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Fifty Years

Wed, 06/18/2014 - 8:00pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

I got a shocking call. I was asked if I would be willing to serve on my college class’ 50th anniversary celebration committee.

What? Or as my pilot and ham radio friends would say: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?" Fifty years! That cannot be! But it is! That brings back a flood of old memories. The alumni office sent me a list of names of 1964 graduates and I dug out the college year book and saw those really strange portraits of the graduating class. Did people really look that way? Then I got the list of “the deceased." More “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!” After going through the Kubler-Ross five stages, which start with “denial” and end in “acceptance," I .spent some time remembering. After a little time remembering the college days, my remembering turned to television technology.

I have nearly all of my college text books and some notes as well. (The wife is not happy about all of that and thinks I should have thrown them out long ago, maybe 50 years ago.) Every so often, they come in handy, usually for the expert witness work in patent cases I used to do before insisting that I am retired. And they are just fun to page through. I enjoy going to the local university’s book store and looking over the books the students are now using. There’s quite a change, including the prices! Seems you can’t get a college technical text for under a hundred dollars, and a couple of hundred dollars is not uncommon. My old books still have the price stickers in them and are never over $10! Wow! And college tuition has gone out of sight. When I went to a private university in Chicago, I was able to earn enough by working summers and part time to pay my own tuition. I commuted to school, so I didn’t have room and board to consider.

That’s impossible now. No wonder so many students graduate with so much debt. There is an argument that the easy availability of student loans has made raising tuition possible.

One of the things I learned in school is that engineering is best defined as the application of science to make a profit. (Maybe that’s politically incorrect these days.) That insight led to a fascination with economics. I did a minor in business and even had an undergraduate course in “Engineering Economics” intended to be the basis for costing out and pricing an engineering project over time. That was intended at least in part to determine whether the project made economic sense. Good stuff! I got my first new car after graduation in 1964 for $2,000. Gasoline was 27 cents a gallon.

The price of gasoline is an interesting study on inflation and the value of money. Before Nixon took us off the gold standard in 1971, the price of gold was set by the government at $35 an ounce. And before the oil crisis of 1973, oil cost about $2.75 a barrel. So an ounce of gold would buy about 12 barrels of oil. Now gold is about $1,200 an ounce and oil is about $100 a barrel. An ounce of gold still buys about 12 barrels of oil! Similarly, when I bought gasoline for 27 cents, the dimes had real silver in them. I Googled and found the amount of silver in a couple of dimes and then priced how much that silver is currently worth. The number came out to around $4. So by that measure, gasoline is actually cheaper now, and the cars get more miles per gallon.

The electronics courses I had featured both vacuum tubes and transistors.

And the equations for analyzing and designing both varieties were remarkably similar. My favorite courses covered communication theory and circuits. Modulation, detection, noise, information measurements, and digital techniques kept me fascinated and made going to work for Zenith in Chicago an easy choice. All of those communication theory and circuit courses were directly useful.

Years later, when I moved from TV technology to cable technology at Zenith, my professional interactions were mainly with cable engineers. We spoke the same language and got along well. Eventually, I moved to cable with American Television and Communications which became Time Warner Cable.

And yes, I still have my Dietzgen slide rule and even my dad’s much simpler Keuffel & Esser. A Texas Instruments SR-10 sits on a shelf in its original box along with other collectables.

The “SR” stood for “slide rule” and it did little more than a basic slide rule. It was an expensive treasure back then. Now there are certainly more technical calculators in the world than people who know how to use even the trigonometric functions. They are given away as toys! I’ve come to terms with the idea of 50 years since graduation and I am looking forward to seeing some of the “kids” that sat in the lectures with me, took the exams, and did the lab experiments.

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