Sunday, January 28, 2007

Lights by Electrolysis

I wouldn’t have been much of a good friend to Benjamin Franklin if I lived in old timey colonial days. For starters, I don’t carouse with French women of questionable lineage, I don’t like indoor pot-belly stoves, and I don’t wear bifocals. I find lightning rods less interesting than the workings of the post office, but most important is that I don’t like electricity. Not that I’m one of those flat-earth freaks who shun the conveniences of the modern age—I like plumbing like the best of us—but I think what I don’t like about electricity is that it is one of the only facilities you come into contact on a regular basis that can stop your heart. Say what you will about the quality of water in Southern California, but at least it won’t make your hair stand on end and your eyes spin around in their sockets. I’ve had several run-ins with the buzzing beast in my life, and here are two introductory tales to illustrate my point. Sorry Ben, we just wouldn’t have been able to hang out is all; nothing personal (but I do enjoy looking at your picture on my money, whenever you show up that is).

Jason and I spent the weekend at Grandma and Grandpa’s house one year, and we went to the clubhouse (they lived in a mobile home park, hence the clubhouse) for a rummage sale where we found an old radio for ¢50. It was from the 60s, off-white, plastic (very much like the picture here of an Admiral Y3006 “Ashley” model from 1961). In our room, we put the radio between our beds on this yellow step-stool Grandpa made for us—one of those Rosebud items I wish I still had—and I remember staying up as late as we could on Sunday nights to listen to the Dr. Demento Show but usually we fell asleep before it came on. And there were countless times we got into trouble for listening to it “after hours.” Anyway, more to the point, the radio had one interesting flaw, a good reason it was only two bits to begin with, but every time you came near the plug, it would shock you, just one of those little buzzes but enough to make you jerk your arm back. I don’t remember why we were unplugging and plugging it in all the time, but maybe we felt that we didn’t want to burn down the house from a radio with obvious faulty wiring.

My second memory of being on the grounded side of free electrons was during high school. My friend Heidi and I went to play tennis at Finkbinder Park in Glendora and it was getting onto dusk while we were playing. Soon it got too dark to play and we were wondering why the lights didn’t come on. Since even then I thought I was more mechanically minded than I actually was, I figured I could get the lights to go on, easy as pie. There was a control box at the base of the light pole, and I flung it open, hoping to find a switch with an “on” sign, but instead, I found two nasty looking wires poking out. Well, simple enough, connect the left wire with the right wire, complete the circuit and flood the court with light. Maybe it would have been a good idea to use my racket to push the wires together or go find a couple of sticks instead. Being just a hair over 16, good ideas were then hard to come by. When I grabbed both of the wires, one in each hand, it was as if a pair of vice grips had seized me by the arms and shook me, and a split second later, a pair of hammers pounded me on the shoulders. The lights didn’t go on and I was sore for a couple of days.

Needless to say, once bitten… I’ve become leery of electricity. I don’t understand it, and I have trouble comprehending the mechanics of it even (and I was, for a brief while, the editor of an electronic magazine—I know, crazy). My neighbor, an engineer, was complaining about having to replumb his toilet because it leaks and he doesn’t understand how plumbing is possible. Give me a toilet over a breaker box any day.

About 15 years ago I, ahem, acquired a stop light in that manner people acquire things when no one is looking. It was a simple red/green two-light traffic light, as I thought at the time it would be cool to have a blinking traffic light in my garage. Well, here we are, 2007, and the light has collected nothing but a decade in a half of dust on its bulbs. I figured it was time to open it up and take a look at what makes the lights go on.

As it turns out, it was an easy fix that didn’t cost me a dime. I had a length of electrical wire, a wall-socket adapter, a multi-meter and a screw driver. Inside, there was a bunch of wires going to both of the lights and when I removed all of the wires that controlled the lights (it originally stayed on red until someone used an access card and then it flashed to green for about 15 seconds), I was left with a simple set of wires. I unhooked a few of the redundant wires and connected the red and green bulbs to the same wires and then plugged it in. Much to my amazement, it worked; both of the lights shined bright.

Now, I’m looking to find a schematic for a circuit that will make the lights oscillate like a real stop light. I know it’s possible with resistors and stop-gap switches, but it is just a matter of finding out how it is done.

No comments:


web site tracking
Sierra Trading Post