It was 1960. I was six years old. John F. Kennedy was in the White House and the country was experiencing Camelot, we just didn’t know it at the time.
Then I saw them in the Sunday advertisement for the Rexall Drug Store about a mile from the house where we lived in Richardson, Texas. They had a set of 15 outdoor Christmas lights for $3.99. I had to have them!
Two of my cousins lived in Garland, in a huge house that was always lined in Christmas lights. They would always get incredible Christmas presents from Santa and I became convinced it was because of the lights. Little did I comprehend my cousins were the sons of my father’s older brother and they were doing quite well in life. It didn’t matter. I HAD to get some lights.
At my young age, I was quite convinced outdoor Christmas lights were also needed to increase the chances of Santa Claus finding my house so he could delivery presents. The more lights there were, the easier it would be for him to see from his sleigh when he was flying over.
I hit the secret stash of gift money from my grandparents. I scoured the neighborhood for Coke bottles and turned them in for the deposit money. I even did a little pleading with my parents. It didn’t take long before I had $3.99 plus tax to buy my very first string of lights.
My father and I got in the car, made the trip to the Rexall and I became the proud owner of fifteen, multi-colored, C-9 (big bulb) outdoor certified Christmas lights. I could not have been more proud of my new possession. I got home, plugged them in and watched them glow. I was going to make out like a bandit this year for Christmas!
I might have only been seven years old, but I already had a real interest in electricity. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and my father was an engineer. On occasion, daddy would bring home weird little toys for me to play with. Years earlier when we lived in Shreveport, Louisiana, I remember playing a lot with an erector set he had brought home. I usually tried to build houses and bridges to nowhere. The best part was the little electric motor with a pulley mounted on the shaft. You could tie one end of a string to the motor and the other end to a little car. When you plugged the motor into the wall outlet, it would wind the string and the car would go flying across the room. Now that was fun. One day I noticed there was a whole on each prong of the motor plug. I have a vivid memory of making sure no one was around, finding some copper doorbell wire, stripping the ends, wrapping the wire through the holes in the plug prong and then sticking the wires into the wall outlet. That motor jumped to life! I had created an extension cord and how I didn’t kill myself is a miracle.
Putting up that first string of Christmas lights and getting everything perfect was the most important thing in the world to me. Yellow, green, red, blue and white were the bulb colors and they had to be in the right sequence. Each light was one foot apart, so I only had 15 feet to play with. Putting the lights around the front door made sense. My father helped by putting nails in the door trim so I could connect each light socket to one. The biggest challenge was finding an extension cord long enough so we could plug in the light string. I even remember commenting how great it would be in the future when the lights would be wireless, and we wouldn’t have to worry about finding a plug. No one knew about my extension cord experiment.
Oh, were those lights beautiful! We were one of the very few houses on the street that had outside lights. When Christmas day came it was like a dream come true. It was the only year I remember getting everything on my Christmas list plus a whole lot more. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind the Christmas lights had vectored Santa to my house!
Every year after that, I would worry about if the lights still worked, where would I put them because they couldn’t be in the same place as last year, whether the bulbs were still in the right order. I’m still amazed how those 15 bulbs could cause me so much grief. I was hooked on Christmas lights and there was no known cure.
Those lights went up every year until I became a teenager. I have no idea where that original set of lights has gone.
Years went by and my leaning towards becoming an engineer became more pronounced. I was the kid that would take stuff apart just because I needed to know how it worked. I don’t recall a single time where I put an item back together and didn’t have anything left over.
I loved to build stuff for science class. While other kids would do simple experiments out of the science book, I would tie together weird stuff my father would bring home from work. Somehow, I created this gizmo with a battery, electric motor and speaker. When you connected the battery, the speaker would hum and when you slowed the motor down by pinching the shaft with your fingers, the hum coming out of the speaker would change. This had absolutely nothing to do with class, but it was an important discovery for me. When I took it to school and showed the class, I remember the teacher asking what in the world I had created, and which science book did I find the experiment in. I boasted proudly it came from me and I had no idea what the thing was but, it was very important to the future of the world. The class looked at me with such awe and the teacher just smiled. I was on my way.
Water was starting to fascinate me, also. I had seen a fancy fountain at Six Flags over Texas and the dancing waters fascinated me. Creating unique ways to play in the water sprinkler was always a challenge. Most kids would put the sprinkler on the ground, turn on the water and just run through the spray. I experimented putting the sprinkler in a tree, mounting it on a stick or running more than one hose to a sprinkler. I was starting to understand the concepts of plumbing.
Cookie, one of my grandmothers, lived in Dallas and during the summer, the family would go visit her and I would mess around with the outside water pipes and valves that fed her swamp coolers, today known as evaporative air coolers (see http://www.jbmailroom.com/swamper/ ). These were the early versions of window air conditioners. They were big boxes with a fan inside that sat outside a window. The fan would pull air through grills that were lined with what looked to me like straw saturated with cool water and the cool air would be forced into the room being cooled. These worked great in Texas where it gets real hot but there is typically low humidity. What fascinated about these coolers was the water pump in the bottom of each one. The little water pipe from the outside water faucet would fill a tray of water and a pump would force water to the top of the straw grills. Water that made it back to the bottom would be recycled.
One weekend while I was visiting, the pump stopped working. Mr. Fixit was called, and he came out with a replacement pump and I got to have the old pump. My father showed me the official way to connect a lamp cord wire to the wires feeding the pump motor and how to use electrical tape to insulate everything. I put a bucket of water on a table outside, put the pump in it, connected a little hose to the pump outlet and plugged the pump in. Water started coming out of the hose and I was thrilled. I was in control. That water pump became my best friend. Of course, when a raised the end of the hose above the level of the pump motor, water wouldn’t flow anymore… no doubt the reason it was originally replaced, but in my mind, I had master electricity controlling water.
Now everyone knows that water and electricity don’t mix, but in my mind, they both consisted over pipes, valves and fixtures. You can only force so much water through a fixed size pipe and the same holds true for the amount of electricity in a wire. To this day, I haven’t incorporated water features into my Christmas light display, but the capability is certainly there.
When I was a junior in high school during summer vacation, one hot day, I was riding my bicycle around the football stadium track and noticed Coca Cola had put up a fancy new scoreboard. I was looking around and found the abandoned scoreboard underneath the visitors’ bleachers. I knew I had to take some of this thing home. I went home, got a few tools and went back to remove the digital clock from the scoreboard as well as the big digits used to keep the game score. My buddy helped me get the pieces home and I thought I was in heaven.
The digital clock consisted of four digits, about two feet high and four feet across. Each digit was made up of about 30 ten-watt light bulbs and each bulb was controlled by a mechanical switch connected to a long shaft with a bunch of cams on it. The shaft was connected to a solenoid. Each time the solenoid was triggered, the shaft would rotate slightly forcing the little mechanical switches to change states and the digits zero through nine would be displayed with the appropriate lights turned on or off. Each trigger of the solenoid would show the next digit. Pretty clever, I thought. There was another motor and set of commands that would coordinate the countdown of minutes and seconds to make up the four digit time and there was a special solenoid that would force all the cams to the beginning some each digit would show zero.
My biggest problem was figuring out what to do with this giant digital timer. I propped up on the front porch one night, started it and walked as far up the street as I could. Sure enough, I could easily see the time count down. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure a way to use the thing in real life. The only insight I got was seeing how a shaft with cams on just the right places could turn on lights in a predictable way.
I was starting to rekindle my interest in Christmas lights again and decorated some of the bushes in front of the house that year. I had a few of the big C9 strings, but the little miniature lights were starting to make an appearance and I bought a few strings. That year I figured out a way to connect all the lights to one circuit and plug it into an outlet that had a wall switch inside the house. I was so proud how just flipping one switch could turn all the outside lights on or off.
My senior year in high school was a creative time for me. The mechanical scoreboard timer was still etched in my mind and I son created my first four circuit sequencing timer. Years earlier, I had found an RCA 45 RPM record player in someone’s trash pile. I had taken it home and it still worked, as long as you put a quarter on the tone arm so the needle would stay in the record groove. After a while, the amplifier burned up and I was about to throw it away when I went somewhere and saw my first strobe light.
A strobe light has the unusual characteristic of turning on and off very quickly so your eye can only see something when the light is on. If someone stands in front of the strobe light and moves around, someone watching sees the person in a very jerky movement. A typical strobe light uses a special light source, like a xenon bulb, which is very bright when it’s on and very dark when it’s off with no in-between. Your typical 100-watt light bulb is very bright when its on, but turn it off and the bulb filament still glows a little because it was so hot.
I wanted a strobe light something awful. I sure couldn’t afford one, so I decided to make one. I found that old RCA record player and realized that turntable could be a giant cam. I found some carpet padding foam and a roll of masking tape and put six bumps on the outside of the turntable. I then found a little limit switch with a long lever that my father had brought home years ago. I mounted the switch, so the long lever pressed against the outside of the turntable and turned on the motor. Sure enough, the limit switch was being pushed six times a turntable revolution, 45 times a minute. I dug up a 40-watt light bulb and wired it to the limit switch. I turned off the lights in my bedroom and fired this thing up. I couldn’t believe it. I had created a strobe light! This was so cool! I was so excited, I went around the neighborhood gathering my friends and their parents to come to my house, into my bedroom and see my strobe light. I was deemed an incredibly smart kid.
The next day I started tweaking my design because I wanted a brighter strobe light. I replaced the 40-watt bulb with a 60 watt, but the strobe effect just wasn’t there. I tried every wattage bulb I could find, but nothing worked unless it was a 40-watt bulb or smaller. That’s when I figured out the higher wattage bulbs had the “after glow” when switched off. I settled for the 40-watt bulb and my dim strobe light.
For Christmas of 1971, I decided to spell NOEL in big letters on the roof of the house and sequence them, so they spelled N, O, E, L, one letter at a time. I dug up that old RCA record player with the carpet padding bumps still taped to the turntable and added three more limit switches. I removed all the turntable bumps except one so each limit switch, equally spaced around the turntable would come on sequentially when the turntable bump hit it. I bought a few more strings of miniature lights, spelled out NOEL on the room and wired each letter of the word to one of the switches around that turntable. I put the turntable in a box, left it on the roof and ran a long extension cord down the roof to an outlet. I powered everything up that night and it worked! I was so proud.
That was also the Christmas I had a crush on a girl that also lived in our same neighborhood. I was talking to her father one night and he mentioned his name was Leon. I didn’t think anything about it until I went home and saw NOEL flashing on the roof. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. With a little rewiring, I could spell NOEL backwards and it would be LEON. I could score major points with the dad of the girl I had a crush on. The next day I crawled back onto the roof, did my magic and that night NOEL was being spelled backwards. I made sure the girl and her father new about it and they came by to check it out. It was a great gimmick but wasn’t a success for my love life. I returned NOEL to its correct spelling the next night.
I finally went off to college at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville and majored in Electrical Engineer. There was certainly no surprise there. I lived in the dorm and didn’t have a car, which meant I walked everywhere, including into town when I needed something from the store. A stayed-on campus one weekend, got really bored and started to walk towards town. I can get sidetracked very easily because of my curious nature and somehow I stumbled onto an abandoned coffee vending machine, on its side in a field next to an abandoned store.
It was the oddest thing. I was drawn to that coffee vending machine like it was a magnet. I stared at it for the longest time figured out you could put in a quarter, select strong or weak coffee and whether you wanted cream and/or sugar. It also had a button for selecting hot chocolate. The whole front part of the machine was a giant door that was unlocked, so I gave it a jerk and it opened up on the second try. There it was. The same type of mechanical cams and switches I had discovered with that football scoreboard. There were only five cams and switches, but the cam shaft was powered by a little motor and all the wires were connected to a big box full of open-air relays. I couldn’t believe my good luck. I had no idea what this mechanical computer was going to be good for, but it was definitely going to be mine. I hurried back to the dorm, got a couple of screwdrivers, hacksaw and hammer and performed a field operation on the coffee vending machine by removing the mechanical cam assembly and the relays. I took everything back to the dorm and thought about it for hours. Unfortunately, there was a chemistry test I had to study for, so I put everything under the bed for future development.
For some reason, I ended up not thinking about my vending machine stash until the end of the quarter and was packing up to go home for Christmas break. I threw everything in a box and took it home.
That was the year the neighborhood decided to sponsor a Christmas lighting contest and I decided the first-place prize of $25 was going to our house. I got to staring at that coffee machine mechanical computer again and realized I could make some new cams and create a five-step chasing sequence. I found a scrap piece of plywood, cut out some new cams to replace the existing metal ones, did some major reconfiguring of the mechanical apparatus and wired in the relays. I bypassed the various switches that handled starting things when the right amount of money was deposited as well as the switch that stopped everything after the cup of coffee was made. I ended up fooling it to think it had to continue making coffee for the rest of its life. Power was applied, the motor started turning the new camshaft and relays started clicking on and off in the order that I wanted. I was set, almost.
I had just enough money to buy a few more strings of Christmas lights and a few colored floodlights, but now there was a need for a lot of wire to run across the front of the house to hook the relays to the actual strings of Christmas lights. I went looking for wire in the neighborhood. As luck would have it, the phone company had decided to run a new overhead line from a utility pole to a house way down the street. I happened to come along after the old wire had been dropped to the ground and a crew had come but to pick it up. I ended up getting about 500 feet of this wire. It was very heavy-duty stuff, made to be outdoors forever and had two conductors about 18 gauge made out of some metal that wasn’t soft like copper or aluminum but more like steel. I didn’t care. It could conduct electricity and there was a lot of it.
Power was another problem. I knew I was going to need more than a standard wall socket could provide. Somehow, I ended up finding some of that overhead wire that feeds your house with electricity from the transformer out on the street. This was big, aluminum conductor stuff that could handle several hundred amps of current. I figured I only needed a maximum of 20 amps so although this was a bit of overkill, it sure did look impressive. I ended up running a separate circuit from the main circuit panel for our hose to the covered deck on the side of the house where the mechanical computer was going to be.
I spent a couple of days putting lights around windows and in bushes across the front of our house. I then starting string that telephone cable from the relay board on the deck to the various areas in the bushes I wanted to control. We had a lot of bushes, so I broke them up into four groups. Each group was on one circuit from my mechanical computer. At the end of the house, I had hand built a star and inserted a bunch of lights into it and hung it on the chimney. The star got the fifth and final circuit that could be controlled.
Connecting that telephone wire to plugs on the end of Christmas lights was something neither was designed for. I ended up using the trick from my first experiment with electricity when I was four, striped the ends of the super-weatherproof phone cable, bent the exposed wires and hooked them in the little holes on the plug blade of the light string. Then I wrapped everything in electrical tape and hoped for the best.
It was finally time to test all the lights and the mechanical computer, so I plugged everything in at the relay panel and threw the big switch. POP! The main circuit breaker tripped. After a lot of investigation, that telephone cable I had found had some weak spots where the insulation had worn away and the internal conductors were touching each other. That’s when I first began to appreciate the saying “You get what you pay for.” After a thorough inspection of all the telephone cable and cutting out several suspicious sections, I ran the test again.
Things started happening. The mechanical cam started turning and relays started energizing, each with a loud clack. I ran into the front yard and could see the different areas of lights turning on and off. I made a few adjustments, turned everything off and waited until nightfall to see how it really looked.
A couple of hours later, I turned everything back on and walked to the top of the hill so you could see the whole house at once. It was so cool! A group of bushes would light up at one end of the house, after a couple of seconds, they would turn off and the group beside them would turn on. This would repeat four times o it looked like the bushes were slowly moving across the front of the house. Then the star on the chimney would come on and all the bushes went dark. It was magical!
After a few nights, my friends started talking about the lights. They would describe the lights by jumping around to mimic the moving lights. I had done something in the neighborhood with those Christmas lights that no one else had thought of. I loved it.
Our house won the Christmas lighting contest that year.
What people didn’t see or hear was the slow degradation of those relays. For a machine that was designed to dispense a few dozen cups of coffee a day, I was asking it to go non-stop. The open-air relays started to arc because the contacts were being used so much. The smell of ozone was always in the air from the electrical arcing. Every few days I would have to shut everything down and file the relay contacts to get the corrosion off the touch points. My wooden cams were also wearing out and slipping around from the constant use. Only after a lot of tender, loving care was everything able to make it through Christmas.
Tearing everything down was a chore because of all the places where the telephone cable was connected directly to the Christmas light plugs. Unwrapping all the tape and uncrimping the telephone wire from the plug blade was a chore. I put everything up and started dreaming of next year.
After a few months on one of my walks, I stumbled onto an outdoor sign graveyard. A local sign company would retire old, electrical signs in a field, and I found it! I saw an old “Eat At Joe’s” sign with the flashing arrow. I dashed back to the dorm to get my tools, came back, opened up the sign and found a heavily used, but still intact, mechanical sequencer. It was similar to the coffee computer but made specifically for outdoor signs. It was mine.
I wired the house again that Christmas with my newly found sign sequencer, again to rave reviews. No relays burned up since I didn’t need them anymore, but I still had the issue with that telephone cable. I swore that someday I was going to use real outdoor electrical wire that was easy to use. Unfortunately, there was no budget for it anytime soon.
The next year we had the energy crisis. The President said we should drive no faster than 50 miles per hour on the interstates, which I dutifully did, but it was especially hard on a teenager. Then the president said we should refrain from putting up outside Christmas lights to save energy that year. Now that hurt! I did like I was supposed to, but I had a low opinion of our President. That was the last year or decorating as my passion went dormant.
I was in the last freshman class at Tennessee Tech that was mandated to learn how to use a slide rule. The HP-35 $400 scientific calculator had just been introduced that was like a computer in your hand. My textbooks were teaching about vacuum tubes, but the world was moving towards transistors, so I did to. I became fascinated with the campus mainframe computer and learned how to program in FORTRAN. My fraternity brothers would turn to me when they couldn’t get their programs to run. I was finding my niche.
I finally graduated from Tennessee Tech with a degree in Electrical Engineering and went to work for Westinghouse Electric as a field engineer for the radar the company made for the F-16 aircraft. I traveled a lot, and it was great! During all this time I was seeing how big, complicated electrical and electronic projects were built while gaining experience how to fix them. The path was being laid for the next major step in my Christmas light evolution.