First-Hand:An Eclectic Electrical Engineer

Submitted by Lyle Feisel

During the year of its Fiftieth Anniversary, IEEE recognized all members who had been enrolled in the organization for fifty or more years and encouraged them to write a “First Hand History” for the IEEE Global History Network website. I qualified for that honor, having been a member of both AIEE and IRE during my senior year at Iowa State, but have succeeded in postponing that effort while other affairs took precedence. Now, being more effectively retired from almost everything but IEEE volunteer efforts, I will undertake the task of trying to remember those events that were salient in my career and that I hope will be of some interest to visitors to the Global History Network.

My early years and my introduction to electricity and magnetism

I am a bit uncertain as to how much biographical information should be included in a first hand history but two points argue in favor of including at least some background on my early years: first, those early experiences undoubtedly had some impact on my later career and second, the uninterested reader can easily skip over this material and proceed to the more technical sections of the narrative. There will not be a quiz over the content.

As is true of everyone, my personal history began with my birth. In my case, this took place in the small town of Tama, Iowa toward the end of the Great Depression. My father rented a rather second rate farm where, due to the rotten economy, there was very little cash but plenty of food, the latter being ample in quantity and quality, if not variety. We butchered our own pork and beef, smoked our own ham and bacon, raised rabbits, chickens, ducks and geese for both consumption and sale and further augmented the table with rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, raccoons and even turtles that had the misfortune to appear in the gun sights of my four older brothers. Our lifestyle was below average but then so was that of everyone else in the community. As it was in Lake Wobegon.

The first nine years of my education took place in a one room country school house named, somewhat inelegantly, Columbia No. 2. It was so named because it was in Columbia Township and served the second school district from the east in the northernmost tier of districts. I had one teacher for my primary (what is now called kindergarten) year and then another for the next eight years. Fortunately, Enid Edna Geiger was an excellent teacher who was a stern but understanding disciplinarian and had both the knowledge and the pedagogical capability to challenge the better students while imparting a modicum of that knowledge to those who were less academically inclined. All the while spanning nine grades.

And now, at long last, something about electricity; we didn’t have it. Rural electrification was working its way across the Midwest but, when I started to school in 1940, it had not yet reached Columbia Township. The school was heated by a stove that burned either wood or coal and was lighted by three or four kerosene lamps. And of course we didn’t have electricity at home either until I was about ten years old. But when we did get it, what a change in our life! We could actually see to read without crowding around the kerosene lamp. The barn was lighted without the constant fear of fire. Electricity was like magic, which, of course, many of our fellow citizens still consider it to be. As a result of living for those years without electricity, I have a great appreciation of what our technology does for quality of life. I’m afraid that I do now take electric power for granted but I also have an appreciation for what we can and must do to bring electric power to those parts of the world where it is not available.

We did have a telephone that used, as I recall, two “telephone batteries”, 1.5 volt carbon-zinc dry cells about seven inches long and two inches in diameter. The system used only one (rusty) steel wire, using a ground return to complete the circuit. As one might expect, sound quality was seasonal.

My introduction to the science of electricity came through the use of one of these dry cells. The “big kids” in school got to wind insulated wire into a coil and, using the telephone battery, create an electromagnet which they then used to pick up nails, thereby repeating the experiments of Hans Christian Oersted and Joseph Henry, neither of whom was mentioned. I was still a “little kid” but I, as usual, had time on my hands so I designed my own experiment. I took a short small diameter wire (whence it came, I have no idea) and connected it directly between the two terminals of the battery. Then, for whatever reason, I decided that I could put my finger through the wire loop and use it as a handle to lift the battery. In so doing, I demonstrated the Joule effect, painfully searing a line across my finger. My first electrical experiment - at the age of five. Of course, I didn’t hear about James Prescott Joule until many years later but, when I did, I knew exactly what they were talking about.

My second electrical experience - I can’t call it an experiment - came shortly after our home was electrified. We all loved toast but, prior to electrification, toast was made using a long handled fork to hold the bread over the open coals in the kitchen range – a tedious and imprecise process. So one of the first electrical appliances we purchased was a toaster. It was the kind you now see in museums with doors that fold down and flip the bread so when you close the door the untoasted side is toward the heating element. Unfortunately, the bread didn’t always flip, so the operator had to do the flipping either by hand or by using a fork. (Upon mention of a fork, the prescient reader will see where this is going.) I presume I had been successful in doing this but eventually, probability caught up with me and my fork connected two points that were not meant to be connected. I didn’t get a shock but there was a huge flash and noise, one tine of the fork melted and the lights went out. It is not clear to me just whose law was demonstrated in this experience, but Murphy comes to mind.

Before we leave the years of my youth, I beg the reader’s indulgence as I relate two more experiments that I think (but have never been able to prove) are related. When I was ten or twelve years old, I ran across an automobile ignition coil that had been discarded because the ceramic neck of the high voltage terminal had been broken. Having experienced the occasional shock from an unprotected spark plug, I knew that the coil had the potential (so to speak) of producing a high voltage – although I would not have known the terminology. So, using a discarded but still reasonably potent telephone battery, I tried a few things and found, lo and behold, that when I either opened or closed the primary circuit, I could feel a little tingle at the secondary terminal. Again, I would not hear the name of Faraday for years to come. But this was exciting, so I rushed to demonstrate the phenomenon to my dad. Now Dad was a worker and his hands were covered with calluses which turn out to be great insulators. He couldn’t feel the tingle in his fingers so he put the two wires on his tongue and, sure enough, he felt the little jolt that was produced when I broke the circuit.

As a budding engineer, (but never having heard of engineering) I of course wanted to learn more about this phenomenon and, especially, to improve the performance of the system. Reasoning that if one interruption of the circuit caused a tingle, many interruptions would cause many tingles and perhaps even a genuine shock, I constructed an interrupter. I connected one wire to a ten penny nail and the other to a coarse steel file and when I stroked the file with the nail, the results were shocking. Dad has to see this! Another demonstration. This time Dad skipped the step of trying with his callused fingers and went directly to the tongue-based detector. I suggested that he might not want to do that but he brushed off my suggestion and put the wires on his tongue. Having delivered my warning, I saw no reason not to give the file a good stroke. The reaction was immediate and vocal, but no blame was assessed. We agreed that I had now figured out the basic law of induction even though, once again, we didn’t know what to call it.

And now for the corollary experiment. Fast forward some fifteen years or so by which time, as we shall see, I have obtained several years experience as a Navy missileman and at least one degree in electrical engineering. I was visiting my dad and he wanted to demonstrate his new method for securing nightcrawlers, the big earthworms that make excellent fish bait. The idea was to drive a metal rod into the ground and attach the rod to the “hot” wire of a 120 volt circuit. A current would then flow through the earth to a nearby ground rod, irritating the worms somehow and causing them to flee to the surface where they could be collected and pressed into service. The only problem was that he was using an unpolarized plug, so he wasn’t sure which way the plug should be inserted into the receptacle. He determined the correct orientation by grasping the rod in one hand and placing his other hand on the ground. If he got a tingle, he had the plug in correctly and all he had to do was wait for the worms. If not, he reversed the plug.

When he demonstrated the system to me, he had a hard time determining if it was properly polarized. Those callused fingers just weren’t detecting any tingle. So – and once again the astute reader will see what is coming – he asked me to try. Now my hands were not callused so, as we now understand, the experience was a reprise of the ignition coil experiment but with the roles reversed. I never asked if he involved me innocently or in the spirit of revenge but in any event, the Fates seem to have a way of evening things out.

One last thing about my early youth. I started to school at the tender age of four in 1940 and some sixteen months later, the world was at war. Mobilization was very rapid and within the next year or so, most of the young men of the community (including three of my four older brothers) had enlisted or been selected by their community to serve in the armed forces. Naturally, this left a great shortage of manpower, especially in the agricultural sector. Farm women had always worked full time at the farming enterprise, so there was no idle capacity there. The only thing left was to tap the potential of the very young. Thus, at the tender age of seven or eight, I found myself employed in field work, driving tractors and horses not only on our farm, but also assisting neighbors as the need arose. This was the norm for boys of my age and, while we didn’t work all the time, we were propelled into the adult world somewhat earlier than is the case today. I don’t think we suffered from it.

My high school years were decidedly unremarkable. I was introduced to science and mathematics, but would not say I was at all inspired. Probably the greatest intellectual impact came in my English courses where I was required to write intelligible themes and was also introduced to the world of literature. The ability to write and the concomitant ability to analyze have served me well and my interest in literature has added immensely to my life.

Probably the greatest surprise of my high school years was that I was really a pretty good student. Not only was I surprised, so also were my teachers. As I entered my senior year, they started to talk with me about college, a possibility that had not occurred to me. They not only suggested I go to college, they even suggested that I would do well in engineering, a profession about which I knew absolutely nothing.

As a consequence of their urging, and with the encouragement of my family and other friends, I found myself on the campus of Iowa State College (now University) in Ames in the fall of 1953. Tuition was $150 per year and I had a scholarship for that. Enrollment was about 8500, mostly in agriculture, engineering and science. That first year of college was an extremely profound experience. While Ames is only 60 miles from Tama, the horizon is infinitely wider from the former than from the latter. At least that was so for a seventeen year old farm kid. There were lectures and concerts and new friends and new social experiences. And, oh yes, there were classes, too. And I met a farm girl from southwest Iowa who has played an important part in my life to this day.

More to come. Check back later. -----