Category Archives: History

The Meter That Won The Cold War

This ancient piece of technology might be one of my most prized tools. Obviously, it’s an analog multimeter, but it has an interesting history.

It came into my possession many years ago when my dad was clearing out his toolbox, and he thought I ought to have it.

Now, my dad is *not* an “electronics guy”. As a recently retired firefighter engineer, he’s much better with flow controls and assessing structural integrity. He’s the kind of guy who would reverse-engineer those Tuff-Shed structures at Home Depot by sight and memory.

However, he had this multimeter in his tool box because he inherited it when *his* dad, my grandfather, passed back in 1986. He just didn’t really have a use for it, so it sat there for the next 15-20 years when he decided I should have it.

Now, something you have to realize about my grandfather, affectionately referred to as “Grumpy”: No one, and I mean NO ONE, was allowed to TOUCH his tools–much less USE them! I have reports that he would literally scream and throw things at anyone who dared.

Except me.

Grumpy was a complicated man. He was a tech sergeant in the army during WWII. He landed at Normandy and survived. He beat a Nazi to death with his bare hands. He climbed a flagpole under fire to tear down a Nazi flag. He was basically Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds.

Needless to say, he had a lot of demons. He had some very serious post-traumatic stress, but machismo and lack of diagnosis prevented treatment. (Side note: Please take care of your health, both mental and physical.)

After the War, Grumpy went to Southern Polytechnic to study electronics and got a job at the Lockheed plant in Marietta, GA (Air Force Plant 6) working on the C-130 Hercules and, later, the C-5 Galaxy.

By the early 60s, Grumpy was head of his department. His job was to check the wiring on every aircraft that rolled off the line. All of it. Every plane.

Which means that every Herc since then and every Galaxy (including the original prototype) built until he suddenly passed away of a heart attack in 1987 had its electrical systems checked off by my Grumpy.

Those planes have in excess of 5 miles of wiring inside them. That brings be back to the early 1980s, when I was but a toddler.

For some reason unknown to the rest of the family, he really mellowed out around me. He saw something in me, they say. They also say that I’m very much like him–except not so agitated.

Grumpy was an early adopter of new technology that he could use. He bought a TI-30 pocket calculator when they first went on the market in the US. He never bought a computer, though, because he couldn’t see a use for one. Typewriters were good enough.

My cousin remembers getting his hand slapped for picking up that calculator, but I had no such repercussions.

In fact, I often took it outside to play with it–in the barn–gleefully pressing buttons in the dirt. Grumpy seemed to enjoy seeing that happen. He let me play with it.

(Incidentally, I also have that calculator. I’ll tell that story one day.)

Now, back to the multimeter….

This is the Micronta 20,000 Ohm/Volt 28-Range Multitester, RadioShack catalog number 22-022. It was produced from 1967-1973 (thanks to radioshackcatalogs.com for helping me narrow down the production years) and was Grumpy’s go-to tool at work.

I’m not sure when this particular unit was purchased (if anyone has a clue on where I could find a production date, please let me know), but I was able to grab the catalog pages featuring it. Here’s it’s glorious debut in 1967

(Note the typo in the previous advertisement)

And here it is in FULL COLOR in 1968

Nearly the exact same layout in the ’69 catalog

A nice green motif for a new decade, 1970

Yellow for 1971. Notice the addition of engineers to the “Used by more…” headline copy.

Back to BW for 1972 and a $1 price increase?! Must be stagflation.

Another year, and another $2 price jump! This would be the final year that the 22-022 would appear in a RadioShack catalog. For the record, $17.95 in 1973 is $108.83 in 2021!

And here’s 1974, the page is blue because the 22-022 isn’t there anymore and all the multimeters are built with cheaper plastics so they’re sadly not as robust. Grumpy also had the 22-027 in the top right corner. That’s another restoration project for later.

So, like I was saying, Grumpy worked at Lockheed Plant 6, and his job (among other things) was to check all the wiring in every plane that rolled off the line. This was *his* tool.

The 22-022 came out in 1967, and assuming he bought it that year (I can’t substantiate this because I don’t have proof of purchase, but Dad says he remembers Grumpy getting it for Christmas of either 67 or 68), that would mean that this specific multimeter was used to test every plane that rolled off the line from 1967-1987 (or at least 73-87).

Some of those Hercs ARE STILL IN SERVICE (though, I’m sure, the original wiring has been replaced in the last 40+ years)

What’s more, the C-5 had it’s first flight in 1968, and I know Grumpy signed off on the prototype.

It’s entirely possible that this humble RadioShack multimeter was part of that assembly process, which makes it–in my book, anyway–a significant piece of aviation history.

It’s like if Igor Sikorsky’s grandson had one of his wrenches or if one of the Wrights’ progeny had some of their woodworking tools.

Maybe not *quite* the same.

Oh, did somebody say “restoration”?!

Although the multimeter is in great shape (just a scratch across the face that doesn’t affect reading), the probes disintegrated when I tested it. I’ve tried to find needle-tipped probes like it had, but I haven’t been able to find anything yet.

Meanwhile, I did find these vintage needle-tip probes on fleaBay, and they’re a perfect fit!

I also like the right-angle connectors a little better than the original straight connector. Part of me is still considering replacing the pin jacks with proper banana jacks, though.

“Knackered” doesn’t even begin to describe the condition of the original box. There’s one staple left (and it’s not really holding anything) while the rest is held together with 40-year-old masking tape (that’s crumbling worse than a bad cookie)

My first priority is to build a pouch like the ones later RadioShack products came with. Something to provide a little protection to the box itself while being a durable container for the piece.

It’s also gotta look like it originally belonged to the piece, so something that has that early 70s aesthetic.

Brown vinyl. I’m going to use this compact cassette case (another hand-me-down from my dad, actually) as the design model. It’s basically a hinged box with a vinyl wrap that’s folded and glued to look like it was sewn together. (We’ll talk about those cassettes another day….)

To start, I just ran a basic box shape, open on top, through the 3D printer. It’s just 1mm thick on each side, but that will be plenty enough to hold its shape once I wrap it.

I’m not going for super rigid here, just something to prevent the box from further incidental damage.

Fits like a glove!

Next thing to do will be to source some brown vinyl and come up with a template.

Okay, I’ve played around with the design and I think I’ve got something that will work. Hold on to your butts!

So far, so good!

The edges on the front and back are folded over and glued while the edges of the sides will wrap over the corners underneath. This will give it the illusion of being sewn together.

Also: Shout out to @HarborFreight super glue gel! It’s like regular old super glue, except it doesn’t run! Why didn’t I discover this sooner?!?

This might be my new favorite plastic adhesive.

It’s coming together! One side is a little low, but–like everything else–I’ll fix it in post!

Almost there! Just need to put a trim piece around the mouth.

All the hard parts are finished. I just need to find a snap closure for the flap. There’s probably one floating around at the shop.

After searching through several options for snaps (sew-on and riveted), I picked up a pack of these nice antique brass magnetic snaps.

With a liberal application of super glue, I think that we’re finally going to call this done!

I’m debating with myself whether or not I want to engrave Grumpy’s name on the flap. I think there’s enough room, but I just don’t want it to be cramped. I’ll play around with it some more and update if I decide to go that way.

On Game Design: Difficult vs Frustrating

I was thinking a little bit about video games this morning and the differences between a game that’s difficult (or even extremely difficult to where it’s almost impossible to finish without the help of Game Genie or save states or anything like that) versus games that were just arbitrarily difficult because they wanted to just fuck over the player.

Like, the difference between something like Ghosts ‘n Goblins that’s arbitrarily difficult for the sake of being arbitrarily difficult because they just do things to make it arbitrarily difficult throughout the entire game and then when you finally finish the game–if you finally finish–you don’t actually finish the game! You have to start over and then there is an item that you have to collect somewhere in the game that you don’t know about and you don’t know the whereabouts of it and it’s entirely random where it shows up and you have to get that and you have to finish the game again and you might get the good ending because it depends on how you played the game originally.

I feel like that is not the mark of good design. It’s not the mark of a good game, and–especially at the end–it’s not at all rewarding! It’s just been so frustrating to get to that point that you’re rewarded with a simple “Congratulations” screen and that’s about it! It’s like “No no no no!” I mean, at least give me a credits crawl or something! Maybe rudimentary animation? Give me something to be proud of!

Of course, this is the earlier 8-bit era games, and this franchise–especially being a port of an arcade game–is meant to be extremely difficult. These games are meant to eat quarters, but there’s a difference between being just arbitrarily difficult and being difficult in a fun way that encourages replay. I don’t believe the NES port of Ghosts ‘n Goblins encourages replay. It’s a frustrating game that is not fun enough to play again; however, the later ones are okay–like they’re fun diversions. The arcade version is actually kind of fun to play through, but the console versions–by and large in my experience–have just been arbitrarily difficult and they’re set up to be that way so that you play them for a long time. In my experience, though, it just means they get thrown into a corner (or traded or sold) and never touched again by that player.

Contrast this to something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original one that everybody hates but I actually enjoy). Everybody loves to hate that original Turtles game, but I love it. I think it’s a lot of fun, it’s unique, and it’s more interesting than the beat-em-ups that came later. Granted, I do love Turtles IV on the SNES because I think that’s a beautiful port of a really fun arcade game and the console version actually adds to the arcade game. Of course, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade was ported to the NES as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game and it was amazing when it came out and it was a lot of fun and it was great to play to be able to play the arcade game at home but it and its successor The Manhattan Project just don’t grab me the way the first one does.

Maybe it’s because I had the first one and I really enjoyed playing it a lot, putting a lot of time and effort into playing it and getting good at it. Maybe I’m different because I never felt that the dam level was all that difficult? It seems everybody hates swimming under the dam and doing the bombs, but I’m like, “That didn’t take me long to learn and get through it!” It’s difficult, but it’s not so difficult that it becomes frustrating and has that arbitrary feel to where it’s just full of “gotchas”. Ghosts ‘n Goblins is full of gotchas, but Turtles is just a genuinely difficult, skills-based game. It’s not a memory-based game where the difficulty lies in simply memorizing all the patterns and knowing exactly where the enemy is going to be before it appears on the screen.

Turtles, like many well-designed games, is a game where you really have to develop certain skills in order to progress through the game. You have to learn how the dam works. You have to learn to lay out of the dam. You have to learn the swimming mechanic. You have to learn the map of level 3, And yeah, that’s a little bit of memory work, but there is there’s a Metroidvania-like discovery mechanic, and there’s a lot of skill-building involved where you’ve got to start getting good at using the individual turtles to your advantage because they all have different strengths and weaknesses and you have to be able to play that. Then there’s certain jumps that you have to make, and you have to make them a certain way, and you make them with the certain turtle (because of his weapon).

There’s a lot that you have to learn and a lot that you have to know, but there’s a lot that you have to actually be able to do versus something like Ghosts ‘n Goblins which is just run and gun and know where the bad guys are going to pop up. It’s not like you can watch the screen and time it, you just have to know before it happens, and that is the difference: You have to know before it happens.

If you can’t look at the screen and see what’s going to happen as it’s happening, and instead just have to know it’s going to happen before you see it, that’s a mark of bad design.

There have to be visual cues in order for the game to be fun. When you can see the visual cues, you can learn them. Then you can apply that to other places in the game versus just having to know where everything is and memorize the whole game in order to be able to beat it. Visual or auditory cues are the key to good game design. You don’t want to spoon feed anybody like modern games do, but you don’t want to leave them without any way to figure out the problem. It’s a delicate balance, and some games do it really well while some games do not.

Then there are games like Fun House (NES) which is very much skills based, but also memorization. In this title, you have to be good at controlling the avatar through its unique control scheme and you have to learn the layouts of every level! Meanwhile the designers did a decent job of placing cues and directing the player where to go. Once you’ve played a level two or three times you know how it works, but you’ve run out of lives and now you have to go back and you play it again, but there’s a fair “continue” mechanism that won’t set the player back too far and there are enough lives that troublesome spots aren’t detrimental.

A good design for a game keeps you playing; It has replay value. A well-designed game is just addictive enough, and it’s just difficult enough to warrant another try. Turtles is an extremely difficult game, but it’s also fun. Fun House is an extremely difficult game, but it is also fun. Mickey Mousecapade is ridiculously difficult! I’ve only beat it once (and I think I did that by accident), but it’s actually fun. It’s challenging–not something that is beyond your ability as a mere mortal–but just challenging enough to test your ability, and that’s the difference!

You don’t want games to be so difficult they’re not fun, but you don’t want them to be so easy they’re not fun either. I look at modern equivalents like I Wanna Be the Guy or  VVVVVV and they’re just difficult for the sake of being difficult, but they’re also doing it in a tongue-in-cheek way and you go into the game knowing that! You go into the game knowing that they’re just fucking around with you and they’re playing against all these different tropes that came before–all these different conventions. So they set it up and they’re all tricks! Every design element is there to trick the player, but it’s specifically done that way and it’s more of an artistic statement, I think, in how can conventions can inform our decisions and how we can play off of those conventions to misdirect and I appreciate what they did. These titles may be arbitrarily difficult, but they’re arbitrarily difficult for a specific reason. They are arbitrarily difficult because they’re setting you up for failure on every screen and that’s part of the fun. It’s subverting those tropes and those conventions, and it makes for a very fun experience even though it is hopelessly difficult.

There’s a lot of commentary on game design in those pieces, and even though I’ve never felt compelled to play through either of those examples, I appreciate what they’re saying. These games fit into the gaming landscape much in the same way that films from Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker fit into the larger landscape of cinema. These are pieces that play with established conventions and techniques, and while not always considered “good” by critical standards, they know exactly what they are and why they exist, and they delight in deconstructing everything you thought you understood about the medium.

Subway: “We Cut Prices Too!” (circa 1992)

Oh, this takes me back! Once upon a time, you could get a pretty decent sub at Subway for a pretty decent price. Now, you have to ask for the toppings like 5 times in order to get 3 little slivers of onion, bell pepper, or olive. Things went downhill fast when they changed the way they cut the bread.

I still say Blimpie was the superior fast food sandwich, though.

TBS Tonight: “Submarine X-1” (circa 1989)

Has anyone actually seen this film? I should add it to my Friday night flix list…

Sugar: “Sweet, Pure, and Natural” (circa 1988)

I can’t even begin with this.

WXIA-TV Atlanta 11 Alive News EXTRA: “Superstitions” (circa 1988)

Only Atlanta’s finest new source would DARE to go so far in-depth on the important subjects of our time: ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS?

Surevue Contact Lenses (circa 1993)

I dunno about y’all, but I’ve been wearing the same pair of contacts for 3 years now. Maybe I should switch to Surevue?

Introducing the Hershey Symphony Bar (circa 1989)

Say what you will about the lower quality of most American chocolates, I still enjoy a “fancy” Hershey bar from time to time!

Ad Council: “Take Pride In America: Clint Eastwood” (circa 1989)

Remember when Eastwood was a “bleeding heart liberal” who cared about the environment?

Target: “Right on the money” (circa 1989)

We never shopped at Target because it was too expensive.