Plastic Fantastic Lover by
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Christmas morning, 1955.  I was six years old.  I rushed downstairs, long before my parents or siblings got up, went straight to the tree, and picked up the heavy package that had my name on it.  I ripped off the wrapping paper and opened the bright red metal box to find a huge assortment of metal parts, bolts and washers – an Erector Set!

I ripped off the wrapping paper and opened the heavy, bright red metal box to find a huge assortment of metal parts, bolts and washers - an Erector Set!

You see, I don’t have technology tribulations, I have technology thrills.  I love taking things apart, and sometimes putting them back together.  In fact, I have often thought about putting myself out on the neighborhood email group as a volunteer “together-putter”.  I get excited when June buys something and then asks me to put it together for her.

I remember taking apart an old mechanical alarm clock that my grandfather gave me when it stopped working – that one never went back together.  Then my dad, who couldn’t put two boards together without breaking one of them, bought me a kit to make a cuckoo clock.  We did get that one working.

In high school, I built a working solar cell from a slice of silicon.  That involved building a kiln to heat a paste of boric acid on top of the silicon to make an “N-P depletion zone” (you can look that one up), then plating the cell with nickel to make a base for soldering leads to it.  The cell didn’t work very well, as my plating and soldering were bad, but it did produce a measurable voltage.

I also have always been fascinated with computer technology, which is the type of “machine” that most people think of now when they hear the term “technology”.  I wrote my first FORTRAN program in the spring of 1968.  I prepared a deck of punch cards and ran them into the IBM 1620 computer that sat in the lobby of Mallinckrodt Hall, a machine that had 16K of main magnetic core memory.  Out came a smaller deck of punch cards with the results, that I then had to feed into an interpreter to get printed output.

Years later, I taught FORTRAN programming, first at Hocking Technical College and later at Ohio University, where I was a teaching fellow working toward my master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering.

When I got my first personal computer, I was delighted to find that the software package included a version of BASIC, which allowed me to write programs to solve mathematical puzzles.  As I went through newer versions of Windows, I always made sure to keep that BASIC program, but on a recent upgrade it no longer worked.  I might buy a BASIC compiler or a C++ compiler one of these days to get back into some programming.  Or I could take the computer science class that Harvard offers through the HarvardX courses.

When our youngest daughter was a senior in high school, one of her friends told me that she was going to major in mechanical engineering at The Ohio State University, because she had been told by a college counselor that engineers were able to make a lot money after graduation.  I said “Sarah, do you like taking things apart and figuring out how they work?  Do you like making things?”  She admitted that she had never been interested in things like that.  I didn’t burst her bubble, but I knew in my heart that she would never be an engineer.  Sure enough, she lasted just one semester in that field before changing majors.

“Plastic Fantastic Lover” is the only song I could think of that dealt with technology and which I actually knew.  There is a song that deals with computers by Talking Heads (I used to carry Jerry Harrison’s piano when the band that he was in in college, “Albatross”, went on road trips, but I didn’t know the T-H song.)

I love technology!

Profile photo of Jeff Gerken Jeff Gerken


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Yes you do! Born that way, I’d say. Grew up with it and grew along with the industry. I must say, I’m impressed with everything you’ve made along the way. Quite a list. Wish you lived close to me. I could use some of that know-how.

  2. Marian says:

    I’m so glad we have at least one tech lover, Jeff, and I like how you started with the mechanical stuff and worked into computer languages. I think baby boomer women missed out on a lot of that “taking things apart” learning because of stereotyping. Fewer kids seem to like mechanical aspects now. In the 1990s I was editing a manual translated from the Japanese, and the younger software engineers mislabeled the parts of an electric motor and had no idea how it worked. Thanks to a boyfriend who had taught me about motors in the 1970s, I was able to label the parts correctly.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    I echo Marian and Betsy, Jeff, in my kudos to you. It is so refreshing to hear someone who not only has always embraced technology but is proud of it. And, as you noted, this love really boils down to whether you like taking things apart and figuring out how they work. I do to a point, but was at least equally attracted to the “black box” idea, which was explained to me in some science course along the way.. As I’m sure you know, that relates to one’s ability to properly utilize a machine –like a TV or a computer — without having to understand how it works (i.e., what’s inside the box).

    Anyhow, terrific story, Jeff, and, again, congrats on being a Plastic Fantastic Lover. (Incidentally, I gather the song is about a new stereo system: https://www.songfacts.com/facts/jefferson-airplane/plastic-fantastic-lover.)

  4. Suzy says:

    Well, we said in the prompt blurb “if you are lucky enough to take to technology naturally, it’s your turn to brag!” I’m so glad you did, and it’s not really bragging, just matter-of-factly telling us about your skills. Thanks for a wonderful story! And as Betsy said, wish you lived close to me so I could take advantage of your expertise!

  5. Wonderful story Jeff, thankfully there are enough of you techies around to help us non-techies.

    In our house when things go wrong it’s ,
    “call the computer guy”, or “call the kid.”

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Wow, Jeff, could I ever use someone who loves putting things together and tinkering with my computer when it is feeling naughty. Luckily, I seem to have one grandson who is on that path. Great story!

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    I am so happy that you and engineers exist in the world, as I have little of that natural capability but respect the need for it more every year! I recall FORTRAN too–I took an extra-curricular course in high school in that, thinking that if computers were the future, I should get with the program, so to speak. Alas, I am a simple user. If your love of putting things together extends to IKEA, I think you have a full-time job awaiting you in retirement once you advertise that fact.

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