Sunday, 5 February 2012

Doing it

Yesterday I bought an old transistor radio for three quid that didn't work. It took me back. It had a dark, close-fitting leather bag with a strap on the top. I never did like listening to pop music as a background drone, but there is something nostalgic about the sound of an old transistor radio. I'm able to say this because when I got the thing home I disembowled it, tweaked it, poked about with my soldering iron and got it going - well, on medium wave, at least. It didn't take a lot of doing: to get technical for a moment, I just wiggled everything until I found what made the horrible noise it was making worse and replaced it with something that looked the same from a box of bits. You don't know what you can do until you try. I think of building or fiddling with radios as almost a form of meditation. You have to take your time, go step by step, prepare your ground, make fine movements. First you need a bright light and  box to put all the screws in as they come out so that they don't roll onto the floor. Then one of those alligator clips on sticks things that will act as an extra pair of hands - and blutack. Blutack is brilliant for holding screwheads on screwdrivers when you have to push them into fiddly places. You can stick screws on long thin sausages of blutack too, if they're going into really awkward places. And then there's the soldering iron. One false move and make a right mess of things. The cheap ones are nasty and frustrating because they never get hot enough. Slightly dearer ones  get really hot and - zap! The job's done. No messing.

It strikes me, as this stream of consciousness rolls along, that one of the things I love about electronics (and radio in particular) is that try as I might, I don't understand it!  I come at it as a tinkerer. As a musician I know my tonics from my dominants, my sharps and flats and why thing are the way they are more or less, but the facts that lie behind electronic engineering have to be dinged into my brain to have any hope of staying there and fall out as soon as I start moving about. I love the poetry of it. The box with no moving parts and a voice coming out of it - not to mention the unworldly sound-world that goes on between the stations.

It makes a change and it's good to tinker, to find one's way - to find out by experience, to work on aquiring a working knowledge rather than developing a trained knowledge, for a change (although the boundaries between the two, obviously, are not hard a fast).

And what shall I do with the radio, now it works? I'm not sure. Now it works, I can feel myself losing interest, moving on. I might tinker with it some more. Or I could just put it in the bathroom and listen to it.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Please do not bring it to put in our garage along with the thousands of radio parts we store for you there! Whoever put that radio on the stall at the coffee morning probably said, "Let's take this old radio. Dominic will be at the coffee morning and he will buy it!"

Your post reminds me of something your father used to say (did you remember that it was 21 years yesterday since he died?) He used to say that with all things they either beat you or you beat them. He always felt he had art - painting and drawing in particular, although he could turn his hand to almost anything in that field - by the throat but that although he loved playing all his early instruments he had never really mastered music to the same degree.

George said...

A wonderful, interesting post, Dominic. I envy you for having both the ability and the patience to do something like that. I think there must be a mathematical connection between music and tinkering with electronics.

Kat Mortensen said...

I had to read this part out to Kevin because it made me chuckle:

"when I got the thing home I disembowled it, tweaked it, poked about with my soldering iron and got it going ... replaced it with something that looked the same from a box of bits."

I'm not much of a one for electronics, but I am most definitely a "tinkerer". When something is broken, I will think about what I can do to repair it. I'm pretty resourceful at podging things together and getting results.

I love how you called it "poetry", because it is - well, at least, it's ART!

Are you a Gemini? I could so relate to your lack of interest after it was all done.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

WG: I had not realised. I can read cirtuit diagrams, solder and apply past experience but like my dad and music I've never mastered the maths needed to design things for myself in electronics. I don't feel beaten by it, though, and I do have fun.

George: I'm sure there is. Reflecting on the funtioning of my own brain (insofar as one can), what is psychologically interesting is what it tells me about learning styles.

Kat: I'm a Pisces. I lose interest because it's the putting radios together that excites me most. I might tinker with it further. If you can podge things together and think something creative is going on here, build yourself a crystal set! There are too many blokes and not enough women involved in this hobby. The poetry when you cobble a few parts together and hear a continental radio station coming from your creation has to be experienced to be believed. In fact I might just make one and post about it!

Gerry Snape said...

Medium wave.... and next we'll be talking about the Home Service...or is that showing my age to clearly?! I...remember my older brother making one and being amazed at all of the bits of copper and odd ends of wire!

Rachel Fenton said...

We have a crystal set - I don't want to do anything with it - just look at the bits.

I loved this post - it is poetry.

Nothing better than a shed full of bits of weird and wonderful matter. My personal favourite shed items - jars of nails and little bits - if they're rusty, all the better.

I used tohave a slodering iron for fine metal work - I just liked melting things with it though.

GOAT said...

Wish I'd lived near you in the dark era when I still used PCs...

I really envy anybody who can fix things. I can see how it would be so meditative and absorbing. My father can do that but I never inherited a single cell of the skill. Whereas I read books and write a bit and stuff, and he's never, ever sat down at a computer...

As you say, though, now what to do with the thing? For me radio as a medium ranks even lower, if that's possible, than TV.

The final issue your post raised for me was Blutack (or however you spell it). Here I was thinking it was an Australian invention. Interestingly, sort of, you can't get it in Asia. I actually brought some with me to Korea, along with a tube of Vegemite.

That is all.

Friko said...

An amusing post, Dominic. I like the idea of somebody tinkering until they have the tinkered with working again and then losing interest. Maybe.

That is something I would do.

Gwil W said...

And here I was just congratulating myself for having assembled a child's plastic toy consisting of about 12 parts ... ach Gott!

tony said...

My Skoda Is Held Together With Bluetac!

Alan Burnett said...

I must admit I am not a electrical tinkerer, I suppose I have a bit of a fear of all things electrical. But I do remember the old kind of transistor radio you describe and I recall with joy the one I got as a teenager which allowed me to listen to the radio in bed.

swiss said...

myself, i saw these and thought of you (waves in pembrokeshire is magic!)

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

GS: The Home Service... I have a childhood memory of my mother listening to Mrs Dale's Diary and the Music While You Work theme (which was still being played, I think, in the early 60s). Why on earth did they change the name?

RF: Your crystal set- can you receive UK stations on it? That would be a challenge.

Goat: Sadly, disembowelling (and the re-embowelling) computers is not something I've tried.

Radio, to me, ranks far higher than TV. (Someone famously said that the difference between TV and radio was that, with radio, the pictures were better). Part of the attraction to me is that I have a transmitting station here. I'm a sucker for blogging and Facebook, but establishing 2-way communications with people around the world by radio has, for me, a thrill all of its own.

Friko: A big part of the fun I get out of radio is making radios or making them work. I suppose I lose interest like a car mechanic loses interest in an engine once it's working and drives off.

GwilW: Not to be sneezed at. I do those models in Kinder Eggs when they come my way - but they rarely if ever stretch to 12 parts.

tony: Up here in rural N Yorshire cars are held together with baler band. Someone I knew got me into wire potato bag ties. These are really handy too, for this and many other things.

AB: I had one as a teenager. I was dying for it to break down so that I could legitimately dismantle it (which I duly did when it did).

swiss: thanks for that. A new slant on Antony's soliloquy.

MartinRMeyers said...

Wish I had the skill to understand the workings of a radio! I'm a new bloger/writer and just added myself to your folowers to support you, maybe you'd like to come follow me? Thanks!

Kat Mortensen said...

Dominic, I'm afraid, I don't even know what a "crystal set" actually is! Sounds fascinating though.

Perhaps, in my dotage, I'll turn to such pursuits.