My WB4TLM Radio Shack rendering to the left was painted on wall panel board back in the 70's by a quadriplegic with paint brush in their teeth. Painter's name is unknown.
During my free time as a young tyke, I loved going deep into the woods to explore. I’d be hunting for box turtles, salamanders, fossils in the streams, or climbing boulders and trees. If I was inside, I’d be doing something with my hands like gluing together a model airplane, disassembling a pocket watch, or assembling a crane with my erector set.
The elementary school classroom was quite a struggle for me. It seemed all I did was sit at my wooden desk and stare at the teacher talking and writing on the chalk board. My teachers hand-written report cards with barely passing grades would often have comments saying...
Rich is always daydreaming. I just can’t seem to keep his attention
The teachers were right, something had to be done! The recommendations were that I retake 4th grade.. aargh. The thinking was that if I was a little older than the others in the class, that it might give me an edge, but that’s not what did it! Second time around my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Filoramo took a special interest in me and introduced me to crystal radios. Little did she know she would spark a lifelong passion of electronics tinkering. I built my first crystal radio using an empty toilet paper role as the base for winding a variable tuning inductor. Then adding a cat whisker diode, a Formica capacitor, and magnetic earplug: the radio was complete. I connected the ground to a room heat radiator and strung a long wire out my window into the trees as the antenna, and I could tune-in those "clear channel" megawatt AM radio stations from hundreds and thousands of miles away in the middle of the night. It was amazing! On one of my quarterly report cards that year Mrs. Filoramo commented:
Richie has been improving... Richie is most co-operative... Richie should do a little less science and concentrate a little more on his other subjects
Well, good luck with that one :-) As they say… “The rest is history”. I was taking apart everything I could get my hands on, building a stock pile of mechanical and electrical parts, and making things out of them. For Christmas during 8th grade my mother bought me a Knight Kit C-540 CB Radio to assemble using tubes, and it worked the very first time I plugged it in. With my newly acquired CB license KRJ-1054, I was hobnobbing with base stations and passing truckers on 5 watts RF and a vertical antenna. Yep, there actually was a time you had to be licensed to operate a CB radio! During summer after 8th grade, my friend Pete learned of an Amateur Radio Operator in our neighborhood. Once we saw his radio shack, we wanted in! He gave us lessons and proctored our Novice test and we both passed. My call sign started as WA9YCG.
In 9th grade at New Trier High School I signed up to take an electronics class taught by Charles F. Rockey (AKA “The Rock” or CF Rockey). This class had the requirement of passing the Novice test at the end. Rockey was a well-known low power Amateur Radio designer and operator. Folks like him were called “QRPers”. He had written many electronic articles and a book on the subject. He also had a very well-equipped amateur radio base station at the school bearing the call sign W9SCH. The station include 4th story roof-top beam antenna with thousands of watts of effective radiated power. If a student passed the Novice test, they could use the radio station the remainder of their high school years! Since I already had mine, I was way ahead of the pack making CW QSOs around the world. Mr. Rockey also gave me the responsibility of proctoring the Morse Code Test for the students final exam. I had to accurately key out the code test at 5 words-per-minute. Since the Rock also had his FCC 1st Class Radio Telephone Operators License, he was responsible for the schools FM radio station WNTH. Needless to say… I got my license too!!! During high school, I also built a 19 tube Amateur Radio All Band Receiver from a QST Magazine article written by W5OMX. It was fun! Since then I’ve held WB4TLM and now K4REA. I have an Extra Class Amateur Radio License, and have published a couple Amateur Radio articles myself. As a result of publishing an article in April 1986 QST titled "SuperSCAF and Son - A Pair of Switched Capacitor Audio Filters", my buddy Joe and I started a business named AFTronics, Inc. We sold SuperSCAF in bunches... it was so exciting!
I did get some lucky breaks early on in engineering without having an engineering degree, which was not uncommon back then. My first job was designing a portable battery operated audio mixer for local news reporting, variable speed electronics for Frezzolini film cameras, and demonstrating the brand new Cinema Products Steady-Cam in the south-eastern states. Next came designing modems and teller terminals for the banking industry, then telephones, PBXs and central office telephone equipment. I even won a $2000 Ratheon Design Contest incorporating one of their integrated circuits into an self powered RS-232 Limited Distance Modem (LDM) that could send serial data thousands of feet on twisted pair cable at 9600 BPS. Eventually I did obtain a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, but only because my engineering boss at that time recommended I diversify. I told him it would take me 5 years to complete the remaining 2 years of college for my degree, and that I was considering the EE or CS track. Look, I was married, had a
young tyke of my own, owned a home, a car, etc... I had bills and schooling was going to take a while! I was going to school in the evenings, and it was no fun! My boss Dan said, “So in 5 years you’ll come into my office with a piece of paper to prove to me you can do what you are already doing, right?”. “Well, I guess so…” as I answered shrugging my shoulders. He said, “Go Diversify”. So, I majored in finance.
Gosh... I've only scratched the surface regarding all the fun I have had during my 40+ years of engineering. And it has come full circle. Now I am teaching electronics and microcontrollers at Full Sail University, one of the top rated hands-on schools in the entertainment business. Our Simulation and Visualization Bachelors Degree program has a fabrication lab with the motto "Dream it - Make-it"! And the students do! I wrestled early on with what I
had to offer students as a teacher since you can learn anything you want on Internet these days!!! Just look at Khan Academy for instance, and many other online resources. It is awesome what you can learn. But I finally came to grips with it... and now I tell my students...
I've been there... done that... I can get you there faster!
Life has its adventures, twists, and turns... like COVID-19! But one thing is certain... I am an electronics tinkerer at heart! If I could find Mrs. Filoramo right now, I would give her a big hug and kiss and thank her. You may never know what sparks you trigger, or what long lasting impact you might have on a little tykes life. I am thankful my mother caught on and encouraged my interests along the way. It’s a good thing my mother never knew of the near shocking deaths and potential electrical fires she was promoting in my little laundry room electronics lab, or that I knew how to passively tap telephone lines and eavesdrop on conversations. She only knew about the razor cuts and solder burns. Electronics was my first love... and tinkering remains to this day!
Actually COVID-19 is the reason this website got started... I got bored :-) Over time I hope to share some tinkering that might be of interest to you, and maybe even sell something. Please visit back on occasion and let me know what you think. Maybe you even have something to share... so write it up and lets post it here! That would be cool! We can learn from each other :-)
Richard Arndt is an embedded hardware/software design engineering/consultant and university professor. For more information, visit https://www.linkedin.com/in/richardarndt/