This post is inspired by a conversation I had with a nephew, and it hearkens to the same nostalgic emotions engendered by the first music video on MTV.
I was a young inquisitive child growing up in the 70s in an Amish household. Without access to modern technology, I struggled at age 11 to build an oscillator circuit by using sheet metal cut from an old stovepipe, a 9 volt battery fitted into a piece of 2×6 pine, dynamite wire scavenged from the nearby strip mine, and a speaker and 555 timer IC that I cut out of some electronic equipment dug out of the local garbage dump.
The achievement was incredible considering the circumstances, but thinking back, I have very little recollection of the actual consummation of the project. I assume I probably showed it proudly to my friends, who would have been awestruck, but completely ignorant of how it worked or why it was important to me. I simply don’t remember what I did with the project after it was complete.
What I do remember fondly is the struggle to achieve; the thrill of the hunt. I struggled to get information. I had obtained a prized 555, but I had to wait for weeks until the next trip to the city so I could stop by Radio Shack to get a pinout of the 555 along with circuit diagrams showing how to use it. Then I had to find components. I had long since built a treasure trove of capacitors and resistors that I had salvaged from discarded electronics, along with a pot full of potentiometers that I could use to adjust the oscillator frequency, but I still had to scavenge for some missing components.
The challenges of the quest made the final result more satisfying. It was the search for the holy grail that etched itself into my memory; I barely remember the grail itself.
Over the holidays during a family gathering, one of my Amish nephews was anxious to pick my brain. He explained that someone had told him that it’s possible to convert an electric motor into a generator, and so he set out on a quest to build a generator from an old electric motor and a small gasoline engine. The quest involved several letters mailed back and forth between people he knew that might have information about how to go about the task. He tried and tried, but could not get his generator to work.
I explained to him how he needed to remove the external circuitry from his motor so that it wouldn’t foul up the results; how he can add a rectifier and a regulator to generate direct current output. The excitement over this new discovery was written all over the young man’s face as he anticipated more adventure.
On the way home, I thought to myself that Google could quickly and easily have provided the answers that my nephew sought. But then it occurred to me that Google would also have deprived him of the struggle and adventure of discovery that motivates him to continue the quest.
I wonder how many young minds are missing out on the supreme adventure of discovery because we live in a modern culture where all the knowledge in the universe is seemingly already at our fingertips, just a Google search away.