July 25, 2022
Our family vacations always do multiple duties.
For example, over the years with summer camps and activities, it never fails that in spite of our intentions we’re always either en route to vacation on my birthday or heavily into it. Vacations check multiple boxes, and the days of simply luxuriating at a beach with a book are behind us for awhile.
This year’s excursion to California was a chance to tour a couple of colleges for Miss P, a chance to spend a couple of days with a dear friend from our Seattle days, and generally soak up the West Coast vibe.
I’d forgotten that west coasters, regardless of whether they’re upper-left or lower-left coast, all drive similarly. It took me a day or so to revert to my Washington Interstate driving habits. Not aggressive, just a bit more intentional than I am at home.
But I digress.
The two engineering college tours were a great first step towards Miss P. focusing on what her exact STEM focus might be, and thankfully we have a year to lock in. One of the campus tours took us into a hive of engineering creativity: tool rooms with lathes and milling machines for students to use 24/7, tables full of Raspberry Pi devices and every possible sensor and peripheral, and even a room where this college was building an airplane in the basement. This created a flood of memory of growing up with a engineering Dad who always encouraged my enthusiasm for building things.
For a while, I was fascinated by steam engines.
It may have been a steady diet of Jules Verne steampunk, coupled with my Dad’s two-volume set of “The Way Things Work.” The diagrams of how engines did their magic, with valves, rocker arms, and pistons were irresistible to me. So after days/weeks of poring over schematics, one night after dinner Dad said, “Let’s go down to the shop and see what we can build.”
“The Shop” was where my Dad was Vice-President of Manufacturing, Coburn Optical Industries of Muskogee, Oklahoma.
For most of my life, this had been my after-hours playground, and one of places where I learned to use my hands. STEM experimentation before it was a word. An IBM System 3 in the front office, all shiny and isolated behind glass, hydraulic and pneumatic pumps and tools galore in the back. A few years before, the manufacturing crew had been on overtime, getting new optical equipment ready for a national convention. So when my Dad came home for dinner and was going back afterward, I said “Can I come?”
I wound up going along, and I was taught how to wire motors to switches in gray-green metal cabinets — at first with an experienced electrician watching and checking over my work. Then I was able to solo, unpaid labor (and child labor!) but I was loving it.
In this instance however, my Dad and I used the lathes and milling machines to build a prototype one-cylinder steam engine out of wood. The wooden piston rod was attached to the piston with a cotter pin (so it could swing up and down in concert with the drive wheel). It was a fun project and gave me the great satisfaction of seeing how you could take a raw material and with tools, make it into something that could accomplish work. Save human or animal power. Or at least be cool.
Who knows where Miss P. will go with her interests. But no matter what, I’ll think it’s cool.