Growing up in a Hacker Space without knowing about it

  • 11 April 2012

This blog posting is a bit different from all the others. Usually it”s more about sarcasm or bashing things or people. Today it is the complete opposite. If you look at the tag cloud and have read some postings (or tweets for that matter) you probably have realised that I am doing some hacking behind the scenes. Let’s call it tinkering with technology. Basically I learnt a lot because my family allowed me to learn and to develop skills. Let me tell you how this was like.

I’ve always been the curious type. I constantly tried to figure out how things work, even as a child. Most children do that, but I liked to take apart gadgets very early. The curiosity grew intense. My parents and grandparents forbade me to open any household gadget that was new or still in use. Back in the days appliances were repaired, not replace. So one of my chances to get a peek inside was to wait until something broke and a repairman (be it an electrician, a plumber or heating contractor) came to our house. I was happy whenever our TV set was broken, because I got a look inside and could observe what the electrician did. I always kept the circuit diagrams of our device although I couldn’t read them properly yet. Those were part of the manual (I grew up in the age before „intellectual property“ was invented out of thin air, people were still allowed to repair their own possessions back then).

My family recognised my curiosity. I got lots of books. I read them. My grandfather gave his support also by buying science kits for me. One chemistry set, two physics sets and countless of electronic kits found their way to our home. I had lots of electronic components ranging from transistors, coils, transformers, capacitors, LEDs (yes, only the red ones), LED displays, a cathode ray tube, a 10 MHz oscilloscope, soldering iron, cable and countless of other items. First I build the experiments according to the manual (building test circuits up to sound generators, radios and even a simple black/white TV set), then I started to try my own ideas. I could even use my grandfathers work shop in the basement. He was a mechanic, and his work shop had anything – screwdrivers of any size, power drills, files, soldering lamps, paint, solvent, piece of metal, pipes, really anything. And I could use all of these tools whenever I wanted to.

Some Christmas day (guess it was 1984) the electronic kit collection turned digital. My grandfather gave me a BUSCH Elektronik’s Microtronic Computer-System 2090 with a 4-bit TMS 1600 CPU at its core. 4096 Byte ROM, 64Byte + 512 Byte RAM, 40 assembler instructions and 12 commands at the console consisting of 26 keys and a 6-digit LED display greatly enhanced the capabilities of my little lab. I started coding. The series of presents from my grandfather continued with a Commodore C64, a C128 and Amiga 500/2000/4000, not to forget the HP48 calculator I used at university.

I am not writing this down to brag about it, I am well aware that not everyone has been lucky to have a family like this. The point is this: Even when my grandfather gave me the electronic kits he did not understand what I was doing with it. He had a basic understanding of electricity, he could fix electrical wiring in the house, but he never did more complex things. He was a master mechanic, he could build anything out of wood or metal. Despite having no interest in and knowledge of electronics and computing he tried to help me with my education. Growing up with books, hardware, software and a work shop – and with an environment that actively supports curiosity – is one of the best things that can happen to you. That’s what a hacker space is – the best that can happen to you. Cherish it! Support it! Improve it! Create it if it doesn’t exist! And always put the tools back to where they belong! My grandfather told me this over and over.

Sadly I cannot thank my grandfather any more. He did a couple of years ago. He would have turned 90 today.

If you want to do him a favour, then please create something or understand the workings of Nature. He would have liked it.

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