Friday, May 23, 2014
I've been tinkering lately with gadgets. The most recent one is a photo lamp made from an array of LEDs, those ubiquitous little lights that have become the next big thing in household and automotive lighting, promising to replace the incandescent light bulbs and even the fluorescent tubes that have been standard for many years. My homemade lamp, constructed from a brownie cake pan, a few pieces of hardware and strips of LEDs pasted onto a sheet of plastic, nearly 500 of them, powered by a surplus 12-volt power supply salvaged from an old laptop computer. Mounted on a tripod, it throws a respectable flood of light for portraiture. I understand the professionals are using such LED-powered lights, but this one cost only a few dollars and gave me the opportunity to build something again. Forty or fifty years ago, I was obsessed with tinkering, having built my own music systems and cobbled-together photographic gear, and my first three or four computers.
My grandfather was like that. I remember visiting him once after he had retired, and marveling at his gadgets. He happened to have been a watchmaker for a while during the depression, and had built a little projector for examining the gears in women's watches. Discovering a burr on a gear tooth, he could smooth the tiny part so that it would function properly.
Before he retired, he installed giant hydroelectric turbines for General Electric all over the world. Self-taught, he had attended school only through the fourth grade, learning algebra from books and eventually becoming a licensed engineer.
I was about twenty when I had some time to get to know him. By then he was past his prime, trying to be useful with the knowledge he had accumulated over the years but no longer sharp enough to compete in a changing industrial milieu.
I wonder now what he thought about, sitting in his little retirement cabin in the woods, watching the world go on without him, tinkering with watches and other gadgets. No, I guess I don't have to wonder, because I'm caught up in the same old age, remembering the curiosities and occasional successes of a long life, feeling pride in accomplishing but knowing at the same time that none of it has changed the world; none of it will be known by anyone in another decade. The people who knew his work are mostly dead themselves. The relics of his life's efforts are now rusting in abandoned power plants and junk yards. It reminds me of some of the episodes of Star Trek.
Maybe it's an age thing, to dwell on the past. We old guys don't have much future to contemplate, no plans, few dreams. It just seems a shame that those little contributions we've made to the progress of the world would soon disappear so completely. They seemed too important at the time to become like sand paintings, done only to be erased on completion.
At least I know that I'm not alone.My grandfather must have gone through this. I remember him, but few others do, and in another generation no one will. And the same thing will happen to me.