venture into electronics, PCB design, and manufacturing would reflect the story’s premise.

These Are the Voyages
One of the first designs that I worked on was replacing a core memory board with those brand-new 16Kx1 dynamic RAM memories from that new startup Micron. For the younger readers, a core memory was composed of a round ferrite core with wires that ran in the X and Y axes with a diagonal wire though the center of the core. A current would run through the X-axis wire to create a “1” state, and the core would rotate until it hit the wires. A current would run through the Y-axis wire to rotate the core to create a “0.” The diagonal wire would put the bit into an indeterminate state. Every morning we would walk into the data center and power up our Data General Nova computer by entering instructions with switches. You knew the system was running when you could hear the cores making a specific clicking pattern, like music. Then we would go to our desk and log on to our terminals.

During a final design review of the DRAM-based memory board, the field service engineers were trying to kill the design. The reason presented was, “How can the computer be maintained if a person couldn’t hear the memory running?” Fortunately, we won that argument. We had implemented a radically new design just as Star Trek used radically new technology.

New design, material development and manufacturing engineers should not be afraid to think outside the box. Western-trained engineers are taught to challenge the norm. But technologists in Asian cultures, unfortunately, often have not been raised to challenge the norm. Hopefully, in one or two generations, they will evolve and be allowed to challenge everything.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the June 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.


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