Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Busman's Holiday

Reading a 1922 article about RCA's "Radio Central" setup for global communications online, I encountered the following:
Diversion of a Radio Engineer.--In nearly all lines of business, when business hours are over, the individual seeks something totally different as a means of relaxation. While wandering around the radio station at Rocky Point, the author noticed a small aerial running from the Community House, where the engineers are quartered, to a small mast, some 150 feet away. On inquiring what this was, he was told that after watches, the engineers listen in on their own radio apparatus to the broadcasting stations and other types of radio traffic. One would think that after many hours spent on duty in the most powerful radio station of the world, the engineers would be glad to forget, at least for the time being, that such a business as radio existed.
At the receiving station at Riverhead, they go to an even greater extreme. About 200 yards from the receiving house, Mr. Tyrell and his associates have installed a complete amateur continuous wave station. All spare moments of the various operators of the receiving station are spent at their own amateur apparatus.

Some things never change. Did steam engineers build little tabletop engines in their free time, I wonder, or is this monomania a quirk of the RF trade? --If not, remind me never to live next door to a demolitions engineer!

(This will be crossposted at Retrotechnologist.)


Anonymous said...

Is it just me or does everyone else's lives and careers seem more exciting and interesting?

"is this monomania a quirk of the RF trade? "

I have no idea but for the record, as a nurse, I do not 'do the odd central-line', 'practice EAR' (well except in appropriate dating circumstances) or make model defibrillators (AA just doesn't cut the mustard, maybe 9V - Oops!).

"remind me never to live next door to a demolitions engineer!"

My next door neighbour works at Sellafield, should I be worried?

Yes, I know I need to get a life! but don't worry, I have a plan

Stranger said...

People are the same through history. A radio engineer almost invariably has had a rig to turn to at the end of shift. As did the "journeymen" of my era, who often had a ARC-5 pair in a suitcase with a power supply for those lonely nights in tourist cabins.

And yes, many steam era railroadmen built scale - or semi-scale - model steam gear. In the days when a typical city lot often stretched 200 to 400 feet back from the street 1/12th to 1/ 48th scale was a practical garden railroad.


Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

"is this monomania a quirk of the RF trade? "

I have no idea but for the record, as a nurse, I do not 'do the odd central-line', 'practice EAR' (well except in appropriate dating circumstances) or make model defibrillators

On the other hand, the volunteer rescue squad I'm part of has many members who are paid paramedics, ER nurses, and ER physicians who run frequently. I've known many computer programmers who write their own programs for fun, too.

Jim said...

You keep reminding me of a time when it was not too unusual to walk into a broadcast studio and see egg cartons tacked to the walls.

Anonymous said...


Ah, that's because all us ER types live for the adrenalin and trauma. We don't have volunteer services as such here but I've done my stints on Mountain Rescue teams and with a crash doctor (thanks Roly). Sticking a chest drain in whilst upside down in a car stuck in a ditch full of petrol is just.. well, fun! It's not really work, since I'm not allowed to do that in work (or even give you a paracetamol come to that).

Now if I was doing minor surgery in my garden shed...

karrde said...

There is a class of computer-code-monkey who do personal projects for fun. (Output from such projects includes the Linux kernel, the GNU Compiler Collection, KDE, Gnome, etc.)

I've known an electronics-and-relays engineer who tried to re-create the Ball Drop in his living room for New Years. (Disco ball, lights, motors, switches, timers...)

Then there's the friend who does Mechanical-Engineering work. He has a garage full of tools. His last project was swapping out the engine on a motorcycle.

So yeah, it's not an radio-only thing, nor an electronics-only thing.

But not every specialist in the field has a hobby related to his work. Some guys collect coins as a hobby, and their day job isn't at the Mint or a bank.

Dave H said...

My electronics hobby started when I was 10, SWL shortly after that, ham license at 16, and worked in electronics and embedded software ever since.

When I'm tired of electrons, bits, and waves I shoot, or ride a motorcycle. With a ham radio on it.

I don't think RF (or any other) engineers get monomania, I think people who have monomania become engineers. Like I heard a pastor say once, "You don't become a preacher because you think it's a good job. You become a preacher because you can't do anything else."

phlegmfatale said...

Speaking of steam engines, this table top glass steam engine fills me with delight:

Cincinnatus said...

I had an electrical engineering friend a decade or two back that ... well, lets just say that around Halloween, you stayed FAR away from his house.

Anonymous said...

Now that you mention it, my good friend is a techno-type (Navy SATCOM, then various maintenance and technician jobs as a civvy), and he likes to spend his spare time with tools in his hands.

Personally, I'm happy to forget that analytical balances, burets, beakers, etc. were invented when I go home.

Roberta X said...

Phlegmmy, the glass steam engine is made of win!

Old Fat Sailor said...

Those guys had to be the masters of front end overload
73 R

markm said...

I know an engineer who built a tabletop steam engine as a hobby, but he's a EE. He also possesses a traditional outfit of matching blue and white pin-striped cap, shirt, and trousers, so he can dress up for Halloween as an "engineer" (as we Americans mis-call a train driver). Then again, he also built himself a computer, back when 8-bitters cost several thousand at the store.

I do know several EEs and electronics technicians who are ham radio hobbyists (if not fanatics), and in every case I know of, they were building their own rigs before they picked a college major, if they ever went to college. One of the best techs I know taught himself the trade by studying tech manuals at home and building excellent two-way radios even while he was barely squeaking through middle school and flunking high school. These aren't cases of guys taking their jobs home with them, but of guys who made a career out of their hobby.

I came up through a different path (dropping out of college when I realized that a degree in physics leads only to jobs I could not tolerate, Air Force electronics repair tech, an EE degree paid by the AF, and finally 20 years as an engineer at electronics manufacturers), but perhaps the most important training I ever had came at home, and started when I was three or four - fetching tools and parts and handing them to my father where he was working underneath a car. With that, my technician experience, and manufacturing experience, I can both build a circuit myself and predict how it will work in mass production. Be wary of an engineer that didn't grow up using tools in some way or another - he'll design things that can't be built, and cannot make them work if they are built.

I'm worried that I don't know of any young hobbyists who build their own electronics. In the old days when radios used tubes and were mostly built by hand whether in a factory or a basement, you could save much of the cost of a store-bought rig by doing the work yourself. Nowadays, it's hard to find a case where hand-building a commercially available product wouldn't cost more in parts than just buying it. Contract manufacturers, such as the plant where I work, routinely quote circuit assembly at a 25% or less markup above the wholesale parts cost. Then the stores mark it up another 80-200%, but the retail parts price (at Radio Shack, or for onesies at distributors such as Digikey) is often 5 times wholesale.

So there's no point to hand-building electronics, except when you need something that isn't in mass-production. If you want a prototype of your new circuit design, you either risk $5-10,000 in designing a circuit board and paying the tooling and set up charges to produce a short run at a factory, or you come to one of the few remaining guys that knows how to hand-build it. If you need a custom-built circuit to test your product, the talent pool who can design it, hand-build one, and debug it, is even thinner - and none of us are under 45 that I know of.