Category Archives: Gadgets


A student at the control board

Mark Skolnik student at the control board

When I arrived at Middlebury College in Vermont in the fall of 1957 at age 18, I was planning to become an engineer, transferring — with good physics, chemistry and math grades — to MIT after my junior year. I had done well in these topics in high school, and I had always enjoyed fiddling with radios and simple electronics.  After a few weeks at Middlebury I went into the basement of the Student Union building to check out the college radio station, WRMC. I could learn more about electronics, I thought, if they would take me on as a volunteer to do technical work.  An upperclassman showed me around. In the control room were two large turntables built into a bench on either side of a sloping panel with a lighted meter and six black knobs with a bunch of lever switches. Large windows on either side of the control room allowed the engineer to see into the studios on the left and right.  “Marty” (a pseudonym) is our chief engineer,” the upperclassman said, “He’ll be back later this afternoon and can answer your questions about the electronics.”

Marty was from Maine and worked with large mainframe computers for the local gas company during the summer, he told me when we met.  He led me out of the studio, past storage cages with provisions for the Student Union coffee shop upstairs to a small back room which contained a teletype machine fed by United Press International.  “American Tobacco pays for the UP teletype at many college stations like WRMC” he said. “All we have to do is air so many Lucky Strike commercials a day. They’re on those transcription disks.” He pointed to a stack of sixteen-inch records in sturdy manila sleeves leaning against the wall near the teletype.  These records, I could see, would fit on the Gates turntables I had seen in the control room, but were too big for home phonographs.

In an alcove behind the teletype was a large home-built electronic chassis with glowing tubes and wires sitting on a shelf.  It hadn’t been dusted in a long time. “That’s the transmitter,” Marty said. “It feeds into the old class-bell wiring underground that goes to all the buildings and dorms. They don’t use the bells anymore so we use the wires as an antenna.”

The next day I came back to learn how use the equipment in the control room. Jim Tracy, a sophomore, showed me how to cue records and operate the switches and knobs while always watching the VU meter to keep the needle out of the red “distortion” zone. Later that day I met another sophomore who had a country and western show and who was willing to let me do the engineering for him.  After a few weeks I was comfortable in the control room and asked if I might do some announcing too; I thought that it might help with my stuttering.

They let me start with the news, reading selected items from the UP wire. I did fine without stammering. You had to edit your copy beforehand, they said, because sometimes there were typos and other errors in the teletype feed.   When Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, the first UP bulletin read “POOP DEAD.” I went on to read other material and served as News Director for awhile. My main responsibility was to keep the teletype supplied with fresh ribbons and a full paper roll. God forbid the paper should run out in the middle of an important story overnight. It happened once and I got into big trouble.

Eventually I hosted my own classical music show.  It was very easy to run the entire station from the control room, announcing, cueing up records and manipulating the knobs and switches on the control board. You didn’t need a separate engineer and announcer if the show wasn’t too complicated to produce.

Rothchild & Frame

Ed Rothchild and Pete Frame cover a ball game with the successor to the BBB

WRMC covered Middlebury College sports by sending one or two reporters to the home and away games. We leased a special line from the telephone company for each game we covered, and carried a homemade portable console to connect the microphone to the phone line in the press box.  This black box was called “Baker’s Battery Bastard,” or the BBB after the former student who constructed it.

Peter Talbot was one of the juniors who were most active at the station when I was a freshmen. We envied him, because he had a summer job working on a real radio station in Connecticut. He also had a great bass voice that projected well on the air. One day he showed us a trick with which an announcer could recreate the play-by-play for a baseball game from a properly kept score card and a recording of crowd noises. One person could create the illusion alone in the studio and the listener would believe that the man on the radio was actually at the ball game:

It’s a bouncing grounder. And, OOOOOh, it’s by the shortstop on one hop. Johnson charges for third…[crowd noise up]… The throw from center. Not in time!  Heeee’s safe!!!…[more crowd noise]…

The deception depended on the listeners not knowing exactly when the game was played, and, of course, on a ready willingness to suspend skepticism every time they turned the radio on.

Next week: The transmitter

The Robot

P4900 Robotic Vacuum Cleaner

P4900 Robotic Vacuum Cleaner

A few years ago, Barbara and I saw an exhibition of the Roomba®, a robotic vacuum cleaner that patrolled a small patch of floor delimited by two-by-fours. Disk-shaped and about three inches thick, it buzzed and whirred, glanced off the barriers, and turned half or three-quarter pirouettes on the little wheels underneath. Unanswered by this demonstration was how well it cleaned floors.“That can’t possibly work,” I told Barb, “and look at the price: it’s almost two hundred bucks. What a rip-off.” We both laughed, and forgot the weird little machine.

In 2006 I was waiting for the results of a test for a brain tumor, when my favorite household gadget and useless accessory catalog arrived in the mail. There it was on the front page, a robotic vacuum costing only fifty dollars and promising to “pick up dirt, dust, hair and more from wood, carpet, vinyl and tile floors!”  My judgment collapsed. “I deserve a little distraction from all this worry about the tumor,” I told myself as I placed my order. I felt guilty, but just as quickly found the excuse I needed: “Well, it’s not much money and it might be fun. Besides, if I can get it to work in just one or two rooms, it could be worth it.” The mind that rationalized this purchase just as easily suppressed the memory of the Consumer Reports article that panned robotic vacuums as next to useless.

I unpacked the new machine a few days later, charged it up and turned it loose in the living room. It rolled and whirred, just like the Roomba®. It bounced off a couple of obstacles and sought refuge under a table. Each time it struck a table leg it pivoted neatly and charged into another leg. Our two cats, who flee at the sound of a real vacuum cleaner, ignored it.

Its major flaw, not to be deduced from the advertising, was obvious: it had no memory of where it had been. How long, I wondered, would it take to extricate itself from under the table in the corner of the large and still to be vacuumed room? At last, the robot broke free and headed for the large rubber plant in the corner.

The latest model (P3IP4960)

The latest model (P4960)

A few days later, after learning that I didn’t have the brain tumor that I had used to excuse buying it the first place, I tried the vacuum out in my study, which has a plastic mat under my chair to protect the floor. I left the room.  After twenty minutes, it fell silent. Did the battery run down? No. It stalled trying to get over the one-eighth inch edge of my floor mat and had shut itself off. To its credit, it had collected a couple of dust bunnies, but two white paper punched-out holes lay undisturbed next to my desk.

I now understood why it sold so cheaply. Pricier models, I learned, come equipped with a remote control, supplying what every memoryless robot needs, some means for a human operator to tell it exactly what to do.

Next week: Fireworks at 18 Pearl