Prism Magazine - Novmber 2001
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Web Extra

Rambling Through the Attic

- By Bryen Lorenz

The current dean of the school of engineering at Widener University has undertaken an aggressive program of remodeling, re-equipping, and modernizing the engineering laboratories. As I was recently appointed to the position of the department chair of electrical engineering, the job of supervising this effort, at least in the E.E. programs, has fallen to me. As a consequence, this summer has found me wading through crumpled boxes of “stuff” and sifting through years of accumulated “things,” which had been left orphaned in places scattered throughout the laboratories, in an attempt to clean out these spaces. The dilemma that I faced was whether to find new locations to store old equipment, which is a creative and inventive endeavor, sell these items as used equipment for whatever they will fetch, or simply haul these items to the dumpster as scrap. The university's position on storage, similar to policies at other institutions, is that it cannot afford to provide valuable space as storage since this is not revenue-producing, whereas classroom or laboratory space is.

As I proceeded in my task, it occurred to me that I was rummaging through an attic full of items that must have befallen a similar set of circumstances years ago, placed there by unseen hands that have long-since retired, moved on, or passed away. These same hands had faltered in disposing of these items, feeling instead that they had some redeeming value for a future generation of laboratory instruction. In some way, I felt as if I were excavating an archeological site, searching through the debris of the past, moving ever backward in time. I had no idea of what antiquities lay before me. (It was rumored that a milk-separating machine from the 1930s or '40s had been found in one of the chemical engineering laboratories.) As I dug deeper, electrical devices with clumsy, bright red digital readouts with protruding banana plug inputs gave way to analog meters with squeaky knobs and yellowed instruction booklets. The digital divide had been crossed. Next, a cache of vacuum tubes was neatly placed, row upon row, in a drawer. In another drawer lay small power transformers. In yet another drawer were rheostats and potentiometers. Searching still further, hidden beneath the clutter, lay “potted” meters with fitted covers, large white dial faces and long black pointers for measuring currents and voltages. The manufacturer had thoughtfully equipped these devices with a partially mirrored dial face to eliminate parallax errors, as well as large terminal posts with knurled binding posts to fasten the electrical leads to the meter. Finally, after some time, I came upon a Gauss meter, which stood alone in its own sturdy, wooden case. The red instruction booklet, which came with the meter, was dated 26 August 1944 and labeled “CONFIDENTIAL.” Inside on the first page was a rather ominous set of instructions entitled, “Destruction of Abandoned Material in the Combat Zone.” It went on to read that the following means were authorized for the destruction of the device: “1. Explosives, when provided 2. Hammers, axes, sledges, machetes, or whatever heavy object is readily available 3. Burning by means of incendiaries such as gasoline, oil, paper or wood 4. Grenades and shots from available arms 5. Burying all debris or disposing of it in streams or other bodies of water.” With all this spelled out, a final warning at the end of the page intoned “DESTROY EVERYTHING!” With this in mind, it seemed a miracle that the Gauss meter, which stood before me, was undamaged.

Nonetheless, I decided to bring this relic to a older colleague who had worked in the field of magnetism and magnetic materials for many years, to show him what I had found. He looked at it for about a minute and went directly to a little-used cabinet in the back of his laboratory. After rummaging in the cabinet for several more minutes, he pulled out an almost exact duplicate! It, however, was painted gray and was labeled TS-15C (mine was TS-15A). We both smiled. He, for having saved this device for all these years, and I for believing that I had discovered a truly unique meter. He went on to speculate that this meter was probably employed to measure the magnetic flux of magnets used in radar sets during the war. The reason for the stern warning to destroy the device in the face of enemy capture was to deny information regarding the physical dimensions of the magnets used in the radar sets, which this Gauss meter was designed to measure, as well as what the probable maximum strength of the magnetic flux was, through the scales printed on the dial face.

With this in mind, I offer the following suggestion to the ASEE (or any other interested party): design an Internet service, which for a small fee would list used, old, or outdated engineering laboratory equipment. I feel that removing unwanted but serviceable items from gathering dust and placing them where they can be best used would be of great benefit to the technical community as a whole and specifically to the engineering educators. For example, I noticed recently that the chairman of the electrical engineering department at Northeastern University, located in Boston, has sent out an announcement regarding three used Faraday-Machine Laboratory benches that were up for sale. Having a Web site with this information would have been more effective and perhaps cheaper as well, when considering the cost of duplication, stationary, postage, envelopes, stuffing, and the like.

In the meantime, would anyone like to own a collection of slightly used vacuum tubes or perhaps some handsome-looking meters?

Bryen Lorenz is a professor of engineering and chairman of the electrical engineering department at Widener University in Chester, PA. He can be reached by e-mail at bryen.e.lorenz@ widener.edu.


How to Construct a Web Site: A Brief Introduction

By John H. Ristroph, Ph.D., P.E.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette,
Engineering and Technology Management Program

This paper provides a fast track introduction to Web sites, including ways to avoid extensive editing of existing, heavily formatted technical notes that contain a variety of tables, equations, or figures. It explains enough of the basics of hypertext markup language (HTML) to create simple home pages that contain basic descriptive information and links to other pages, and then it provides an example of such a page.

Download this paper - in PDF format