In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth in outer space. A tidal wave of angst swept the US over what was perceived to be an education gap, because the Ruskies had seemingly gotten a leg up in the space race. The New York Times described their feat as a demonstration of the technological superiority of Communism.
During the Cold War this was serious business. If the Russians were ahead of the US in space, what next? Science and technology in general? Nuclear armaments? If something wasn't done, before we knew it, they'd be sending their baseball teams to the World Series and winning. All that was left after that was for them to drop a bomb on Washington, D.C., then invade and take over what was left, turning the mutated survivors into Godless Communists. Kids at school carried signs that said, "Learn Russian now and avoid the rush."
It was in such a climate that geeks briefly had their day. Smart students with abilities in science and math were suddenly looked to as the hope of the nation. Given encouragement, the better ones flourished.
Many such students attended my high school, a venerable institution that was consistently rated as one of the best in the country. We even had a rocket club, with a budget, and projects that actually got built and launched.
From sixth grade until my sophomore year it was my desire to go to MIT and become a nuclear physicist. When I was a freshman, I had two buddies, Ian and Butch, who liked to play with explosives. They read books on ballistics and designed rockets on their own, being of the conviction that the students in the rocket club were morons, incapable of igniting firecrackers.
I tried to join them in their research, but their understanding of scientific matters was apparently divinely inspired, and therefore greatly surpassed my own. Before long I found myself excluded from their company. Nevertheless, for at least four years I nurtured hopes of someday unlocking secrets of the universe.
One Saturday in spring of 1958, a large science fair was held at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago, featuring exhibits from brilliant students all over the Chicago area. I begged my father to take me to it, and he agreed. As we toured the floor, I stood in awe before every exhibit, and wanted to know everything I could about each one.
It would have been easy just to walk around and look at all the colorful charts, working experiments, and other displays the exhibitors had prepared. But along with the display, each student was also supposed to give a comprehensive verbal presentation to anyone who asked.
The customary protocol was to approach each station with interest, ready to hear a lecture. As I moved from exhibit to exhibit, I was duly impressed by each one in turn. Ian and Butch were present, too. They displayed a complete cutaway model of a V2 rocket which won the second place prize.
But their work couldn't hold a candle to what was by far the most awesome display of all: a complete working television station, including a camera, monitor, and miniature control room with a complicated patch panel that a student built, which took up a good sixteen feet of exhibit space. Today, building something electronic often means assembling an array of integrated circuit boards on a bus. In 1958, it was more a matter of buying a mile of copper wire, some solder, and a pile of vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors, transformers, and special parts, and going to work with a circuit diagram, which made the boy's achievement far more impressive than it might seem these days. Crowds were clustered around this site, keeping the articulate young larval stage engineer constantly busy with demonstration requests. The boy won an easy first prize.
After two hours of wandering from table to table, I thought I had seen everything, when I noticed, sitting alone in an isolated alcove, a poorly dressed boy sitting next to a card table, with his head hanging down, looking dejected. He was apparently tending an exhibit of some sort, and I'd missed it. So I walked up and asked for a demonstration. There wasn't much to see, so it wasn't apparent what his project was about.
The boy was nervous and reluctant to speak. I hadn't figured out his problem yet, so pressed the matter, insisting I would be happy to hear his presentation.
He remained seated at the table, with his head hung low, his shoulders stooped, his legs apart, and his arms draped across his knees. He began, "My friend was supposed to do this, but he got sick, and my Mom made me do it. I didn't want to do it, but my Mom said I had to."
Uh-oh. This kid had probably already suffered humiliation about fifty times that day. What was this mysterious project?
All he had was a construction made with a large, painted coffee can and a couple of soup cans for arms and another one for a head, which had pieces cut out of it for imitation eyes and a mouth. Stuck up the center of the large coffee can was an ordinary light bulb in a socket. There was no switch, just a power cord coming out to an extension cord. It was not plugged in.
The boy mumbled, "It's a Morse code robot." Oh, really? "It's not a very good one. It works like this." Whereupon he demonstrated it by jamming the power plug in and out of the socket in the extension cord, making the light come on and off in a sequence of dot and dash flashes. It was apparent he didn't even know Morse code. I did, since I had been a Boy Scout, and was studying to be a ham radio operator at the time.
By this time my kind father had picked up on the reality of the situation, namely that we were the source of anguish to a hapless kid who had gotten stuck in an assignment that took him out of his depth. Dad thanked the boy for his efforts and quickly whisked me around a corner, just in time to save him the embarrassment of being exposed to a rapidly approaching attack of spluttering and guffawing.