nerd

by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©2008 by Paul Niquette.. All rights reserved.

 
nerd n. A term often bearing a derogatory connotation or stereotype, that refers to a person who passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities. Therefore, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers.
Far as I know, nobody has ever called me a nerd.  Still, I never use the term.  Almost.
Coined by Dr. Seuss in the book If I Ran the Zoo as the name of an imaginary animal, the word nerd had not yet reached currency in 1951, the year I graduated from high school.  Back then, nothing could have been worse than the term chosen by Molly Malone for me: "To a real brain in biology class," she penned next to her photograph in my high school yearbook.  Ouch.  
Given the abundance of disparaging words that have come along over the years (doofus, dork, dweeb, geek, twerp), the word nerd is almost a compliment. 

Be advised: I am saving the word nerd for one person, the late Evan Drummond.  You are invited to decide for yourself if I have made the right choice... 
 

It was 1961.  Evan and I were developing a pocket pager system for a small company in Los Angeles.  It was an early predecessor to the ubiquitous cell-phone.  Four decades later, pocket pagers are still used by couriers and business executives, doctors and nurses, real estate brokers and tradesmen. 

Our concept exploited a technical loop-hole in federal regulations for broadcast radio.  Evan and I took notice of the fact that the assigned carrier frequency of each commercial station had a tolerance of plus or minus fifty cycles per second (the term 'hertz' was not yet in use). 

About that time extremely precise 'crystal controlled' oscillators became available.  Our system used two crystals for digitally dithering the frequency up and down within the mandated band to broadcast paging codes -- in effect superimposing FM (frequency modulation) on AM (amplitude modulation). 

The project needed to make sure that the paging signals did not interfere with the radio programing and vice versa.  Evan Drummond was a devoted ham radio enthusiast, a master of the skills necessary for developing the transmitter and receiver electronics.  He was well-costumed for the part: white socks, pocket protector, horn-rimmed spectacles, taciturn -- a canonical engineer, with soldering iron in one hand, oscilloscope probe in the other. 
My part of the project was the digital coding at the broadcast station and the decoding in the pocket receiver. 
If everything worked right, a company operator would respond to phone calls on an office line and enter codes on a special key pad.  The codes would be relayed by leased line to the radio transmitter.  "Transistorized" receivers the size of staple-guns dangled from a tradesmen's belt.  Within the station's coverage area pagers would recognize their respective codes, much like your garage door opener, and activate a buzzer.  The person being paged would then go to a phone booth, insert a nickle, and dial the company operator (no push-button phones back then) to obtain the particulars of the call. 

For product development, we made a secret -- surely illegal -- arrangement with the owner/licensee of KTYM, a hillbilly station in Los Angeles, with its transmitter atop the nearby Baldwin Hills.  Evan set about conducting experiments in the laboratory, keeping a radio on his workbench tuned to KTYM all day long with the volume turned up.  It was summertime, and the building had no air conditioning.  People began complaining about the endless twanging of guitars and banjos, the moaning harmonicas and fiddles emanating from the laboratory and wafting through open windows into every department. 

One day, I came up with a prank.  Evan's radio antenna was strung up on the outside of the building to a second-floor window in the accounting department.  I built a primitive noise generator using a spark coil operated by a telegraph key.  With the spark coil attached to the antenna, I prepared to tap out a solemn message in Morse code.  At such a moment, it seemed important to choose exactly the right message.  What should that be? 

The Next Voice You Hear is a 1950 film in which a voice claiming to be that of God preempts radio programs for days all over the world. It stars James Whitmore and Nancy Davis as Joe and Mary Smith, a typical American couple. It was based on a short story of the same name by George Sumner Albee. The voice is never heard by the audience, most likely due to restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code, which prohibited ridicule of any religious faith.
Thus, horrible buzzing sounds came blasting through the radio speaker in dots and dashes, obliterating the hillbilly music...
.  ...-  .-    -.   -..  .-.    ..-  --  --  ---  -.  -..,  .    ...-  .-    -.  -..  .-.  ..-  --  --  ---  -.  -..,  -  ....  .  -.  .  .--.  -  ...-  ---  ..  -.-.  .  -.--  ---  ..-  ....  .  .-  .-.  ..  ...  --.  ---  -...
“EVAN DRUMMOND, EVAN DRUMMOND, 
THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR IS GOD.” 
The building shook with laughter.  Evan confronted me with a scowl. 

"I was not fooled!" he exclaimed.  "God knows that the 'x' in 'next' is -..-." 

 
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