When I attended university, during the late 1970s, I elected to take a degree called bachelor of arts in physics. I chose physics as my major because I wanted to become a doctor. Of the three traditional pre-medical preparation programs--physics, chemistry, and biology--I found physics the most appealing. The degree was a "bachelor of arts" because it was somewhat softer than a rigorous "train to be a researcher" degree, but instead featured courses that might be described as "train to understand what people are talking about when they talk about physics with you". I do not mean this as a put-down of the program, by the way. I have known a few scientists and many engineers who cannot discuss subject matter that they know by heart nor understand anything not wired up to a motherboard, an oscilloscope or an xbox.
A few bits of plot resolved themselves so simply that we need not tarry over the details in the false hope of building suspense. I failed to make a serious run at medical school, as my grades dipped in short order from the requisite strong B+/weak A- required in that era to qualify for medical school to the B- levels. I ultimately qualified to go to law school, where I thrived. Perhaps this entire weblog should be sub-titled "tales in mitigation of destiny after inexcusable collegiate laziness and failure, leading to neglect of the health care of thousands", but I like "Robert's Journal" better as a working subtitle.
I have always been grateful, though, to the physics department of the University of Arkansas. I encountered there professors who cared about their subject matter and their students, and an informal sense of wonder I retain by imitation to this day. We attended class in a curious cinderblock building, apparently a campus wide heating and cooling center rejected for that purpose (and hence devoted to physics). Its walls were painted pastels with inexpensive paints, giving it all a feel of a really hip elementary school carnival in a nuclear silo in the Second World.
One thing that my college program gave me was a rudimentary understanding of electronics. From the first semester until the end of my program, I was enrolled in a single six hour freshman course called "Electronics". I do not believe that anyone completed the course call "Electronics" in less than five to seven semesters. I was considered the gentleperson's "incomplete".
The course followed a useful instructional method. We were given "build your own computer" kits from Heathkit, perhaps purchased from a Radio Shack. We were placed in a workshop room with a graduate student and enough soldering irons to build a bridge. My recollection is that the kit required no soldering, but I have a keen memory of the smell of solder anyway. Perhaps we soldered something in sheer collegiate zeal. What mortals these fools be, and all that.
The ultimate goal was to build a computer which would take over our starship and then terrorize us like in 2001; or, failing that, to build a computer which could light a couple of light bulbs when running a simple binary machine-code program.
I ultimately built my computer, in semester 6 or 7 or so, and earned my "A". I learned, as with virtually all of my education, enough to talk about resistors and capacitors at the average dinner party. Integrated circuits were still fairly new then, in terms of widespread use, so we mostly studied routine electronics.
With this broad and elaborate heathkit-certified background in electronics, the idea of circuit-bending appeals to me. Circuit-bending is taking an electronic toy or tool and altering its electronics for the purpose of sound or light fun. The circuit bending community is out there rendering Speak n Spells safe for humanity, and making toy xylophones sound as if they are playing music by Prodigy. Needless to say, the artists got involved, as they are good with soldering irons, and all descended into perdition thereafter. Some circuit-bent things sound really cool, and some sound as if vandals have found their way into Symphony Space and replaced the violas with voices which sound as if they emanate from one's least favorite trigometry professor speaking through her nose.
I have thus far stayed away from circuit-bending, for the simple reason that Heathkit does not make a kit called "Circuit bending--and you! 144 great circuit bending projects, make your thingmaker into a mellotron! no solder required", and from my high school memories of working for the best and kindest television repairman ever, who assured me that if one touches an integrated circuit in the wrong way when it is "hot", then one next finds oneself pasted againt the far wall, grateful that the force of the blast was so great that one's life, if not one's singed hair, was spared. I tend to draw the line in my hobby experiences at near electrocution.
Lately,though, I've come to realize that if I could find an electronic gizmo powered only by AAA batteries,then the resulting 1.5 volt errors are unlikely to paste me to anything more wall-like than a post-it note.
When, yesterday, I found a little dollar store "fits in a shirt pocket" 'electronic piano', pictured above with a cheap crayon for size perspective, I decided it may be time for an experiment in circuit bending.
Thus far, I have disassembled the unit, leaving this:
It's a rather simple construction. Thirteen circuits integrated into two big electronic things provide thirteen notes. a small plastic set of "keys" make electronic contacts with the individual circuits, which sends signals back to a rudimentary speaker to play this note or that.
I believe that I will be able to add a capacitor or a resistor here or there, or change the speaker, and make the music play in a completely different way.
I know that it is the vogue to show such projects once they are done, because then the poster looks like some kind of genius. I prefer, though, to admit I have virtually no idea of what I am doing, and show you this "before" picture largely because I am not sure if I have the moxie to do an "after" picture.
We shall see what we shall see. I have a neat little recording of what it plays now, little diatonic tones ringing out like a cheap but fun keyboard.
When I am done, what will my genius have wrought? That is the question, and six semesters to find out the answer.