Wednesday, June 07, 2006

My life as an engineering geek...

Last week, Adam and I had the opportunity to meet Rich Moore in Versailles while he was in Danville, Ky for business. Rich played defensive tackle in front of me our senior year (1984) for NorthWood High School. Spending a few hours with Rich last week brought back a lot of memories.

Rich's father, Clyde, was President of Crown International, a company founded by Clyde's father Clarence, a Christian missionary to Quito, Ecuador. Clyde was a deacon at the Wakarusa Missionary Church and we always had the best sound equipment. My brother-in-law was one of the volunteer sound technicians that operated the massive sound board. I occasionally sang in choirs, quartets and duets and always wanted to get my hands on the sound equipment, but never did.

During high school, I developed an interest in programming as a freshman, then later an interest in electronics. I was almost certain that I would attend Purdue University to get an Electrical Engineer degree and return to Elkhart and work at Crown on audio equipment. There were a couple of significant events that drew me in that direction.

1) I went to a Larry Norman concert at the Notre Dame Convention Center with Clyde and Rich. Clyde took us up by the power amplifiers and showed us that most of the serious concerts were powered by Crown.

2) A day here and there with Rich in his mother's music studio. My family had a Wollensak reel to reel player that recorded significant events. Rich's family had a wall mounted rack of all sorts of equipment. The perks of having a room full of electronics was a big draw.

Once I arrived at Purdue, I needed a job or two, so I started working at Lafayette Instrument Company and worked on several of the companies' first embedded products that are no longer available. There were several little projects ( Vertical Jump Height Detector, Skin Calipers, Flicker Fusion Device, others using a 68HC11 ) but the project that I worked on the whole 2 years that I was there was the embedded thermal polygraph. The first and only of its kind. Some of the prototypes were demo'ed at a convention and our salesman promised the end of messy, swinging ink pens and ink bottles in the future.

Alas, the feeding of thin thermal paper was more difficult than anyone expected so the product was never marketed beyond a 10 minute demo from time to time. I enjoyed learning about the physiology of a liar and measuring things in chart form.

The traditional polygraph came as a 4 pen or 5 pen or 6 pen model. The digital embedded (Rockwell 6502 processor) version that I worked on offered up to 8 expansion slots and you could adjust the baseline height and amplitude of the signal anywhere on the chart. I even developed a font generator and a remote (via serial cable) operator panel that allow the interviewer to silently mark the charts when Response or Control questions were asked and Yes or No answers were given.

If you look on the company website, you will see the embedded digital technology never made it. The dime-a-dozen Windows computer programs took over in 1995. Host based polygraphs are now the poor man's version of the original mechanical device that professionals still use today.

In my senior year at Purdue, I still had thoughts of returning to Crown, but my interviews with Delco Electronics and IBM offered differences that I hadn't considered before. After much prayer and council, I decided to work on embedded controllers in printers for IBM in Charlotte, NC. There, I was sure I would be able to be paired with enough mechanical engineering resource to feed paper, even if it had to have holes on each side to keep it feeding straight.

To this day, 20 years later, I am still absorbed by a passion to mark paper... whatever the technology.

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