It all started on Christmas day in 1974. My grandfather bought me a 100-In-1 Electronic Project Kit from Radio Shack. I was ten years old, and to this day, I still remember the excitement I felt. The thrill had nothing to do with receiving an expected gift. No, this was something utterly unfamiliar that captured my intrigue. I had never seen a box full of springs and colorful alien parts. What was this thing? I had to know before opening another gift.
My grandfather rarely engaged the grandkids in any way other than verbally—and usually from a chair. He did give us all a hug and a kiss upon arrival and at departure, but otherwise, he was generally hands-off. So after unboxing, it was clear that I was on my own. I flipped through the manual and found the most straightforward project—the absolute simplest. All I had to do was connect three components in a series circuit with three wires! I quickly assembled everything and followed the instruction to move towards the light. I rushed into the living room where my grandfather sat and put my creation under a lamp. The galvanometer moved as the solar cell got closer. I was utterly blown away and knew, without a doubt, what I wanted to do with my life. I completed all 100 projects over the next few years.
At thirteen, I began work on a Heathkit oscilloscope — another gift from my grandparents. The model IO-4541 took all summer to build. I had no assistance, and I remember feeling a lot of frustration with the directions. They were not written for a novice kid. Finally, after several months I thought I was ready to go live. I flipped the switch, and, and!… Nothing happened. It sat on my bench for weeks until a friend’s dad, who worked for Honeywell, took me under his wing. He helped get the oscilloscope running and spent several afternoons teaching me. I have a lot of respect for guys who help young boys without a dad. They sometimes, as in my case, provide crucial inspiration at just the right time.
Ironically, around that same period, my dad shows up with a large box. My parents got divorced when I was seven and afterwards there was limited contact with Dad. I don’t even recall the visit at thirteen, just the delivery. I have no idea how he knew what I was up to, but the gift was generous and helpful. It was a complete National Radio Institute (NRI) correspondence course in electronics. A box with several dozen booklets offered a full course that was roughly equivalent to a two-year AS degree. It took about four years to complete on my own.
We left Pinellas county and moved to a remote trailer park in central Florida. There I met a friend named Patrick, my new partner in a few skunkworks. Using every dime earned mowing lawns, I bought Now-and-Laters and stuff from Radio Shack. This included a pair of audio amplifiers. Patrick and I used them to build a one-way light beam communication channel between our trailers using an LED, lenses, and phototransistor. Your voice modulates the amplitude of the light, and you demodulate it at the other end. It never worked as well as just picking up the phone, and it was always misaligning.
Probably the most significant and bizarre friendship at that time was William Moran. As a quintessential nerd with notable personality issues, he was goofy, overweight, and socially awkward. Wille was always doing something illegal at worst or inappropriate at best. Yet, he was an absolute genius. He lived with his mom as an only child. I never saw his dad. The first time I visited him at his single-wide, my experience was exceedingly uncomfortable. He belittled and bossed his mom around like a pet. I mean, even for trailer life, this was creepy. Willie controlled most of the trailer except for the bedroom where his mom was confined. The second bathroom was converted into a darkroom with its single window painted opaque black. The toilet was used for developing film. Cleanup required a mere flush.
The hallway to Willie’s bedroom was supposed to support a washer and dryer. It was a full chem-lab. I guess they used a laundromat. Willie’s bedroom was an electronics lab. Outside in a shed, they owned a Compugrahic machine. I kid you not. This trailer-family owned a ten-thousand-dollar state-of-the-art digital typesetting machine where Willie produced authentic-looking laminated content; licenses, badges, etc. There was a pressure switch under the mat at the front door that alerted Willie in his room. He also owned a closed-circuit camera back in 1979 – when they were the size of a large mailbox.
I only saw Willie at his house twice. I just could not get past the odd relationship with his mom. On my second visit, I found Willie injecting a frog with epinephrine. When I asked what the heck he was doing, he said he wanted to see how much it would make it hop. But I got past all of his peculiarities because Willie was into explosives. We made a batch of Nitrogen Triiodide—a contact explosive guaranteed to create a stir at any school. Remember, this was 1979, over two decades before 911. You could still buy nitric acid and saltpeter at the local Eckerd’s! But enough of chemistry. Back to electronics.
It was that day Willie shared with me his Magnum Opus: The Shocker. It was a set of high-voltage flash capacitors and a full-bridge rectifier enclosed in a PVC pipe. There was a power plug on one end, and two metal electrodes at the other. Willie momentarily inserted the device into an outlet to charge it. He then touched the side of a full coke can. After a giant flash-bang, coke squirted out of two holes on the side. It was spectacular, and we began making more.
That summer, I got a call to meet Willie at the High School at night. When I got there, he had me climb up and splice into two cables on the roof of a breezeway connecting classes to the lunchroom. He installed a box in a well-hidden area behind some bushes. When I asked what the drop line was for, he told me to just wait until the Fall. Typical Willie—everything was secretive. Several months later, during lunch, Willie connected a cable from the box to a device he carried in his pocket. I won’t go into detail, but there were a lot of laughs with disconnected, monitored, and jammed pay-phones in the quadrangle. This went on for weeks until our friendship ceased.
My relationship with Willie ended at school one day when he touched me on the back of my neck with a mostly discharged shocker. It knocked me to the ground, and when I looked up, Willie was laughing. It reminded me of a few weeks earlier when he convinced a gullible student to bust his head open. After telling this poor sap to hyperventilate while crouching, Willie yelled: “Now stand up and blow out really fast!” Boom, he was out like a light. His head hit the concrete, and he ended up with a bloody knot. I knew I couldn’t keep hanging around this guy. Either I’d get killed or someone else would. Sadly, a few years later, Willie died experimenting with nitrous oxide in a bathtub.
In 1981, I got a VIC-20 for Christmas. This was my first computer and exposure to writing software. I spent many days down the road with my friend Bryan Booth going through and experimenting with the internal memory map of the system. BASIC was the standard programming language on that platform. Using it, I wrote a rip-off of Lunar Lander by Atari. But it was descending into the depths of 6502 machine language programming that really interested me. The hours I spent on the VIC-20 prepared me for embedded systems in the mid-’80s and a career shift that would take place over a decade later.
Needless to say, I was a full-on nerd in High School, carrying around my NRI booklets. I would often place one inside an open textbook as we read together in American History, or my most-despised class, Humanities. I cared absolutely nothing about any other field of study if it fell outside of STEM. My mom was satisfied with my narrow interests and lack of a plan for college. My grandfather was either opposed to college or felt I’d do fine without it. So no one in my family prodded me towards higher education. So when I graduated, I had no money and no plan. I just knew I wanted to be an engineer.
I didn’t have the grades, and we were poor. So college really wasn’t much of an option anyway. Young adults, in my predicament, are an easy target for opportunistic salesmen from proprietary two-year schools. It only took an afternoon in our trailer kitchen and a few signatures, and I now had a plan. I would drive 40 miles each way to school in Tampa at ITT. I would do this five days a week for two full years and end up with an AS degree in electronics. More importantly, they would ensure some job interviews. That’s what I really needed—a shot.
My time at ITT is a story that stands on its own. But there were a couple of engineering highlights worth telling now. We had to develop a custom solution in the digital class. If you were unable to come up with something novel, the instructor allowed you to build an existing LED roulette wheel. Everyone in the class chose the pre-designed option, except for me. I wanted to do something unusual. So I created a reaction-time tester. The unit had three LEDs. A red one, indicating the test was idle—a yellow to get ready, and then a green to go after a random time interval. As soon as you saw the green LED, you pressed a hand-held push-button switch. The circuit would measure your response time in milliseconds on a numeric readout. The instructor was impressed enough to have the Superintendant of the school stop by to see it.
We had to build an elementary computer using an 8-bit 6502 processor, 1024 bytes of RAM, and 2048 of ROM. Everyone could make this on their solderless breadboard—just plug wires into holes. I chose to design a printed circuit board, etched by acid, holes drilled, and components soldered by hand. A varnished wooden box enclosed the work. This also grabbed the Super’s attention and helped me out of trouble when I ended up in his office for disciplinary action. I graduated with honors but did not attend the ceremony. I had a conflict; a job interview in Tallahassee.
I got hired on the first interview. Technical colleges are geared towards preparing you with essential skills and getting you out into the workforce. This approach was what I needed. My first job, just north of Tallahassee, was at an R&D facility. A high school friend, Jay Altizer, also worked there and had put in a word for me. My task was to design a new phase-locked tuner for a C-Band satellite receiver. This was 1984 when people placed 12-foot dishes in their yard to pull down cable channels. It was an exciting project and, more importantly, where I met Jim Green.
What an absolute character Jim was. I was only 20, and he was in his 60’s. A transistor was always a “transeeesstor” (spoken with a Mexican accent) to Jim. He always referred to me as Hoss. Jim had worked as an RF (radio-frequency) engineer during WWII. He helped design and build one of the first cable television systems in the US. He knew his stuff and took me under his wing. Microwave RF design is half art and half science. The art portion is really physics too, it’s just that an artistic approach is more practical. You cannot build anything complex, spending your days applying Maxwell’s equations in electromagnetism. You had to know the tricks of the trade. So when Jim looked at my work and said: “those electrons will just fly right off the trace because the turn is too sharp at that frequency,” I knew what he meant.
While completing my work in Tallahassee, I met a man named Carl Rosekrans. He ran an R&D company in Atlanta, GA, called CST. To my roommates’ disappointment, I left abruptly in the middle of my lease and snuck away to Georgia. There I was promised groundbreaking work and riches galore. Jay Altizer also went with me, and together we moved to just outside of Stone Mountain. Our project was a state-of-the-art off-premises cable television system. In the early ’80s, if you had cable TV, you had a box with traps (notch filters) outside. These devices would suck away HBO and other blocked channels from the spectrum. A technician would have to drive out and remove the traps if a subscriber wanted to get HBO. What we developed would do away with all of that. Four homes would be controlled remotely by computer and selectively provide service. It was revolutionary.
After roughly a year, Jay moved to California. I became the sole architect. We had moved operations to Savannah, GA, and though the town is lovely, I didn’t fit in. If you are not old-money, at the college, or in the military, Savannah is not a great place for a nerd. But it didn’t matter because I had my work. The product was finally refined enough to bring to the market. Carl put me on a plane to Tapei, Taiwan, to set up the manufacturing with a company located on the outskirts of the city. Seven weeks later, we were ready, and I returned home.
Most people in their early twenties do not understand business. I certainly didn’t. I took Carl at his word that he’d “make me rich.” He had promised me 10% of the profits, but I had nothing in writing. So when I returned, I demanded Carl draw up a contract for what he had promised. You would have thought I stole something from him. He was livid; after all, I’d had been fully paid, so he said. Carl reluctantly came back with an agreement. It contained almost nothing.
I was betrayed, and no longer had the excitement of work ahead of me. We were mostly done. The only task left was documentation. So I did what any clueless twenty-three-year-old typically does. I gave up and moved on. I talked to my uncle in Muncie, Indiana, and he said he and my grandfather would find some work for me at their new company. But leaving Carl meant taking some of the intellectual property in my head with me. It wasn’t all down on paper yet. I didn’t know at the time how serious that was for him.
Located square in the armpit of the country, I worked in Indiana on a new inventory control software. My family was kind enough to trust me with this critical task, and it turned out well for everyone. I had a roof over my head. I got paid, and they got a fully functional software that ran their business for almost ten years after I left. While wrapping things up in what was becoming a new interest for me (software), I got a call from Carl. He had a buyer and needed my help. Ironically the buyer was located 45 minutes away.
Needless to say, I was sitting in the catbird seat with a big fat grin. I had not learned one lick of graciousness or humility, so I rubbed it in. But Carl still had the upper hand, he was a seasoned shyster, and I was a young naive nerd. I was clearly no match for him. We agreed Carl would pay a trivial amount down, a moderate hourly rate, and $75K upon completion. One contingency on the final payment; the sale of his technology to the company in Indianapolis. So I completed the work. Carl backed out on the sale and instead sold it to Magnavox for north of $1M. He died a few years later from a perforated ulcer. You can’t make this stuff up.
Right when I thought I’d be terribly disappointed, I got a call from my old friend Jim Green. He had a job for me in Tallahassee. I think I was happier hearing that news than had I received the $75K. I still remember coming over the Florida line with tears of joy seeing palmettos and smelling the rain. I was so excited to get back to Florida. I was working for yet another R&D startup called Global Communications just a few days later. But the best news was being back with Jim again.
Over the next few years, I developed multiple electronic and software systems. I was the sole developer on the GS-1000, a highlight of my time there. It was a revolutionary portable spectrum analyzer for aligning satellite antennas. It received some accolades, and the product was even used on the Kremlin. But ultimately, as is often the case, business success is not solely dependent on technical achievement. I certainly didn’t make much money at Global. But my time there did show me it was time to switch careers. Electronic circuitry was getting smaller and smaller, requiring jewelers’ tools and magnifying glasses. Not to mention, I shook too much. I could see the writing on the wall. Electronic R&D would only continue in large organizations with huge capital outlays. The days of the small shop were over.
So in 1992, I took a subcontractor job as a programmer with a local company called AEE. I was helping to design software for managing Kodak’s high-speed digital printer. When I say high-speed, I mean sixteen feet per second! These were multi-million dollar printing systems used for US-wide custom mass mailings. Guys receive more adds for fishing poles, girls get adds for clothes, printed on the same page. The content is digitally manipulated while printing. This was a great job, and finally, I started making good money. I got married and built a house.
About two years in, the owner of AEE, was having some difficulty. Whereas my work, at a fixed-price, was coming in at roughly $75 per hour. The owner was hitting about $2.50 per hour. He was working 80-hour weeks and not even making minimum wage. His side of the business was going down fast. After some negotiation, I assumed a third of the company, along with another partner. We now took on the risk, and the reward, moving forward. The three of us pulled things out. The company is now expanded into three successful companies twenty-five years later. I have worked on dozens of complex software systems over those years. Too many to go over. My latest endeavor is called EasyTerritory. Forty-five years since that Christmas, I still prefer designing and creating even if my responsibilities have taken me beyond engineering.