the day I became an engineer
To kick off the blog for my new website I thought I should start with the beginning - the day I became an engineer.
I was young, I don't specifically recall how young, when my father brought it home. It was a "real", "hobby store" radio control car, not one of those jenky little toy cars. I did already have a Nikko car that my father bought for me previously. If you aren't familiar, Nikko made decent radio controlled cars for us '80s kids, but they were by no means a hobby store rc car. My Nikko was a great little machine. It took an egregious number of AA batteries; in my case, my dad purchased me a set of yellow Ni-Cd rechargables and matching charger to feed my car. I played with my little nikko constantly. One of my favorite tricks was to jump it off the curb into the grass. If you hit the jump just right you could scrape the battery door on the curb and get it to open just as the car left the ground, spectacularly spraying the little yellow batteries everywhere. I loved it, but still I lusted for a real, hobby store model.
Back to the day in question. My father had stopped by a garage sale on his way home, a common occurance. For $20 he purchased a very well used, essentially obsolete hobby store rc car with controller, battery, charger and grab-bag of various spare parts. I didn't see any of those adjectives; I saw a shiny, new, perfect car. It was a risk buying it without checking it out, he knew it, but he took the risk for me anyway.
He charged the battery as I eagerly watched on. I could not have been more excited. We inserted the battery, powered up the car and controller and.....nothing. The car did nothing. The controller at least had a sign of life-a little green light that lit up when we flipped the switch. What a disappointment.
Most folks would have given up there, my Dad did not. He grabbed a battery connector with loose leads from the spare parts box, connected it to the freshly charged battery and touched the bare leads to the motor terminals. The motor sprung to life! We both jumped back in suprise and were instantly encouraged to go futher... "Hmm, the motor works" he said. He then traced the wiring back from the motor. There were only two things between the battery and the motor: the mechanical speed control and the power switch. By the process of elimination, using his battery test tool, he was able to determine that the switch was the culprit.
Again, most folks would go buy a new switch, he did not. My father got the old Weller soldering iron out, desoldered the switch from the wiring, removed it from the car and then set it on the workbench. He then pulled out some of the tools of his trade (jewelery): small pliers, tweezers and a file. Once he had the case open he showed me the tiny contacts, the rocker arm, and the little "y" shaped part that made them move. He explained that these parts move to create electrical contact within the switch which made it work. After further investigation he noticed that the contacts were quite oxidized and worn. He told me that if we clean those areas up it may just work again. He then filed the contacts, re-assembled the switch with every single tiny part (no small feat), hand crimped the switch housing closed and re-assembled the car.
It was time for the moment of truth. We had now invested a considerable amount of time and more importantly pride working on this. My expectations were high. I have no doubt that his were low. He flipped the switch, the car came to life with it's sharp servo startup movements. It worked, we had fixed it!
This car immediately became one of the most cherished and lasting toys of my childhood. I used it daily for years. Through playing, maintaining, fixing, and hacking it I learned so much . By the time I was in 9th grade it had been completely disassembled. It became the basis for a robot which I entered in a national competition (pictured below).
I built this robot alone in my parents basement. Every other robot was created and entered by a large team. No one at the TSA club at my school wanted to embark on the challenge with me I had to be assigned someone to go to the competition with me to meet the qualifications to compete. I ended up getting 8th place out of 12 at a national competition. By my estimation every other entry had sponsorship, engineers or other technical professionals assisiting with the build and teams of 3 or more students.
I believe the most important lesson learned was perseverance. All along there were many people (teachers, fellow students, friends) who told me I had no chance in that competition, that I could never build that robot by myself without sponsorship. If those same people had seen us in the basement that night trying to fix the switch, they would have said the same thing.
Since I can remember there have always been two people telling me I, we can do it - my parents. From when I wanted to use the soldering iron as a kid to make circuits my dad knew wouldn't work, to when I wanted to take apart yet another toy, build another robot, or when I wanted to apply to only one college (the only one I wanted to go to). Every time they smiled, and said "ok, how can we help?".
My parents tought me that no one else dictates what you can or cannot do, you choose this for yourself with your own actions every day. This is the single most important lesson that I have ever learned. My talent lies not in the specific skills I have acquired over my life education and career; these are just tools. My talent lies in the passion, discipline and dedication with which I pursue my personal goals every day despite the inevitable hurdles.
To my folks, thank you for teaching me what no teacher, school, university or book could - confidence in the face of adversity.