For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.

What We've Saved

I spent many years living aboard various boats, and a year living in a VW microbus back when hair was long and not yet grayed. I raised my two children while we lived aboard a 40' houseboat. Our sailboat was tied up in the next slip; that was used for fun, and as a guesthouse when one of the kids had friends sleeping over. Living afloat taught them many lessons; one was to avoid accumulating too many possessions, for there simply isn't room for much stuff in the confines of a small boat.

My first engineering boss conducted regular cleanups in the lab. The rule was if we hadn't used something for a year, it was sold or discarded.

Growing up, Dad was the sole earner and with five kids there was never much extra money. On top of that I shared a small room with a brother for 18 years, so had little room to store things.
These experiences have made me a non-hoarder. I still succumb to the "if it hasn't been used in a year, toss it" philosophy, though fortunately my wife is wiser and we do keep some things for a long time.

Shortly after I left for college my family moved to New Jersey. I had to clean out my basement lab, which had a lot of old WWII surplus gear, modern ICs, etc. Most got carted off to the dump. Now I wish I had saved some of it. For instance, the RBC and RBB radio receivers were exquisitely engineered. Though their performance couldn't match a modern DSP-enhanced shortwave set, they were, internally, ahead of their times and were works of art.

Around 1971 I wanted a computer, which was absurd and impossible. No one owned computers then. The microprocessor wasn't quite available, so I designed and built a 12 bit machine from hundreds of TTL chips, all connected with telephone company wire. It worked! And was almost instantly obsolete. After a few years it, too, wound up in the dump. But stupidly, I didn't even save the schematics, or any of the code it ran. Occasionally, in a fit of nostalgia, I wish I could review those documents.

I have saved very little of the code I've written over the last almost half-century. Some was classified, NDAs sometimes mandated returning all copies, and some had other legal restrictions. Mostly, though, once a project was done I lost interest and never kept copies. Today I rue tossing the huge stack of 8008 teletype printouts of systems done in assembler in the earliest microprocessor days. Or all of that embedded compiler code I wrote, or most especially the code and schematics of the in-circuit emulators that kept my family fed for many years.

Then there's the PDP-11/70 I got in exchange for a case of beer in the 80s. Eventually its usefulness expired and no one wanted it – even for free. The two racks went to the dump.

Or the Tektronix 545 oscilloscope that was my mainstay scope for a number of years. By today's standards it was pathetic, with miserable bandwidth specs and none of the features we digital scope users expect. But, like the radios, the engineering was mouth-watering. Big mechanical assemblies coupled knobs to various portions of the circuit; gears and chains were used in selecting sweep rates and gains. The thing must have weighed 100 pounds and was huge, so it too went to the dump. But wouldn't it be cool today to play with this marvelous technology?

The Altairs, Sols, Intellecs, MDS machines and so many others that one only sees in museums today were all discarded once their usefulness expired. Yet these would have been important historical relics.  

Even some of the data books were works of art. TI's TTL Handbook, a hardback tome with a bright orange cover used to be one of the bibles for digital engineers. Today a single datasheet might be many thousands of pages long; printing a catalog of those is impractical.

A friend saves everything. His electronics collection goes back to the 50s. Fortunately he has a huge house; the basement shelves are bursting with all sorts of gear and components. He has all of those old handbooks. Thousands of vacuum tubes. All kinds of test equipment. It's a fantastic trip down memory lane to browse through the gear. He could – and should - start a museum!

When one is working with modern technology, back in 1970 or today, it's hard to see any reason to hang on to stuff that's no longer needed. We techies are the worst – "This component is obsolete; let's find a replacement and get rid of the inventory." Or, "eBay that 100 MHz scope now that we have a 500 MHz unit." This is completely logical. But one does grow wistful thinking of the old gear, code and drawings that were, at the time, so incredibly cool.

Some of this old gear is available on eBay. Pre-Internet there was little market for the stuff, and now, ironically, it often has decent monetary value. That completely-obsolete 545 scope with a 1A1 plug-in fetches $700 on that site! Tek sells their brand-new TBS1052B digital scope for less money today.

Published May, 2016