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MIT Page on Ronald J Riley

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                Science Fiction and Inventors

You want to be an inventor but you do not know where to start?

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HOW I BECAME AN INVENTOR By Ronald J. Riley This is aimed at 5th through 12th grade students.

When I was a child I loved to take my toys apart to see what made them work, and then put them back together. My father bought me a new hand tool every other week when he received his pay check. He gave me space in our basement for a work bench.

One of the first things I did when I received a new toy was to disassemble it to see how it worked. I would then put it back together. Most of the time the toys still worked, but I clearly remember getting a toy robot that would walk either forwards or backwards. I took the robot apart and when I reassembled it  no longer worked. I did figure out what was wrong with it but was not able to fix it. This was especially disappointing because I really liked the robot. Animated Robot

By the time I was ten or so my parents allowed me to roam away from the  house. During the summer, on junk day, I would take my wagon and check out what people were throwing away. People did not use garbage bags then, all trash was in metal cans which made it easy to check out what was in the trash. I hauled home appliances, radios, and televisions. I disassembled them and learned how they were built. So just before I entered sixth grade I was starting to build circuits with parts scavenged from the junk.

I built a telephone where the dial was a piece of foil with paper tape strips and a nail to make the pulses. At that time all telephones were used rotary dials which mechanically pulsed the telephone line to dial.  Touch tone had not been invented.  I made my own microphone by tearing apart old dry cell batteries and taking the carbon rods out of them. I then smashed the rods into powder and used the carbon powder to make the microphone.

I used the microphone in my homemade telephone. Later I made another carbon microphone, which I wired in series with a speaker I salvaged from an old radio. I put the speaker in a bush by the sidewalk and ran wires around the side of the house where the batteries and my home made microphone where at. I had much fun playing jokes on people walking by with that setup.

Picture of small camera A year or two later I found an old camera in someone's junk. It had a flash with a switch on the shutter release. I was learning about electrical inductors and had read that when a magnetic field collapses in an inductor that the inductor produces about ten times the applied voltage.

I made an inductor that would fit inside the camera along with three nine volt batteries. The circuit was designed so that when someone pushed the button on the camera to take a picture that the inductor was between the camera body and the shutter release. I then asked the mailman and numerous other people to take my picture. The 300 volt pulse that rushed through their hand always caused them to throw the camera, and within a few days it was broken beyond repair. But boy did I have fun. I am afraid that the victims of my joke did not think it was anywhere near as funny as I and my friends did. My first victim was the mail man, who called me a nasty word, suggesting I was the offspring of a dog.

Neighborhood  dogs kept knocking over our trash cans. Remember that all trash cans were metal at this time. My dad always made me clean up the mess, and like all children, I was not at all happy when I had to work. This happened many times during the summer when I was twelve years old. I finally decided to put an end to the problem. I made my own electric fence charger out of a car spark coil, a car turn signal flasher, and a television transformer. I wired the filament winding that powered the TV's vacuum tubes to the flasher, which turned the cars spark coil on and off. I hooked the outside of the spark coil to a metal fence post and hooked the high voltage to the trash cans, which I set on glass jars. I then sat back and waited for the fun to begin. It wasn't long before a dog came to check out the trash cans. Picture of electric discharge


Running dog Dogs love to mark their territory by peeing on things, and that is exactly what this dog did. He hiked his leg, and as soon as the pee hit the can he started howling. He then ran away as fast as he could. He and I both learned that pee has salt in it, and salt makes water a good conductor of electricity.


In my early teens, seventh grade, I developed a crush on a girl, who after a month or so hurt my feelings. I decided that science was much more predictable and less painful and proceeded to avoid the opposite sex until I graduated from high school. A word of advice for both boys and girls, don't be to anxious to get into romantic relationships. There is plenty of time for romance later. Now is the best time to learn, to acquire the skills you will need to succeed later. Throbbing heart

Be friends with the opposite sex and learn how you differ, and by differ I am not talking about the physical differences, but the differences in how you think. Those differences will lead to males and females having a unique way of looking at problems and solutions, and that means each of us will invent different solutions to the same problems; and even more important be interested in completely different kinds of problems. Another side effect of those differences is that men and women have an uneasy alliance.

In seventh grade I became a charter member of an engineering club at General Motors Institute (GMI is now Kettering University). Engineering professors from GMI taught and demonstrated many things about many different disciplines of engineering. And I used the knowledge to think up many new practical jokes.

During the summer after my junior year in high school we moved from the city to the country. A neighbor raised hogs and there was a ramp with steep walls which ran up to the storage area above the hogs stalls. I built an electric eye with a focused lens that gave it a range of over thirty feet. We hooked the electric eye to a solenoid operated water valve I had salvaged from an old washing machine. I tinkered with the circuit until I had enough differential so that the unit turned the water on when someone was too far up the ramp to be able to get off the side. So when the water turned on they had no choice except to turn and run down the ramp. They were drenched by the time they got to the bottom.

That same summer was a time when many city kids were moving to the country. If you remember the lesson the dogs and I learned about urine having a lot of salt, and being a good conductor of electricity, and think about electric fences, you may already have the idea. Many boys were tricked into taking a leak on an electric fence, and each one who was so tricked was anxious to teach all their friends the same lesson.

Near the end of high school I found a Greek statue that had a women sitting with a man kneeling next to her holding her hand. I hollowed out the statue and added a water compartment, a battery, a small pump, and a mercury switch to turn on the pump. The pump was off when the statue was sitting on a flat surface, but when someone picked up the statue and looked too closely at the lady she would pee in their face. I thought this was very funny at the time. Unfortunately people tended to drop the statue when they were sprayed, and it only lasted a few months.

In my Senior year of high school I was on independent study. I often took a metal tool box back and forth to school. I carried materials for experiments I was performing in the box. We had a study hall monitor - bus driver who decided to start inspecting the contents of my tool box daily. Having learned about civil liberties I felt her demanding to inspect the contents of my tool box was an invasion of my rights. The area I lived in had Michigan rattle snakes. For some reason these snakes liked the neighbors  hog pens in the lowest level of the barn. A friend and I caught a small rattle snake and I took it to school, to be displayed in the science room, for other student to view. This women asked me what I had in the tool box that day. I told her it had a rattle snake in it and she insisted that I open the box for her anyway. She never inspected my tool box again.

When I first entered college I was still pretty interested in chemistry and I discovered that a chemical, and to help keep readers of this out of trouble which chemical is going to stay a secret, would cause people's skin to turn black. This chemical was a white crystalline powder and was almost invisible. I sprinkled it on the teachers bathrooms toilet seats. It was quite funny watching the ensuing ruckus, when many teachers developed these rings of coloration on their bottoms. Only one of my teachers knew about the joke and I was never caught for that one.

Smiley face turns sad Unfortunately I was caught in a number of other cases, and I did have to pay a price for my sense of humor. So, when you have some bright idea, remember that they can - and often do - backfire.

I became very interested in rockets and telemetry. A GMI professor, Reginald Bell, bought me an model rocket, which we assembled and launched. It seems like the rocket cost about $30, a sum that was astronomical to me at the time. Dr. Bell mentored me and I went on to design and build a real solid fuel rocket (about seven feet tall) over a number of years. I designed and built my own telemetry package for the rocket and transmitted the data using a hybrid of amplitude and frequency modulation. Bell and several other GMI professors probably kept me from maiming or killing myself. I owe them a serious debt of gratitude, which I pay back by mentoring the next generation of engineers, scientists, and inventors.

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