Kenbak 3/7/23

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

Many of my friends read my posts.  Not all of them, and that’s okay, but I’ve come to realize that my friends like it when I write about my father.  See, we never really got along.  Any of my regular readers realize this.  He was too conservative, too unyielding, too stubborn and never seemed to take pride in me or anything I did.  But ultimately, I did like him.  I understood my father, why he was the way he was, and although we never saw eye to eye, I had respect for him.  He taught me many skills, and a lot of my attitudes and opinions were formulated from his, although many were opposite.  For example, I don’t understand why marijuana is illegal but alcohol is legal, while my father believed that marijuana should be poisoned and distributed by the government. 

My father worked for a technology company back before people routinely went to college.  Back then, you would start in with a large company who would put you through a training and apprenticeship program to learn your job.  He was an electronics technician of sorts, and taught me what he had learned.  It’s because of my father that I know how to read an electrical schematic as well as a road map, which in and of itself is a dying skill.  Some months ago, I used a little of my inheritance money to purchase a micro-Kenbak-1 computer.

If it doesn’t sound familiar to you, it’s no real surprise.  This is not like the computer you are reading this post on.  Back in the late ‘70’s, there was a tech company that sold items out of their catalog.  These were electronic devices, and one of them was the Kenbak computer kit, and that’s what it was.  Not long ago, I put together what I call Shelley, my monster computer for running quantum calculations to test my hypothesis on hydrogen bonding.  Currently, it’s about ten days into one of these calculations, and I anticipate a minimum of about thirty such calculations to be required.  Yes, we’re talking about at least a full year of continuous calculations.  To put this together, it really amounted to purchasing the various components like the box, motherboard, memory chips, CPU, graphics card and so forth and simply putting them together.  It was a challenge, to be sure, especially since I apparently bent some pins in the process requiring me to purchase a second motherboard, but the Kenbak was different.

With the Kenbak, I did get a PCB (Printed Circuit Board), but the components came separate.  I had to literally solder the resistors, LED’s, and even chip sockets into the motherboard.  To put this together was very different from assembling Shelley, and in the end, there is no keyboard, no monitor, and no sound.  The only “display” is a series of twelve LED’s, and programming it requires putting in each bit individually, and the final results of any calculation (all mathematical) would be which LED’s are lit when it’s finished. 

But I knew I would have to solder to put it together (a process of melting “solder”, a low melting metal, to put components together with a connection that can conduct electricity), and that makes me think about my dad.  In a way, purchasing and building this rather useless computer in today’s world, anyway, was a tribute to him.  And it doesn’t even work correctly.  I let myself work on it for too long, until I was fatigued, but because of him, I also know why it’s not working and what I need to do to fix it, should I desire to do so at some later date.

When dad taught me to solder, it took time to heat up the soldering iron (it still does today but they do heat much more quickly).  To time the heating process, my father would plug in the soldering iron, and light a cigarette.  By the time he was finished smoking it, the soldering iron would be ready.

When I taught chemistry, I “inherited” a laboratory from my predecessor who left a lot of the equipment in a state that it didn’t work.  I spent my first summer running around the lab and getting all of this equipment to work at least to a point where it could be used for educational purposes in labs.  One of the items was a drying oven which, as the name suggests, is really nothing more than an oven.  Opening it up I realized that the heating coil had broken, fortunately near the point where it was attached to the controls.  It was a simple matter of soldering the coil back to the connector, so I plugged in my soldering iron, and in my dad’s memory, I stuck a cigarette in my mouth, but since I don’t smoke, it was just hanging out of my mouth.  At that point, our science coordinator came into the lab needing something when he saw me with the cigarette.  He looked at me and said, “you know you’re not allowed to smoke in this building, right?”  I took the cigarette out of my mouth, blew some imaginary smoke, and replied, “it’s not lit” before making a show of putting it back in my mouth. 

You can learn from just about anything.  My father taught me habits I still call on to this day, and taught me a lot of what I do not want to ever be, but I learned.  He never showed me love or respect, but I respect him, and who he was.  His was a solitary and lonely life of his own building, even surrounded by his family.  And I understand.


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