After reading The Destructive Duo: Part-1, a friend commented that my narration reminded him of Richmal Crompton stories – “William and his outlaws’ Adventures.” Since we grew up without reading Hardy Boys and Enid Blyton or Compton for that matter, I could not recollect William stories. But I was happy to note that readers could remember their own escapades and the adventures of their childhood heroes while reading my blogs.
From repairing things we moved on to making stuff – kind of DIY. Two things stood out for this blog, a phonograph and a film projector. I don’t remember which we attempted first. Since sound came first (I am talking about the invention) let me start with phonograph.
His Masters But No Voice
Till the advent of Cassette Recorders, the only way to listen to music was from Vinyl Records (LPs in Indian Lingo). The original records were of course not vinyl, but made of graphite. They ran at 78 RPM. You wind the mechanism in the box, place the record on top, put the needle (stylus) gently on the top of the record, release the key and the sound would be reproduced through the cone speaker. Yes there was no need for electric power or batteries and of course no software.
A Phonograph (L) and a Radiogram (R)
We had not seen a phonograph (Pic Top Left) in our childhood and my earliest memories of a record player is nostalgic. In the village where we grew up, when a new movie was screened in the only cinema, they used to advertise it through a bullock-cart. The cart had a record player which played MGR songs. The player actually worked with a car battery. When we heard the song, we used to rush out of home, and the cart driver or the one who played the record would throw the notice printed a cheap paper at us advertising the new release.
The second player we saw was a Radiogram (Pic Top Right). It had a Radio and a Record Player which was popular throughout the world in the 1950s and 1960s.
We had a science lesson one day about how a phonograph worked and we decided immediately to build one. Mohan Ram-Eye Witness – Movie with Mohan Ram– found couple of old, scratched and broken on the edges 78 RPM records and we went to work. We did not understand the that speed of the contraption we made should match the RPM of the record. We just assumed if the record spun on an axis, we could reproduce sound. We were also extremely limited on resources and made everything from what we had at home.
(L) The Player we made using a cone for speaker. (R) 78 RPM Record
On a weekend, we borrowed an old aluminum pan from mom which we used as a base for the Record player and inserted a bolt in the centre which in itself was a huge task. First we tried with a big nail and a hammer for putting a hole; on the first stroke, the bottom of the pan bent. Mohan Ram and JK, who together, would have had a million times more patience than me, took over the task. They put a small hole with a nail used in picture frame and using a compass made it bigger, slowly and steadily. Now the bolt was in place. We put the record on top and pushed it so that it would spin. We rummaged through dad’s tool box and selected pins of various sizes which would serve as a stylus for the record. So Mohan Ram spun the record, JK held the stylus on the grove and I held paper cone and listened. Nothing happened. So we decided we needed some automation and went to Part B.
We thought a motor form an old Mechano set would do the job. We had a primitive motor which looked something like this.
We modified the motor, inserted our bolt and placed it under the pan and the bolt spun and we thought we did something great. But the problem was, the graphite record weighed a ton and when you put it on bolt, it would not budge even an inch which sent us back to square one. Of course with all the alterations we made, the mechano set soon gave up its ghost. We eventually figured a way to rotate the record and it produced some hissing sound. And we interpreted the hissing sound with lyrics of the song and everyone had a different version of what the sound was.
The Phonograph had an happy ending much later in life. When I first saw a set of records and a Vinyl Player at Renuka’s (my wife) place, I told her we would take it home. My father in law had a great collection of vinyls including some Beatles and Rolling Stone Singles which is in our prized possession now and I also became an avid Vinyl collector.
A Fused bulb and A Movie Projector
I am not sure what made us to get into this project but we did with all the enthusiasm as we showed in other projects. Mohan Ram actually came up with the idea of building a bioscope. He wanted to be a movie hero in high school days which probably would have gotten him interested in this.
An old Bioscope (L) and the Projector we made with carton and fused bulb
We figured out that a bulb that went kaput can work as a lens when filled with water (convex shape). To break open the top of the bulb, was not easy as we initially thought.
Pin type bulb and the top with insulation
The idea was to scrape through the top with a knife which of course did not work. So we gently places a nail and hammered it. JK was holding the bulb in a cloth assuming we would definitely end up breaking up the bulb and we did. Bulb supply was not an issue those days. Terms like guarantee and MTBF (Meantime Between Failures) were not in vogue so we had a few to go about. We scraped some foam and placed the bulb on it and gently tapped and we could open it. Then we removed the pins on either side to insert a wire to hang it inside the carton. Inserting the wire, more importantly hanging it inside the carton resulted in another arduous deal.
First we tried with a thin wire which would go through holes at the side of the bulb easily. But when we filled the bulb with water, the wire would sag under the weight of the water-filled bulb. And to prove the Murphy’s law, the wire would sag only after we inserted the bulb in the carton. After a few minutes, the wire would come out the grove, fall on the floor, flooding the carton, making it useless. After a visit to provision store for a replacement, we decided to use something stronger and selected for a stick from the broom made of coconut tree stem. (Picture top left). It was stronger but had a poor life. After an hour the stick would break, the bulb would fall and we were back to where we started. Eventually JK came up with an idea. We needed a thin wire (to go through pinhole of the bulb) but it should be stronger. Result? We located some burnt sparkles (crackers used in diwali), removed the burnt chemicals and used it as the hanger.
Connector for the Bulb: a stick from the broom, a steel wire, a burnt sparkle
So the lens was ready and we got couple of feet of old film discarded by the nearby cinema hall and rolled it up, made an incision in the carton at the front to place the film. When we focussed light on the film, the lit up image passed through the lens and projected on the back side of the carton. We used the viewing slot, cut on the carton, to have a look at the result and watched the film in awe.
The broken bulbs and soggy, water filled cartons, always left a huge trail of mess and our sister and mom who ended up cleaning the sites of destruction would curse and scold us for hours after our experiments. The glass of the bulb was so thin, when broke, split into tiny pieces which was not visible to the naked eye and you realized some of them were still on the floor, only when you walked over them and an unswept piece pierced through your foot and you ended up in tears. Our sister often did this and it was not a great sight.
Our adventures stopped for after Class IX as we got busy with our O and A levels (SSC and HSC) preparations. There was one final adventure before we left the city where we grew up.
Had Rupavahini, the Sri Lankan TV broadcaster known that JK would leave Chennai (Madras as it was known then) in the summer of 1982, they would have postponed their launch by a few months. They did not and launched their operation in February 1982 and ‘there by hangs a tale’ as Jeffery Archer would have put it.
We had one Channel Television in Madras which broadcasted only in the evenings and very bad programs most of the days. We used to wonder why the Television had a Channel Selector for 8 stations when we had just a single channel.
One fine evening in 1982, JK came home and told us excitedly that Rupavahini is launched in Colombo and his friend adjusted his Antenna and got to see a program which was very exciting. Our TV and Antenna looked something like this.
Our First TV in a Cabinet, 8 Channel B & W TV and a TV Antenna
The Antenna was on the roof and to reach it, we had to climb a thin parapet wall (about 4 inches wide) and jump to the roof from our first floor apartment. A slip from the wall would have taken us one floor down and straight into a hospital with multiple fractures.
JK informed that he has learnt how the antenna had to be positioned and asked me to change the channel and do the fine tuning. It was a trial and error at its best. You had to adjust the antenna and at the same time adjust the fine tuning. So to communicate the result to JK we needed someone to stand near the parapet wall and we forced Mohan (my youngest brother, appeared in My brother goes to College – again!) to act as a relay.
It was just a freak coincidence that his friend got a reception for few seconds and he had blown it out of proportion. We realized this only after hundreds of attempts. By the time we came home from college to closing of broadcast time there was probably a 40 minutes window. So we had to work against a deadline if you may call it, to get the reception. For the next 3 moths we spent every evening adjusting the antenna, the knob and the fine tuning dial. JK and I used to switch position hoping the other person would be more lucky, forgetting our dinner and studies.
For all the efforts we made we would have got few seconds of grainy reception; if the picture was better the sound would go mute and if you adjusted everything to make sound OK, the picture would become grainy leaving you to guess who the actor was.
The endless frustration came to an end only when the exams approached and by the time we had bruises all over us (hundred of attempts in climbing on to the roof), dislocated antenna brackets, broken the channel selector and the fine tuner.
Lessons for Life
Few years back Rachna, my daughter asked me, “did these adventures or misadventures as you call it, teach you anything?” I answered “Yes they did” and quoted few things.
First it taught us to be unfazed in any situation. We understood that the machines are bound to fail and we could always make it work. We never got frustrated when something stopped working but saw it only as an opportunity to make it OK, a trait we inherited from our dad, a truly remarkable person, who was obsessed with perfection.
We learnt to look through things before starting a project; the likely bottlenecks and the probable solutions. It always helped us to plan well, whether it was for a family vacation or a bike adventure or new product launch for the company.
We could always do things with limited resources which played a major role in my professional life. When I started working with chemical feed systems for polymers, during installation something always went wrong and most of the times, I could fix them without a mechanical engineer or an Instrumentation expert. An ex colleague of mine recently remarked that the feed lines for chemicals we installed in 1998 at a large corporate customer site is still being used after 20 years.
JK has applied these learnings throughout his career where he donned multiple hats. He had commented that even in the large Engineering Company he works, he uses some of these techniques in the manufacturing excellence processes (TQM).
Mohan Ram has become a successful family physician and an Anesthetist, a profession where you need extreme levels of patience and precision.
On patience though, I need to say, after many years, between JK and me the roles are reversed.
Doodle Courtesy: Rachna