Transformers: the Dark Side of Household Science

This is another long-ass essay in the spirit of “Senator Jason vs. the Protoceratops“.  You might think, “tl;dr”, but if you’re interested to know why I am going to call a licensed electrician for any problem larger than a burned out light bulb, here it is.

Around about when I was 12 years old, my father decided to tell me, by way of example, why I should never play with electricity.  Actually, he asked me if I had ever heard of a Jacob’s Ladder, which is close enough, all things considered.  For those of you who don’t know what it is – I sure as hell didn’t when I was 12 – it’s a pair of metal wires in the shape of a V, and a little arc of lightning starts at the bottom and travels upwards, making a bzzzZZZTsound as it goes up the wires.  You’ve seen them, I’m sure, in old horror movies, where pretty much every self respecting mad scientist has one in the back of his lab, happily buzzing away, but providing no tangible use other than a cool sound effect and something for Igor to fumble over as he’s reaching for the brain belonging to that lovely old lady Abbie Normal.

To dream … the impossible dream …

Having a disquieting sense of dread about the events that were inevitably going to unfold – and because I honestly didn’t know anything about Jacob’s Ladders at the time, I claimed ignorance.  Though it was usually the safest approach, it really didn’t stop things, since my father’s question was simply rhetorical; he revealed his plans for how to build one with common household items later that afternoon.  It quickly came to my attention that the publisher of the blueprints he acquired (and others in the Do-It-Yourself series that, with any luck, went under soon after my father’s purchase) had a very vague and generally broad definition of “common household items”.  I began to wonder if this guy was – or ever had been – married, since most of the items on the list would end up coming from things that most households did, in fact, have, but also desperately needed to keep in order to function properly … like drive belts from a washing machine, the emitter from a microwave oven, and the compressor unit from a refrigerator.

(None of these things I mentioned above are needed to build a Jacob’s Ladder, but I did manage to sneak a peek at this guy’s plans for a “simple” MASER – or “microwave laser – the first step of which is cracking open your microwave like an easter egg and snagging the emitter … “the bigger the better!”  I can only imagine the desperate attempts at covering our tracks – to say nothing of binding our wounds – we’d have had to make if we actually attempted a project that involved not only electricity, but radiation on top of that.  “Okay, who melted the windows, and why does this box on the counter keep clicking??”)

The funny thing about my dad is that he, himself, is not much of a pack rat.  At least, he tries not to be.  The problem is that many of his friends – tinkerers, all of them – were, up to a point, until they decided that they had to clean house and called my dad over to take it all away.  This happened about five times, all with different people.  It’s like he was a lightning rod for all these folks’ old shit.  Thing is, and I’ll even admit this today … a lot of it was really interesting stuff.  Old computer parts, issues of Popular Mechanics, Discover, PC Computing, books on electronics projects … you name it.  And in my dad’s defense, he did get rid of a lot of it … other stuff, he just didn’t really know what to do with … like this OLD electrical transformer that was literally the size of a grade-school era lunchbox.  “How the hell am I even supposed to get rid of this?” he asked.  Well, we didn’t.  And it sat, unused, in our garage, for the better part of two years.

Until we saw that the plans for the Jacob’s Ladder needed, among other things, a big-ass transformer.

Not quite the same, but the idea’s about right.

To see such a turn of events allow this project to move forward began my journey towards a better understanding of what we call God, Fate, or simply the Universe, in that I think sometimes, just like us, it will put things together just to see what will happen.  It sort of demonstrates the same ignorant curiosity we have when we do something that, by all rights, should have won us a Darwin Award.  I read what I understood of the specs, which wasn’t much at the time, and got the basic idea that we were going to use the transformer to take a small voltage (from the outlet) and turn it into a HUGE one.  This part made sense, since there was going to be lightning involved, after all.  The only problem with this plan is that the transformer we had didn’t quite do that.  It was designed for the opposite purpose:  it would take a huge voltage and spin it down to a more manageable one.

The wise tinkerer would have either purchased a new transformer or, having abandoned that project, started eying the microwave with ill intent.

We, on the other hand, decided to just switch the input and output around and call it done.

It seemed like a good idea at the time … at least from my simple logic.  (And it can, in fact, be done in some circumstances, provided the thing is 1) robust enough to operate in both directions and 2) NOT older than Gilgamesh.)   I’m not going to speak for my father’s train of thought, but I figured it worked off of the same general principle as looking through a pair of binoculars the wrong way – instead of making everything larger, it would make everything smaller.  Of course, I was 12.  I don’t know my dad’s excuse for not thinking this was perhaps a bad idea since it involved one of the Four Household Elements (fire, electricity, plumbing, and the foundation – deadly to those who they think they can guess their way around this stuff without understanding firsthand what phrases like “completing the circuit” means without a free ride to the Emergency Room.)

Unfortunately, it’s around here where the story transfers perspective to “third person, limited omniscient”.   In other words, my mother called me in to do something important like help dry the dishes, and since I was there, can I empty the dishwasher and peel the potatoes, and don’t you have homework?   Isn’t that test on Monday??

God dammit.

My father took this as a chance to take a break himself and generally “putter around”.  (I think the prospect of using a piece of electrical equipment that heavy in a way for which it was not originally intended actually did concern him, to the point where he spent the time I was wasting on KP looking for a decent pair of gloves, goggles, and his old construction helmet.)  As the day progressed, I got bogged down in my homework, and quickly forgot about the Great Experiment in favor of things that I actually needed to do.  A few hours later, I wandered into the den to see what was on TV.  My little brother was sitting there, watching the EF Hutton Financial News Hour, and I flopped down on the couch to try to force all of the crap I had been studying out of my head for a while, even if I was replacing it with the pontifications of analysts trying to convince me of the benefits of dollar cost averaging and early investment in to non-taxable retirement accounts.

It was around when they started talking about tech stocks that the power went out.

We sat there for a moment and looked at each other in the darkened room.  Hm, that’s strange.  There’s no storm outside, Mom’s in the kitchen, we’re both here …

Ah.  Of course.

The back door opened, and my father came in wearing his makeshift ‘safety’ outfit that would have made any OSHA official worth his salt weep softly.  I caught a whiff of what I would be able to identify in later years as ozone, along with a faint smell of smoke.  He stood there for a moment, as if searching his mind as to what part of his plan went wrong to result in a small explosion, a scorch mark on the picnic table, and a power outage that was thankfully limited to our own residence.  My brother and I were both still sitting on the couch when I looked over at my father, trying to stifle a bad case of the giggles that had a bad habit of getting me in trouble, and asked him in as casual a tone as I could muster …

“So … how’d it go?”

He didn’t respond directly to me; instead, he simply wandered off into the garage, muttering something about how, in retrospect, the idea of “reversing the polarity” of the transformer was probably not the smartest response to not having the right equipment for a do-it-yourself high voltage experiment, no matter how many times it seems to save the day on Star Trek.  As for the house, no damage was done.  One of the circuit breakers tripped, and everything was back to normal once it was reset.  For a moment, I was worried that this would somehow embolden my father into having another go at the failed experiment, but the heat generated from the overload melted the windings in the transformer, turning it into a giant paperweight.

It was after that incident that we did another house cleaning.  We didn’t get rid of everything, but the transformer and the technical specs were the first to go.  I probably don’t need to point out that this did nothing to prevent subsequent local power outages or other miscarriages of science in the following years.

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