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I was a Service Technician

May 18, 2013

I was quite pleased with myself.  I found my first summer job all by myself.  This was around 1960.  My hobby was electronics and amateur radio.  The natural job for me was repairing radio and TV receivers.  I talked to the owner of a small sales and service shop downtown.  He agreed to hire me for the grand sum of 85 cents an hour, the minimum wage for people under 18.  I was thrilled.  It was just what I wanted.  The business was radio and TV sales and service with a showroom and counter in the front and a repair shop in the back.  The owner was behind the counter.  I would be in the back.

In those days, radio and TV sets were full of vacuum tubes.  We had only one TV station.  It broadcast in black and white, and only in the evening.  Cable TV was a dream of the future.  I was a technician in the service shop.  The owner left us radio and TV sets along with work orders describing what needed to be repaired.  Most of the work was cleaning and dusting, followed by tube testing and replacement of defective tubes.  It quickly became routine.  A few strange or mysterious cases made it more interesting.  The owner charged customers by the hour for service work.  We had to fix it or at least determine the problem fairly quickly in order to keep the cost down.

One customer brought in a table radio in an attractive wooden case.  All she could say was that it had stopped working.  When I checked it, I found that there was no sound, even though all of the tubes lit up.  This particular radio had a phono switch on the front.  It was set to phono.  When I switched it to radio, the sound came on.  That’s all I needed to do.  When my boss returned it to the customer, she guessed that her cleaning lady had done it.  He had to charge her something, and she agreed.  He charged her for cleaning and a checkup.

Another customer brought in a portable TV in a plastic case.  It had no power transformer.  Instead, it used a voltage doubler circuit to provide the plate voltage.  All the tube heaters were connected in series.  This meant that one side of the power line was connected to the chassis.  The first thing I did was to set it up on the bench.  It seemed to work.  When I moved the rabbit ears around to get a better picture, one of them contacted the fluorescent light on the ceiling.  There was a loud bang and a flash of light.  I could have been electrocuted!  The rabbit ears are supposed to be isolated from the power line.  These ones weren’t.  The electric arc had burned a notch in one rabbit ear.  I told the owner what had happened.  He was concerned about the damage to the rabbit ear; he might have to pay for a new one.  He wasn’t concerned about my life.   He got me to fill in the notch with solder and smooth it out with sandpaper.  That seemed to satisfy him.  I replaced some weak tubes, taking great care to protect myself.  I don’t know if my boss told the customer how dangerous that TV set was.

Someone from the city brought in their tester for mineral content of boiler water.  I’d never seen such a thing before.  It was a small box with a dial and a magic eye tube.  It had a probe with a length of cable attached to it.  They said that it had stopped working.  It had only one tube, the magic eye.  You turned the dial until the eye closed.  When I tried it, I found that it would only work if I pressed the cable into the probe.  It had a broken wire right there.  We couldn’t fix that, but the customer was happy to know what the reason was.  He could order a new probe for the tester.

This was another unique one: a set of chimes for an ice cream truck.  It ran from the 6V truck battery.  The customer said that it stopped working when he transferred it to his new truck.  My boss told me to fix it as quickly as I could because “he had to make hay while the sun shines”.  It was a vacuum tube audio amplifier and a dynamotor on a single chassis.  On top of the dynamotor was something that looked like the mechanism from a music box.  I connected it to our 6V power supply and a speaker.  The tubes lit up.  The dynmotor turned.  There was no sound.  When I measured the voltage on the tube plates, it was negative!  It’s supposed to be positive.  I knew what was wrong.  The dynamotor was running backwards.  It needed 6V with a positive ground.  When I reversed the power connections, the chimes rang out.  My boss came running.  He was happy until I told him what was wrong.  Sure enough, the customer told him that the old ice cream truck was an English make but the new one was American.  The chimes needed the positive ground that was only in the old truck.  There was nothing that we could do.

When I started, there was another technician in shop.  He had been doing this for a while, so I learned from him.  We went for coffee every day to the restaurant next door.  One day he told me that it was his last day.  He had been laid off.  I knew it was because I was paid less.  I felt pretty bad about that.  I was alone in the shop for the rest of the summer.  What had happened to our former technician?  I found out about a week later when I happened to see him.  He walked down the street to another service shop and got a job there almost immediately.  It was a better job too.  Suddenly I felt much happier.

Sometime that summer I discovered that the owner had a collection of used parts that he had salvaged from old radio and TV sets.  This was exciting.  Some of the parts were just what I needed for my electronic hobby.  I asked him if I could have some.  “Sure”, he said, “I’ll just deduct the cost from your salary”.  That wasn’t what I expected to hear.  I decided I didn’t want them after all.

My first summer job was fun, interesting, and engaging.  It was a good experience in many ways.  I found I enjoyed working for a living.  I must say, though, that I was disappointed with attitude of the owner.  That was a bit of a revelation to me.

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