Date: November 11, 2013
Title: Snell Solisequious Scientist
Presenters: Chris Gammell, Contextual Electronics and Dave Jones, EEV Blog
Guest: Forrest M. Mims, http://www.forrestmims.org/
Episode link: http://www.theamphour.com/171-an-interview-with-forrest-mims-snell-solisequious-scientist/
Source file: http://traffic.libsyn.com/theamphour/TheAmpHour-171-SnellSolisequiousScientist.mp3
Dave: Welcome to the Amp Hour. I’m Dave Jones of the EEV blog.
Chris: And I’m Chris Gammell of Contextual Electronics.
Forrest: I’m Forrest Mims I live in Texas, I write books and do science.
Chris: Yeah science!
Dave: Oh my goodness Forrest Mims. Come on Chris we have to do it…
Chris & Dave: We are not worthy, we are not worthy!!
Dave: For you young whippersnappers out there i.e. anyone post the internet era out there.
Chris: Even still it’s not like … people would still know.
Dave: People would still get his books …We’re talking the most prolific electronics author on the planet I believe with 7 million books sold. Absolutely crazy – dating back to the 70s when I was doing electronics, when I was a boy. Everyone knows Forrest Mims, the electronics author but he’s so much more than that as we will get into, so thank you very much for joining us Forrest.
Forrest: Well I’m glad to be here.
Dave: And where are you from?
Forrest: I live in Texas, in a small town called Seguin in a rural site. We live on some acreage here, a lot of trees a little creek and place to do my scientific measurements in a field.
Chris: That’s awesome. So in emailing with Forrest I realized I met my wife I think less than 30 miles from where he lives which is totally crazy.
Forrest: That’s right.
Chris: Texas days, I miss Texas some days. Especially when it gets like today in Cleveland it’s gross…
Dave: Have you always lived in Texas?
Forrest: Well I was born in Texas but I’ve lived in many states and met my wife in New Mexico after coming back from Vietnam and then came back to Texas.
Dave: Right. Oh there’s so many things we’ve got to talk about. I don’t know how we are going to fit it all in one show.
Chris: How about this. Forrest where would you like us to start? Do you want to go backwards in time or do you want to go forwards in time.
Forrest: Lets start at the beginning.
Dave: Yeah. How did you get into electronics? This is an electronics show so we don’t necessarily care about your troubled childhood or something if you had one.
Dave: Sorry about that.
Chris: That’s a nice assumption Dave…
Forrest: The beginning was when I was eleven years old building a soapbox racer which had a headlight made from a PR13 incandescent light powered by a 6v battery and when I turned the light off it would run down the battery. I didn’t realize the on/off switch had to be in series with the light.
Forrest: I put it in parallel with the light so I figured that out when the bent nail I was using for a switch became warm. I suddenly had the enlightenment that I had the switch hooked up incorrectly. That began my electronics career.
Dave: That’s brilliant.
Chris: It’s like the start of an epic journey.
Forrest: It was and my father build a crystal radio set for my brother and me and it actually worked so I began building small radios. I learned that the capacitor was not called the capacitator it was called the capacitor and I learned that I didn’t like vacuum tubes and so I stuck with semi conductor diodes. Then in 1957 for Christmas that year, I was 13. My dad was serving in Korea and my mother let me select for Christmas an order of parts from Lafayette Radio and those were the parts to build my first one transistor radio and I snuck in the closet and actually touched the transistor before Christmas day.
Dave: Nice. Now this is rather bizarre, you’re talking late 1950s here and you didn’t like tubes? 0:04:02.4
Forrest: Oh no of course not, tubes were …. When I went to college in 1965 when I was a senior everybody kept saying I should have majored in electronics because of all the work I was doing in my dorm room. So I finally decided to walk over to the electrical engineering building one day and I stood by the door and looked at some of my class mates in this class and there were all these equations on the board which made no sense to me and they were working with vacuum tube breadboard circuits on their lab bench. I went back to my dorm room where I was working with integrated circuits and ultra sophisticated light emitting diodes!
Chris: Oh man
Forrest: Why would I want to use vacuum tubes?
Dave: Even in the 50s that’s fantastic I thought the …
Dave: 60s right 65. well that’s right that’s when in Australia 1965 Electronics Australia which I have had my projects published in that’s when they changed their name from Radio and TV Hobbies to Electronics Australia. So that’s when the electronics revolution took off then maybe?
Forrest: Yeah the very beginning of it and hobbyist electronics really began to come to it’s full fruition in the late 60s early 70s.
Dave: Right and when was your first article published?
Forrest: Good question, ok I was building light flashers. Small light transistorized light flashers, 2 transistors a capacitor resistor a pot and a small incandescent bulb and I was putting them in small rockets. I designed a new kind of rocket control system back in high school and I was building these in college and I was even flying them in Vietnam and I needed a way to track them so I could watch the movements of the rockets at night. One night I launched it 21 times and photographically recorded it every flight.
Chris: Oh wow
Forrest: I was asked to launch one of these at a model rocket meeting at Portales New Mexico State university and the editor of Model Rocketry Magazine George Flynn was there and he said ‘could you write an article for my magazine on how to build one of these light flashers?’ and I said sure. I didn’t realize he was going to pay me $93.50 for that article.
Dave: That was a lot in those days!
Forrest: Well it was not only a lot but it was my first freelance article and I told my wife and said I’m going to quit the air force when I finish my 4 years and become a freelance write. So that’s how I got started.
Chris: I was reading on your wiki page about you exploits when you were overseas.. What was it you were in Vietnam and you were launching a rocket at a base or something and you got into trouble for that, what was that story?
Forrest: Oh golly I got into trouble a couple of times. That was at Tan Son Nhut Airforce base right next to Saigon and I was …Some time we are very naive when we were younger. I would go riding through Saigon with rockets strapped to the back of my little motorbike. Assuming everybody knew they were harmless.
Chris: Of course!
Forrest: They didn’t know they were.
Chris: It’s a science experiment, it’s a science experiment!
Forrest: So I would launch these out of the Sholong race track which was an abandoned race track, abandoned during the war at least and one day we were launching rockets, I saw we because all these Vietnamese kids would come out an watch. They would help me recover the rockets from inside the racetrack and suddenly an army helicopter, a Huey zoomed in with 50 caliber machine guns pointed straight at us and I would take off my shirt and start waving my shirt. I told the kids to get away. I’d just assumed they were going to kill me on the spot and they lifted up and came right over me, everything blew away. They looked at me and I kept waving an everything and they left but I heard more about that later from my bosses where I worked in the intelligence office.
Chris: That must have been a heart race moment. 0:07:54.1
Forrest: Another time I was launching from the roof of my apartment. I put a map of how to get to my apartment on this rocket offering a reward for it’s return and I launched the rocket then all of a sudden military police show up at the bottom of where I … I lived right off the base gate and the military police showed up as I was going downstairs to look for my rocket and they said. get back in your place the base is under attack, under rocket attack. So I went back to my room and I remembered I had put my map to my house on that rocket. So I snuck out anyway and went looking for it I never did find it.
Chris: No one else did apparently either right cause you’re here telling us?
Forrest: Apparently not! I’m glad for that.
Chris & Dave: Wow
Dave: That’s a story and a half, I don’t think we’ve heard one like that Chris.
Forrest: Those rocket launch experiences LED to something much bigger because my friend Ed Roberts also at the Air Force weapons lab he and I had been discussing, organizing a company to sell things through Popular Electronics magazine. We never could hit on a formula that both of us could agree to. We talked about everything from electronic abacus to an op amp analog computer like I’d been building in High School and that Ed was very interested in but when I got that article published in model rocketry he was really excited. He said ‘this is it, this is what we can do’ and so we started a little company Micro Instrumentation Telemetry systems to build those light flashers as well as fault rocket transmitters and that company MITS went onto do much bigger and greater things.
Dave: Oh yes folks, if the name rings a bell yes it is the Altair, the Ed Roberts of Altair fame so you are co-founder of MITS?
Forrest: Ed and I founded the company with Stan Kegel and Bob Zeller in September of 1969 in Ed’s kitchen.
Chris: Where all good companies are founded right.. garages, kitchens..
Forrest: Absolutely. Well the garage became where we built all the circuitry. Those guys were watching Star Trek, I was writing the manuals and everything. Years later Paul Allen .. Paul Allen and Bill gates came to Albuquerque to build to write software for the Altair. In 2006 Paul donated money to the New Mexico museum of Natural History and Science for a new wing to the museum celebrating the beginning of the personal computer era in New Mexico so there’s really really neat exhibits of Paul’s personal collection of mini rare computer artifacts.
Dave: Oh I had no idea!
Forrest: There’s a picture of my wife typing the manual for the first MITS transmitter then the rocket I built to launch the transmitter is sitting right next to the photograph of my wife in the museum.
Chris: That’s so cool.
Forrest: It’s a kick to see that.
Chris: Wow do you get back out to New Mexico much?
Forrest: We try to go out once a year, my wife still has relatives there.
Chris: Great that’s awesome.
Dave: So Ed ended up buying you guys out before the Altair happened? How did that come about? 0:11:06.7
Forrest: We were doing very poorly we only sold a few hundred of these telemetry kits and then we moved them to building various other things and then Ed wanted to get into building electronic calculators and Stan and I thought that just would not work it would fail…
Dave: Why was that?
Forrest: We didn’t think it would work because the Japanese were already beginning to bring out inexpensive calculators
Dave: Right and it didn’t last long did it? He was successful with the calculators but I think it was very briefly.
Forrest: It was very successful for about a year or so I wrote the manuals for those first calculators and he would pay me in equipment. We sold out to Ed but we were still all buddies, I was doing my thing becoming a writer and Stan was doing his thing he was still a consultant so I wrote the manuals for the early calculators. When he did the computer he called me over to the office one night and I was only four blocks away so I got on the bicycle and rode over there and he went into the shop there at MITS and he said ‘what do ya think?’ and he’s pointing at this funny looking blue box on the workbench with rows of switches and lights. He said ‘how well do you think it will sell?’ He told me what it was and I said ‘Ed based on past experience maybe a few hundred at most’. He looked sad and I felt bad later that I had been so pessimistic and they sold over 5000.
Chris: See now what if that was what motivated him even more to push it, that’s what really pushed it over the edge – you never know.
Forrest: What really motivated the whole thing was Popular Electronics Magazine. I had 3 columns in Popular Electronics all at the same time every month and that was really my full time work. So Les Solomon the technical editor desperately wanted a computer project to keep up with Larry Steckler’s magazine Radio Electronics. They had published some work in 1974, a 4 bit microcomputer but it didn’t take off and so they wanted an 8 bit machine and them when Ed came up with the Altair it was only natural for Les to become really involved in that. I’d introduced him to Ed when he came out to Albuquerque I’d designed with Ed and Bob a light wave transmission system called the Optocomm. Transmitted your voice over an infrared beam of light. We put that in popular electronics both as a cover story and a tutorial about light emitting diodes and a construction article about the project. So we had a strong connection with Popular Electronics and that’s what made the Altair successful. In fact Paul Allen saw that magazine in Harvard Square and took it to Bill Gates and that’s how it all began.
Dave: So is there any truth to the rumor that the actual box that was on the front cover is actually fake because the real prototype was lost in transit?
Forrest: Yes it was lost in transit.
Dave: On a train? It was lost on a train or something?
Forrest: I don’t remember how, I have no idea how Ed shipped it all I know is it never made it.
Dave: The worlds first, the world’s first home computer was basically lost in transit. Laughter
Forrest: YeahDave: And so they agreed to publish a fake box with LEDs just ….
Forrest: it was kind of an emergency because the article was already prepared and edited and ready to go and they needed a cover shot so sometimes strange things happen.
Dave: Had Les Solomon seen the working prototype or did he just trust you that it worked.
Forrest: I don’t think he saw it and I did not write the popular electronics article Ed did with Bill Yates, the EE guy who worked with Ed. The names are the same except Bill’s starts with a Y and Gates starts with G, they wrote that article for Popular Electronics.
Dave: And it was never recovered? The world’s first … 0:15:18.9
Forrest: I talked to Ed about that a couple of times, no it was never recovered.
Dave: Wow, so it’s still sitting out there or it’s sitting in a landfill. How valuable would that sucker be if it turned up?
Chris: it sounds like a trade show mishap almost where it’s like at the last minute, the night before … oh well its (inaudible) blink. Although I’m sure blinking was more impressive back then. I’m actually interested in your interest in LEDS to get started. I can only imagine that they must have been incredibly expensive to start with.
Forrest: they were and when I learned about LEDS the first time, at Texas A&M I was a junior. I was walking across this particular street, I remember it like it was yesterday. Walked over to the library, the electronics library was in the wing of one of the buildings it wasn’t in the library. Picked up electronics magazine and read about infra red light emitting diodes and it just captivated me. Texas Instruments at the time was just north of Dallas, Richardson Texas they were making these high power infrared LEDs, 900 nanometer LEDs out of gallium arsenide. I just had to have one. I contacted TI and I contacted a scientist called Ed Bonin, he had a PhD. I hitchhiked up to A&M to meet with him. By the way you don’t want to hitchhike to Dallas.
Dave: Hitchhiked! I was going to say.
Forrest: That was way back then, you especially don’t want to do it… it’s not very safe. I go into Dr Bonin’s office and he shows me a little small, about the size of a lipstick tube, flashlight with a red LED and it just completely captured me. I’ve got to have one of those, I’ve got to build one of these. We talked about laser diodes TI was in the process of trying to build those, GE had already built one, MIT had already built one. Then he showed me these infrared diodes and the reason they had an external quantum efficiency of 80% because they were built in a dome, the semiconductor was not a flat die like a sandwich it was built as a dome, grounded to a dome. So the internal light always met the surface of the proper escape angle, it wasn’t reflected back in.
Chris & Dave: Oh wow, awesome.
Chris: That sounds expensive.
Dave: It does and they haven’t made them like that since have they?
Oh no, no, well they tried to simulate it with epoxy those diodes cost $365 back then and of course I couldn’t afford one. That was in 1966 dollars.
Chris: That’s like 10 articles.
Forrest: Dr Bonin said, I wrote him a letter with a proposal, he said if you can send me the circuit you plan to use with this, if it works, I will send you a sample. So I built a circuit, I didn’t know if it would work I mailed it to him and he writes me back and he said it works and he said I’m going to send you three infra red LEDs.
Chris: Score. That’s like 1000 dollars!
Forrest: Those are the LEDs I was working with I went to that EE class when I decided that I didn’t want to major in electronics.
Chris: Ahhh like leaving you suckers behind got some sweet gear.
Dave: You and your damn vacuum tubes!
Forrest: I was able to build and infra red travel light for the blind using one of those and that’s what kicked off my electronics career, although I built an analog computer in high school that translated 20 words of Russian into English that’s another project but the miniaturization that was required to build this travel aid for the blind, that’s what really kicked off my electronics career.
Chris: Can you explain that project a little bit, I read a little bit about it maybe for people listening.
Forrest: The travel aid or the computer?
Chris: Well both are good but the travel aid to start with.
Forrest: the travel aid was installed in a 3in x 1in x 1in clear plastic box, the LED was mounted in a small incandescent light assembly, but instead of the incandescent light it had the LED with a red glass lens and then the front of the box was a silicon solar cell with an aluminum, corrugated collimator about 1/4 inch thick in front of it to help block sunlight. That went to a hearing aid amplifier that I had salvaged from a hearing aid I got from a hearing aid dealer and that went to an earphone. The LED was pulse powered so it’s a fairly high 50mwatt pulses and it could detect objects up to 12 feet. The closer you got the louder the signal.
Chris: Oh wow like sonar but for light obviously.
Forrest: Right very primitive but I tested this with several dozen blind people, adults and children in various blind school and I tested it in Vietnam at two different schools and it worked like a charm but I couldn’t get a manufacturer and the key reason was liability. Hearing aid companies would say nobody is going to sue us if our hearing aid wearer falls into a hole, but if he is also wearing our travel aid and happens to be blind we’re going to get sued. 0:20:27.7
Chris: I thought lawyers had gotten worse over the years that sounds like …
Forrest: I was very sad that wasn’t commercialized.
Chris: That’s a darn shame.
Forrest: I eventually miniaturized after I finished the air force, I miniaturized it into two small 3 eights inch diameter brass tubes that fit on sunglasses and there was no earphone cord. The earphone was a hearing aid earphone inside a brass tube with a clear plastic tube that went down into your ear.
Dave: Brilliant. Have you ever had your own company selling your own kits or have you always primarily just been an author?
Forrest: Well at MITS we sold kits at MITs.
Dave: of course but after MITS?
Forrest: Well I linked up with a small company that sell the Marvelous Martian Music Machine which is a metal box with a potentiometer that made all sorts of strange sounds and I got that on the Johnny Carson show but it didn’t help sales. It made my hometown famous but it didn’t sell many kits.
Chris: I didn’t hear that story, it was on the Johnny Carson show that’s crazy.
Dave: we’ll have to add that story to the Wikipedia page.
Chris: were you on the show as well or just the box?
Forrest: I was doing a book tour in Los Angeles for my book Solar Connections and the promoter took me to the Johnny Carson producers but I was too boring but they thought my little machine was really exciting. That’s what they told the book agent, she said you’re not going to make it but your machine will.
Chris: Oh man.
Dave: I was reading somewhere that I’m not sure what date it was but you were getting $400 per article for popular electronics, that seems like an awful lot cause I remember I was barely paid that in the late 80′s and 90′s for my articles in electronics Australia. You were earing good money being an author or a contributor to the books and magazines.
Forrest: I became full time… I left the air force in 1970 as a captain. I went to work as a parking lot attendant at the local airport and I told my wife after one year I will be a full time freelancer. Meanwhile my buddies from the air force were in disbelief that I was in working at the Air force weapons lab at the High Powered Laser Division. They couldn’t believe I had quit the service to work in a parking lot for 1/4 the money. People would come through at night some of them drunk and throw their money at you; it was a pretty demeaning job. But I wrote my first book in that parking lot booth.
Forrest: But a year went by and I wasn’t making enough money and one night the security guard went bezerk and pointed a .45 at me and I quit the next morning. They fired the fella but I was afraid he might drive and shoot me. He was mentally off. So I had to depend on God and what little electronics knowledge I had and we survived. I’ve been a full time freelance writer ever since.
Dave: So you could actually make a full time living out of the electronics magazines?
Forrest: Yeah well that and the books. I wasn’t wealthy but it paid the bills and I was … many many times we were at the edge. We’d sit there at the dinner table and pray for some income to pay the bills and the next day a check would arrive. That went on for about 3 years.
Chris: Many people know you from the RadioShack books can you take us from that tough point of making it as a full time author to actually starting to work for the RadioShack and getting all those books published or maybe even just the first publication. 0:24:27.3
Forrest: Good question. The first books I wrote were on laser diodes and light emitting diodes. I wrote the first 2 books on LEDS and the first book on diode lasers with a fella named Campbell. Those books were published by Howard Sams and CO. Then I wrote a book on opto electronics. Somewhere in that series of books the editor at Sams said we’re doing books for RadioShack and they contacted me and said could you write one of these books, so I wrote my first project book. Now these were typeset books these were not the hand lettered series and this went on. I wrote 16 I believe of those books. Then at some point RadioShack calls me in and they say why do we need to deal with the publisher you can make a lot more money dealing directly with us and you be the author and publisher. We came up with a formula of writing a book that would be hand lettered and that’s another story in itself. That was an experiment that succeeded. So I began writing Engineers Notebook, which was 128 pages of projects both analog and digital both integrated and circuits and it just went from there.
Dave: I have it right here in front of me. Printed in 1979.
Forrest: That book sold several hundred thousand copies and then I met with my editor, Dave Gunzell, fantastic technical editor. He was the one who had the idea for doing hand lettered books and he got the idea from my lab notebooks. I would keep detailed notes of everything I had done in science and he was one of my witnesses. One day he was looking at that and said ‘why can’t you do a book like this?’ because I would print kind of neatly and all that and that’s how that began. And so then it came time to do a generic book of introducing the customers to electronics and I suggested calling it ‘Getting Started in Electronics’ they said ‘Great’ they wanted a hand lettered book 128 pages as usual and I wrote that book in 58 days. Tested every circuit four times, I tested every circuit four times because when you build the circuit and you rebuild it when you’re looking at the drawing you made you make shortcuts because you’re so used to building it over and over again you don’t follow the drawing you made so I would make sure I followed exactly what I made. That book was published with only 2 minor errors in it, where some of the earlier books had more errors than that. That book has sold 1.4 million copies legally and I hate to say this on your program it’s given away free by pirates all over the web, really eating into out income. That’s what the internet has become.
Dave: That sucks.
Forrest: Distributes all my books for free and meanwhile my income is going progressively lower and lower.
Chris: Right over time as the royalties drop right?
Chris: So what did you say that sold 4 million copies of that sold?
Forrest: No that sold 1.4 million copies legitimately sold. There was a company, I wont tell you where but there a company in another country that has sold 40, 000 copies of it illegally. The author just copied the whole book and translated it into that language and they sold all these books not realizing that the book was totally plagiarized. They had a very friendly attorney, they reached an agreement to pay me a 15% royalty, they did that and there’s one more check to come and they are going to stop using my plagiarized book.
Chris: Oh man that’s crazy. I was reading about the total number of books though and the Wiki page at least said there was about 36 total books. There was that one big one what was the distribution of the other books? Were there other top sellers beyond that one, the main one?
Forrest: The small mini notebooks sold in the many hundreds of thousands of copies each and then they were bound into 4 books into one volume, to make a four volume set of sixteen mini notebooks and I can’t really tell you how many they sold. I haven’t kept up with the total sales, that 7.1 or 7.2 million copies that’s just RadioShack books that’s not all the other books.
Chris: Wow that’s crazy.
Dave: Oh no…How many mistakes would you make?
Forrest: Most of them were very trivial. I don’t want any errors in a book and so the mini notebooks had hardly any errors because of that policy of rebuilding every circuit four times from scratch. The point I’d like to add about these books is folks listening in and you guys, I’m just a government major; I’ve never taken a course in electronics. I was doing these books as a hobby. I was having as much fun as you can imagine. Coming up with all these circuits and playing with them and then say I’m going to put these into a book and to be able to earn a living from that I was stunned by that. In recent years not a week goes by that I don’t get an email, sometimes several, from folks who were teenagers back in those days, maybe in their 20s who made there career electronics because of reading those books. So that has been a very fulfilling aspect of the whole project.
Dave: My hand is up; yes I was at the ripe age. I was 8 years old when I first got your books and yeah that definitely helped start me off that’s for sure so thank you very much Forrest. 0:30:14.8
Forrest: Glad to hear it.
Chris: I’m sure we will hear from many more, everybody when they heard that you were coming on the show too. I’m a bit younger so I didn’t start that way but I read them later. That must be insane. Me and Dave were talking before the who just trying to figure out even just percentage of our audience is probably a large percentage who started because of you or had read a book at some point. That’s very impressive.
Forrest: I must add that some point writing these books became rather tedious, I would sit there and hand letter these many notebooks at the bar in our kitchen because it has this nice bright fluorescent light. The books are written with a 7mm mechanical pencil and I have same pencil, eraser and straight edge. After a while though it’s pretty tedious. The Engineer’s Notebook that you have that was with Indian ink on Mylar.
Dave: I was going to say yeah the contrast is phenomenal. The black text really stands out.
Forrest: Well it made my middle finger bleed, I decided never again, never again. Not only that if you made a mistake with India ink on Mylar you had redo the whole page.
Dave: Yeah that’s what I was just going to ask about that’s crazy!
Forrest: At some point, the date was 1988 I was walking back from the creek and I touched the fence and I just had this extreme development occurred – stop writing your electronics books and start using your electronics to do science. So I prepared a big proposal for Scientific American magazine and that’s how the science got started.
Dave: They would accept proposals from anyone? Or did you have a name that you know that lent some credence tot hat.
Forrest: Scientific Magazine, the oldest magazine continually published in the US, had a column called the ‘Amateur Scientist’. That was a very famous column it began back in the late 1920s with astronomy columns and all through my youth that was the science column to read, all sorts of fascinating experiments I dreamed of one day contributing one project to that. I ended up doing that, somebody plagiarized one of my laser circuits and put it in there but they didn’t put my name on it.
Dave: oh no!
Forrest: The editor didn’t know that so he apologized, so anyway I knew one of the editors in 1988, he’d interviewed me for a story he wrote and so he told me I should submit this proposal when I called him up. I prepared a detailed proposal with 36 column ideas – that would be 3 year’s worth of columns and sent that off to the magazine. They studied that for a year and a half, invited me to go to New York to meet with the staff. I went with a suitcase full of all kinds of electronic gadgets. My radio controlled camera that you can fly from a kite, my sunlight measuring instruments and so forth and they were all excited and I got the job. So I’d thought, ended up that the editor wasn’t too happy when he asked me some personal questions during the interview process so I only ended up being able to write 3 columns for the magazine before I got dumped. He asked me if I believed in Darwinian evolution, after asking what magazines I wrote for, I said, ‘I write for Bicycling Magazine, Popular Photography, I’ve written for a couple of Christian magazines and that really got him up. ‘What have you written for Christian magazines?’ I said a couple of articles on long distance bicycle trips and then he said’ Do you believe in the Darwinian theory of evolution?’. I knew my jobs was gone, I said ‘well no I don’t but neither does Stephen J Gould’, a famous evolutionist who had problems with Darwin’s theory. At any rate a big adventure happened thereafter, I only got to write the 3 columns. When I got dumped it became a worldwide publicity thing I was on over 100 radio stations a bunch of TV stations, the New York times came to my front door, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal interviewed me. It became a big PR nightmare for Scientific American.
Dave: But you got published in other places and you continued all your amateur science stuff? Are you more known for that now than the electronics stuff?
Forrest: It’s beginning to be that way. Larry Steckler who was the editor of Radio Electronics, he’d been discriminated against, he’s Jewish, when he was a young guy, a young reporter. He was discriminated against by a major magazine; he took pity on me and started a magazine after I got bumped from Scientific American. Magazine was called Science Probe and I was the founding editor and Larry was the publisher and we did that for about 3 years and published a first class science magazine for amateur scientists. We had 40 authors, some of them quite famous, including an astronaut. After that everything started happening, I started writing scientific papers for journals and let me assure your listeners – if you have a really really good idea, don’t worry if you don’t have a really really good education. It’s the idea that counts and if you can implement it. So I was implementing all kinds of things without a science background but you know what? My entire career not a single consulting client I’ve worked for, including NASA, NOA and EPA and so on. Not a single one has asked me what my degree is, all they care about it what have you published in the scholarly literature. They already know the answers to that so… 0:36:17.8
Dave: That is exactly the same in the electronics engineering industry; most companies don’t care about your educational background. Can you do the job? Yes No? That’s it end of story.
Forrest: Exactly and not to discourage people from following that route but unfortunately a lot of folks are getting out of college these days and cant find a job. Bill Gates doesn’t have a degree, Paul Allen doesn’t have a degree. Many other folks very famous in the computer field never got their degree and yet look – what they’ve done.
Dave: Yep it’s all about execution.
Chris: What is your take on the … obviously the publishing industry has hit some rough times lately what about your thoughts on the job market in general these days. You see this as a consultant, what do you see personally?
Forrest: I have a few friends who are out of work but I don’t really see that much of the industry. What I see is in the filed of science government money is drying up. It’s very very difficult for people to get grants these days, that’s affected some of my research. Hey you can do it on your own and so if I can live with what I’m making from my book loyalties I can still do my science. I will have 25 years of atmospheric data a year from February
Dave: That’s fantastic.
Forrest: I measure the ozone layer every day the sun shines, you need sunlight to point the instrument at the sun. I measure the aerosol optical depth of the atmosphere that’s the haze, I measure the photosynthetic radiation, I measure the total column water vapor – that’s the blanket of water over your head not the relative humidity of the ground, that’s the total amount of water vapor. That’s the leading greenhouse gas and very few people measure that. The weather balloons measure it but because the temperature sensors on weather balloons don’t always work properly or the relative humidity sensors don’t always work properly that record is controversial. SO anyway I can do all my science for free! I’ve built all the instruments, right before we went on the air with your program here I went outside, retrieved my – I’m holding it my hand right here – it’s a twilight photometer, it’s an ultra sensitive op amp with a 40Gb and 20Gb feedback resistor you can choose one or the other.
Forrest: Huge amplification, I can measure the twilight glow of the sky when the sun has set 45-50 minutes ago and I record that every second so I am looking right now at my data for this evening and I can see a big dip at 20-30km caused my this permanent layer of dust in the stratosphere and I can also see some junk down below caused by sulfate smog from power plants in the Ohio valley that drifted over Texas. 0:39:02.8
Chris: Sorry our bad
Dave: 25 years you’ve been doing that
Forrest: 24 but I’ll have 25 in another year from now.
Dave: Fantastic, obviously you haven’t been using the same sensor and logger for that entire period right? How do you handle the switchover of instruments in terms of ensuring that your data is … there’s no bias caused by switching test gear.
Forrest: Super question, that’s the ultimate question. Two of my instruments, one of them goes back to February 4th of 1990 when I began and the other goes back to 1991 so ..
Dave: Ah so they do?
Forrest: The reason they do that is I measure sunlight using light emitting diodes instead of filters and phonophoto diodes. Filters degrade over time, light emitting diodes tend not to degrade over time. So the two LEDs in my very first sun photometer are still there today. Those two LEDs I measure the optical depth of the atmosphere at those two wavelengths 880 and 940 nanometers. I also measure the total column water vapor. So that is extremely important data to have with one instrument for 24 straight years.
Chris: I thought that LEDS do degrade over time though. What I’m thinking of is.. the emitter is – are you using that as a detector?
Forrest: As an emitter under forward bias, yes they do degrade but as a passive sensor, there’s a very slow degradation in some LEDs just the atomic migration within the crystal.
Chris: Right the implantation stuff right
Forrest: Exactly, but I calibrate these at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory every year, well I’ve been going since 1992.
Chris: That must be a tough trip for you Forrest? (Inaudible )I have to go to Hawaii
Forrest: They all think that it’s a tourist trip. I promise you the observatory is at 11, 200 feet.
Chris: I’ve been there actually
Dave: I have been up there too, it’s hard to breathe.
Forrest: You’re talking about Mauna Kea
Dave: Oh yes sorry
Chris: Sorry where the mountain is where everybody goes for the sunrise that’s where I’ve been …
Forrest: Right right, Mauna Loa is the other big mountain. You wake up in the morning, I’m usually there for 12 nights. I come down every 2-3 days to get a shower and buy groceries. Once per trip I get to go swimming, usually not always. It’s not an easy trip, you get up at 4.45am and you go to bed around 11pm so it’s an all day job. It’s a lot of work calibrating instruments so I can see the palms trees with my binoculars and when I go down to get my shower I can see them.
Chris: So can I ask you a bigger broader question here?
Forrest: Sure sure.
Chris: Why do you do this stuff?
Dave: It’s fun dude! It’s fun!
Chris: Hear me out here Dave. This is a basic question, this is a life long pursuit for you so what is driving you here?
Forrest: Life is a science fair project.
Chris: Oh I like that.
Dave: There’s a t-shirt quote!
Chris: Yes it is.
Forrest: When I was a senior in high school I was fascinated by analog computers so I built simple multipliers and dividers using potentiometers, batteries and a meter. Anybody can do that. I wanted something more sophisticated, I designed a machine – I call it a machine on purpose that would translate 20 words of -one language into 20 words of another language. It used an analog input panel of six dials, potentiometers with all the letters of the alphabet and that went to a box and inside of that box was a memory board consisting of 20 small little trim pots and you could adjust each one of those for unique resistance. So each one of those was the memory and each one became a word that I wanted to translate. Then there was a Wheatstone bridge circuit, just a couple of resistors and a potentiometer and then there was a meter and the meter needle had a piece of aluminum foil glued to it and a black cover over the whole panel of the meter except for a slot. There’s a light looking down from the meter and under the meter I had glued a small piece of a silicone solar cell. So I could detect when there was a null. When the meter nulled I would get a signal and the meter would null when the memory matched whatever I dialed into the six potentiometer panel. Then there was an electric music box that I had modified by putting paint on the little cylinder that rotates and I had some little wires that stuck out and dragged along that cylinder and I had little openings in the paint where the wires dragging on the cylinder could contact the metal cylinder so I could sample the memory that way.
Dave: Oh brilliant.
Forrest: You dial in your word you hit a switch that says on, then everything starts cranking, the little music box is rotating then the meter needle is swinging back and forth. When the meter needle hits a null that means the word matches, it stops, that turns off the motor and then there’s a light panel and there’s 20 lights and one red light lights up and that’s the translated word.
Forrest: So it’s an analog digital machine and the mathematics curator of the Smithsonian came to visit us around 20 years ago to collect all my Altair stuff, she saw that and they asked for that. So that’s at the Smithsonian, I don’t know what they are doing with it but it’s considered an early hobby computer project. 0:44:34.6
Chris: So was that a science fair project is that was the segway was there?
Forrest: Yeah that was my senior science fair.
Chris: That is a life science fair project I gotta say it, that’s really interesting.
Forrest: Built at 246 (inaudible) street Pratnel Alabama where my dad was assigned to the Maxwell Air force base in Montgomery Alabama.
Dave: I’ve got a question on the sensor data for long term scientific experiment, I just love this sort of stuff. So it’s more important to have a sensor that is absolutely the same sensor stable over time or the same test instrument stable over time than it is to have a calibrated sensor that is always changing for example.
Forrest: The answer is yes if the sensor doesn’t drift. So even with
Dave: Of course I’m assuming it’s got zero drift
Forrest: Right some of these LEDS do have zero drift, I’m operating a, I’ve got the only light emitting diode, shadow band solar radiometer it’s up on the roof on the University in my town here. I manage these instruments for the department of agriculture through Colorado state university and one of those instruments has got 7 LEDS in it. A couple of them have drifted but two or three of them are just as stable as a rock after 10 years.
Dave: Ahh so you take seven individual readings and then monitor them over time and throw out the ones that are drifting I guess.
Forrest: More or less, If you go onto my website you can see some of this data on my main website, www.forestmims.org and if you click on science data you can see some of the plots of the data.
Dave: Fantastic, because that’s very difficult to do is to devote 25 years to continuously actually collecting and monitoring them and throwing out bad data as it drifts and all that sort of stuff to be left with a good set of data.
Forrest: I like the way you think, we’re kindred spirits.
Forrest: You’re thinking exactly what I was thinking at the time and after 5 years of doing this and that was 20 years ago I was about ready to quit ‘why am I doing this every day?’ I could be writing, why am I fooling around doing this? And then what happened was all of a sudden I start making discoveries you know.
Dave: Ahhhh yep yep.
Chris: Yep the feedback loop.
Forrest: Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippine islands and the volcanic ash cloud came over Texas and I measured that, I measured smoke coming from Yellowstone fires over Texas and finding strange things happening in the ozone layer. At one point NASA’s ozone satellite went bad and I was finding an error in their satellite. I knew all those guys so I contacted them and said you guys there’s a problem here, you aren’t showing enough ozone. They said look Forrest our satellite there $100 million tied up in that and you’ve just got this little …
Dave: You’ve just got a couple of LEDS down there!
Forrest: Well actually those instruments did use filters, they are ultra violet detectors but that’s another story, but anyway I said yeah I’ve only got this instrument but I’ve got two and they are both showing the same error and then they still didn’t take me seriously. So then I got to go to Hawaii for the first time in 1992 to give a talk about being dumped at Scientific American, this scientific group wanted me to give that talk. So I got to go to the observatory and the woman operating the world standard ozone instrument told me she was also seeing a difference between her data and the satellite.
Chris: Yes vindication.
Forrest: It was of the same order of magnitude as I was seeing so I notified them and that became my first paper in the journal Nature.
Chris: Which if people don’t know it’s a big big …
Dave: It’s the preeminent, some scientists spend their entire career wanting to get one article, one paper in Nature.
Forrest: Well that built my career. NASA who did not want me to find an error in their satellite they end up inviting me to go to Gardiner spaceflight center and give a talk about how I did that. They entitled the talk ‘doing earth science on a shoestring budget.’ Then I got a Rolex prize for that same project. What was really interesting about that is, some of your listeners, look if you have a really great idea, look up the Rolex prize, maybe you have something worthy of that because they will give you some good seed money. So Rolex does all these interviews and I get a hone call one day and they are going to give me this award and there were two cool things about that number one they advertised the award in Scientific American which had dumped me and that Ozone instrument was going to be one of my next projects so I got in their magazine with the project just not the details of how to build it and the other interesting thing was when they sent their movie crew out to make a video of all their winners and they ship that all around the world for TV. Well the video crew comes out and I was telling them the story about finding the error in NASAs satellite and I said they are gonna fax me today to let me know if they agree that I really have found an error. So we walk into my office and there’s a fax laying on my desk so I reach over to get the fax and the producer yells at me’ Don’t touch that fax!’ I said ‘why not’ he said ‘I’ve been filming Nobel prize winners and all sorts of famous things for years and years. I’ve never actually seen any real science. It’s either fake or re enacted. I don’t want you to read that fax til we’ve got our camera ready to go. So I was kinda nervous, I didn’t know what it was going to say. 0:50:24.2
Chris: It could say …. drink more Ovaltine.
Forrest: It took ten minutes to get those guys ready and so finally they said sit down and then he tells the camera guy start, whatever they say go, action and then he tells me ‘ you may read your fax’. So I turn it over and started reading it and NASA was admitting that I had found an error in their satellite. So it was really exciting, then they actually called the scientist Richard McPeters and discussed it with him on the telephone and a little bit of that conversation was included on the video.
Dave: Is this video on YouTube somewhere or has it just been lost in the archives?
Forrest: I don’t know, I’ve got a copy of it I’d love to get that on YouTube but it’s not.
Forrest: Yeah absolutely. You can somehow scan it .. what format.
Chris: If only we knew someone, that was on YouTube that could help them out Dave right?
Forrest: It’s a VHS.
Dave: VHS that’s not too hard to still copy
Forrest: I’ve got a bunch of .. type in F Mims on YouTube and you can see a bunch of my video clips. This would be great to put that on I hadn’t even thought about it. It may be on the web I don’t know.
Dave: Well maybe but I doubt it, definitely put it on your channel. Do it your self and upload it please.
Chris: I found the page on the Rolex awards, there is a large site for Rolex awards. That’s the rest of my evening I’m going to be looking through all this stuff. Yeah there’s photos and everything too – that’s great. Man that’s so cool such a great story.
Dave: It’s an awesome story.
Chris: SO you have written also about something with Brazil? So was that the same project you went down to Brazil for?
Forrest: Actually NASA took me, they brought me out to give that talk about the satellite and then after the talk some of the individual scientists wanted to get together and one group .. Brent Holben, who is a really sharp atmospheric scientist. He and his buddies wanted me to go to Brazil because the satellite that I had found an error in at that point had quit working. So they needed somebody to measure the ozone layer for them through the smoke during the burning season. They asked me if I would be willing to go and I said sure. They gave me a $5000 purchase order and with that I hired a student, actually hiring a student consisted of me paying his airfare and buying food. We ran out of food, I lost 7lbs on that trip.
Chris: Oh no!
Forrest: we went to Cuiaba Brazil we were there for 3 weeks that was my first really serious field science. Then the next year they had me go to seven forest fires out west to do the same thing with their new ozone satellite then the following year they had me go back to Brazil. NASA had been kicked out of Brazil at that point because of political reasons, I don’t want to go into that. These countries sometimes want money in exchange for the US to do science so that was a big thing. I’ve never told this story and I won’t go into detail but I will put it in a book. Let’s just say that NASA wanted me to pose as a tourist. You don’t do that , you don’t do that. It’s their country not our country so I did get a letter of permission after being warned whatever you do don’t pose as a tourist because they will arrest you if you’re doing science.
Chris: That sounds like a good title too … ‘Criminal Scientist ..’ or something
Dave: Yeah exactly!
Forrest: there were some days the smoke was so thick that airplanes couldn’t land in the small air field, we were in a very remote region of Brazil and my left lung hurt for 3 weeks after I got back. The smoke was awful, it was awful.
Dave: So what’s your take on the current state of the climate? Are we screwing this planet?
Dave: We’re not?
Forrest: We’re doing this wrong for example, land use is the big problem. Carbon dioxide is not the primary greenhouse gas water vapor it. The reason the modelers are still wrong and the reason the temperature of the earth has not risen in the past 15-16 years and conformants will know that the models were predicting is that the models predict positive feedback caused by carbon monoxide evaporating more water than usual. That excess water is where you get the warming – not the CO2. The CO2 causes a mild warming and the water vapor amplifies that by several times. Well that’s just not happening. My 24 year water vapor record in Texas is showing a decline in total water vapor of about 1.1 or 1.2 mm per decade. Notice I can say decade and not year. The modelers are not using all the available data. They are not using the latest NASA NVAP results which show no significant trend in water vapor around the entire globe since 1988. You got all these 24 global climate models that are total failures in predicting what the temperature is supposed to be. We are nowhere near what they were predicting 12 – 15 years ago because the earth’s temperature has not risen.
Dave: What about in terms of pollution, atmospheric pollution. 0:55:24.7
Forrest: In the United States the air has never been cleaner. I just got back from Washington DC, I measure the optical depth on 2 different days right at the same exact location behind the Smithsonian castle that Charles Abbot and his colleagues a century ago were doing the same work. They pioneered sun photometry for the whole world. I’ve done this 2 times this year and last year and I did it 10 years ago. In all cases the air is cleaner today than when it was when Charles abbot was measuring it on the best days. Why is that? Well …paved streets – they did not have paved streets. Burning up coal – we don’t burn coal in cities today we burn coal in power plants.
Chris: For heating you mean?
Forrest: They heated their homes with the burning of coal when it was cool. Back in their October November they had much more air pollution than we do today.
Chris: What is the effect of localized … so you mentioned you’re doing all this instrumentation, visualization and monitoring like that. What’s the different because of satellite versus localized measurements like you’re taking. How do you rectify that data against one another?
Forrest: The satellites cannot measure the temperature at the surface, they measure the temperature at various levels of the atmosphere and you can see those data have not shown a rise in temperature for the past 16 or 17 years. There are very subtle changes but nowhere near what the models were predicting.
Chris: So you were saying that the clarity of the air though as well .. pollution levels.
Forrest: That record does not go back very far. The best record is the modus instrument on the Terra and the Aqua satellites and that data goes back around 10 years or so. If you use a sun photometer with a red and a green LED as the detectors. And you compare that with the overpasses of the Terra and the Aqua as I’ve done. If you do that within 30 seconds of the peak elevation of the satellite over your site, you will be in very very close agreement with that satellite. They’ve got very good, NASA has very good capability for measuring optical depth with the satellite.
Chris: How do you track the satellites too?
Forrest: You can go online and type in your co-ordinates and you can find out the next overpass of the satellite and when it’s going to be.
Chris: Oh wow that’s cool. There’s some Ham guys they point up at satellites and they can track when they are passing over with beacons and stuff too.
Forrest: Yes that’s right yeah. All these years I’ve been measuring the total optical depth of the atmosphere so I started to measure the elevation of these layers that caused there problems – that was a huge challenge but turned out people were doing that back in the 50s using the twilight glow. That’s why I built this new instrument I’ve been using it since June. So now I can tell you that today I had sulfate in the sky. I knew that from the Navy research lab model and the NASA model but I can tell you that it was about 6km elevation. I can tell you the altitude of the stratospheric aerosol layer that’s always there and it’s a little bit more today than it was 6 days ago the last time I had a clearer twilight.
Chris: How did you start learning about the basic measurements and stuff like that? Were you just going through other publications? So say I wanted to start atmospheric conditions today. I’d be like well I guess I could measure temperature and if there’s clouds .. I think about these other things that you are measuring I wouldn’t know where to start.
Forrest: well I started in libraries and I actually would contact some of the scientist who wrote the papers and they were very friendly, very helpful and co-operative. As long as approach them politely and don’t bug them when they are busy they will help you.
Chris: That’s a great tip.
Forrest: My first ozone instruments, a couple of NASA guys were very helpful in getting me started. A manufacturer gave me some free filters at the Smithsonian and those filters were worth $300-400 each and they gave me ten of them. That got me started.
Chris: Wow. Did you go back to those guys who helped you with the ozone spec like’ Hey sorry I told you your satellite was broken ..’
Forrest: Well yeah …. they knew that before it was published in Nature. I had another paper in nature on ultra violet and people criticize the peer review process and sometimes it is totally goofy but generally the peer reviewers really help show you how you can strengthen your paper by fixing this or fixing that.
Dave: Oh right so there’s a feedback mechanism there they don’t just go we accept or we reject.
Forrest: Definitely, that doesn’t happen with like .. when I would send a book to RadioShack there was no feedback. At popular electronics would, you had to submit an instrument and they would check it that way to make sure it worked. Anyway I made some measurements in Hawaii of ultra violet, I had 16 ultra violet data loggers using little onset hobo 8 bit data loggers and I built UV sensors for those with cosine-corrected Teflon diffusers. Planted those in 16 places across the island and collected them after 4 days. They all had interesting data, but the one at the Mauna Loa observatory itself showed these big spikes in ultra violet and I thought where did this come from? It was obviously caused my clouds I checked and yes – on a clear day you get a bell shaped curve a Gaussian distribution. When clouds were nearer the sun you get these big spikes caused by scattering of sunlight from the side of the cloud. I contacted John Frederick, University of Chicago. He is a world famous ultra violet guy. I wrote a small paper for Nature, he added a paragraph about a technical thing I asked him to do. We submitted it to nature and it was reviewed by 2 reviewers, they conduct their own in-house review then they send it out to peer review. The first reviewer said, we’ve known about this for years but nobody has ever published it that clouds can cause UV to increase by this much and it was like 15-20%.
Chris: Wow so definitely significant data. 1:01:44.5
Forrest: The second reviewer wrote exactly the same thing. That he was aware of it but nobody had published it they both recommended publishing no sweat. But the paper I wrote on the satellite error that was rejected and so Nature’s response was NASA should correct it’s own errors in our Journal. I wrote back and said with all due respect, NASA is not going to correct their error on this satellite. Then the overall editor John Maddox, he’s a Physicist who had great respect for amateur scientists, he’s also an atheist. He also knew about my adventures with Scientific American, I’d never met the man. He overruled the staff and they published my paper about that satellite error.
Chris: So what would be your estimation about amateur scientists being published. Not just in Nature, I mean Nature that’s mind blowing but what about in general publications. I think of academic publications like that and I don’t know anyone else who does amateur type science like that. In general you may be the first amateur scientist I know is this in depth and so passionate about it it’s crazy.
Forrest: There are some others also, there are some great amateur astronomers who have made major discoveries. The gentleman who found out that the comet was going to strike Jupiter.
Dave: Shoemaker! He was an
Forrest: No he was not the amateur that was deeply involved in that that LED Shoemaker to make that discovery.
Dave: I thought Shoemaker was an amateur though.
Forrest: Well he may have been an amateur but I thought he was a professor but the bottom line was that was very much coordinated by an amateur scientist I’m trying to remember his name, he’s a great astronomy photographer and another gentleman I believe is an Ophthalmologist. He discovered a large storm on Jupiter well before NASA did. Then there’s some amateur paleontologists, the paleontologist who lived in New Mexico he discovered Jurassic era dinosaur tracks in sandstone near Las Cruces New Mexico. He tried to convince the various New Mexico museums that these were authentic and he was rejected. He then drove all the way to Pittsburgh and then to Washington, they accepted his work and made him a curator of the place where he was finding all these fossils. He was studying Sociology, looking for PhD in Sociology. So there are a handful of guys doing this but I wish there were more. I am involved with the Citizen Scientist League and CSL we have some guys I think we are going to be publishing – George Hrabovsky for example he’s an amateur physicist, who has co-authored a book with a very famous physicist, that’s doing quite well. he’s also a first class mathematician so there’s some guys out there who do really good amateur science. There just aren’t enough of them. 1:04:42.0
Chris: Yeah wow that’s really cool.
Dave: So do you do more – do you do any hobby electronics anymore or is it just as a spin off to your science projects?
Forrest: Well of course, all the sunlight work I do is all based on my electronics. If I didn’t know how to design an ultra high gain op amp .. by the way this photometer I’m holding in my hand is closed in an aluminum box because the gain is so high you cannot have any electro-magnetic interference.
Chris: 40gig-ohms is pretty high.
Forrest: Some of you listeners may have interests in other areas for example music and I’ve built a circuit many years ago that I call a stepped tone generator published that in popular electronics and a couple of RadioShack books. if you go online and type in Atari Punk Console, you’ll be be amazed
Chris: Lot of people know that one.
Dave: Somebody mentioned that in the comments I think.
Forrest: I’ve been invited to give a talk about that at a conference coming up and then another thing is I have a column in Make magazine and I’ve described how to take tree rings and convert that into music by moving a fiber optic probe across the rings. A really cool college professor has come up with a program for converting data into music I don’t recall his name, he’s in my article in Make magazine and I wrote about him elsewhere. You can convert any string of numbers like cosmic rays, the ultraviolet for a year, to musical tones and it’s just fascinating. It’s created a whole new outlet for creativity. Anyone can do this.
Chris: That’s a great example too taking quasi-random datasets producing energy in different areas right.
Forrest: The ultra violet cycle is seasonal so it’s not random but it’s got spikes caused my cloud dust or cloudy days where you couldn’t get a good measurement but it will start with a really low frequency dzzzz and then just build up and get higher and higher frequency and then come back down again. So you can actually hear and visualize a seasonal cycle. I think it would be fun for blind folks to try some of this and help them better visualize what a graph would be showing.
Chris: There was a great video on YouTube I saw the other day where people were auditorially playing sorting algorithms, how computers sort datasets and they were playing that into audi tones and you got to watch it and hear it There was such a visceral difference. If I was looking at it, it would be boring but hearing how the computer shuffle these things around was really interesting.
Chris: Same with Baba O’reilly the Who song that was based on biometric data that they put into their computer and the song teenage wasteland a lot of people know but ..
Dave: Nope sorry
Chris: Anyways that’s really neat.
Dave: So are you working on any books?
Forrest: Yeah several, I’m starting a memoir. I wrote Solar Connections in the 80s and that book badly needs updating so it will be a memoir about all of these adventures and probably going to be called the ways of science. It’s an outsider entering the world of science by simply having some electronics knowledge. That’s one book, then I’m working on a novel, then I’m working on another project book and then I want to do a book about all these measurements that I do.
Dave: Are you self-publishing these or are you going through a main publisher what’s the deal?
Forrest: I told my wife last night, you know I’m a little concerned about the future of some of these books with the publishing industry in such turmoil right now. But you know what it doesn’t matter today does it. You can put a book on amazon or in Kindle form or elsewhere for free. Who knows by the time you make your royalty from them who knows you might be making as much or more than through a conventional publisher. I would rather use a conventional publisher, but if that doesn’t happen I will publish them anyway.
Chris: Because you don’t give your rights away up front, that’s all that really matters.
Chris: Then you can self publish and I think the trend these days to is to give some of that stuff away and then you make it up in speakers fees and that kind of thing. That’s what Chris Anderson always talks about, the freemium type models there.
Forrest: Yeah, yeah.
Chris: They sound like great books, I’m excited for those to come out. The Solar connections book can you tell us about that book a little more?
Forrest: That was a memoir I wrote in 1986 this is by McGraw Hill. It’s just the story about .. it has a whole section about the PC Altair, it has a story about I got involved in a lawsuit with Bells Labs when they used an invention that I sent them without permission. That’s the only time I’ve been involved in a lawsuit but that was an adventure in itself, learning how lawyers act it was amazing. I’ll just tell you one story I was having a deposition in that lawsuit, I had invented a way of communicating with LEDS 2 ways where an LED that emits light with a modulated voice or signal is the same LED that detects the light so you can have a fiber optic link with one fiber and one device at each end . So I submitted that to Bell labs and they said they didn’t want it but they would keep it in mind and if they ever used it they would get back in touch with me. They never got back to me but Dave Gunzel my RadioShack editor was reading business week magazine one day and saw an announcement that described exactly what I had sent Bell Labs. 1:10:30.6
Dave: Oh No
Forrest: So there began a lawsuit that was quite complex, very interesting the way that it worked out. I had to do a lot of depositions and one was at the offices of a Texas criminal attorney that Bell Labs had hired to represent them. I’d read a book on negotiation that says always take the best seat in the house. So I went into this room and the best seat in the house was looking at the Texas state capitol, so I sat in that chair. Then the lawyer came in and introduces himself and says now you’re actually seated where I sit – that’s my chair. Wouldn’t you rather sit here and I said no Sir this will do just fine. So I sat for whole deposition in his chair not realizing, that’s just what I did and there were a lot of things that happened . One day I had to bring boxes of material to for them to look at and so I put them on a cart pushed it in and there was 4 boxes. So they looked through all these boxes and the last box held my son who was in Six grade, held his science fair project because they wanted everything I’d done that was relating to light emitting diodes and this project involved light emitting diodes and they were looking at that and underneath that I had put my camera and so I reached in a got my camera and took a picture of them looking at my sons science fair project. Well they just.. there were 3 attorneys and the Texas trial attorney who just stood there didn’t do anything. The 2 bell Labs attorneys one went out the room and hid behind the door and the other went under the table and the third went somewhere else and then they started shouting at me to put my camera away.
Chris: Man people think they have privacy issues these days right?
Forrest: Well what had happened was when they searched my house I took pictures of them and they didn’t take me seriously and I published those in my column in popular electronics and they decided they didn’t want to get published again so the Texas trial lawyer said look guys why don’t you just put the camera away. That was we could proceed because otherwise these guys aren’t going to co-operate, so I agreed to do that.
Dave: That’s hilarious
Chris: They were like cockroaches running away from the light you know.
Forrest: Hey that’s a good description. That’s exactly what it was like.
Forrest: They are searching my house, I gave permission to search my house, I wasn’t going to produce any documents you can go anywhere you want also I had my lawyer there. Anyway at the end of the day they had taken 2 boxes out of our attic of book manuscripts which were quite heavy and they were wearing suits and ties and I said you can only take those out of there if you put them back and they said we’ll put the back. At the end of the day they had not put those back and so I took them out there and said you guys you need to put those back in the attic and the Western Electric lawyer, he was not very friendly, the boxes will not be put back. I looked at my lawyer and said then I’m not going to produce any of the documents, the documents that they have set aside to copy they are not going to get to see them unless they put those back in my attic. That went back and forth and finally the western Electric attorney ordered his two assistants to wear their suits and ties climb up into my attic and put them back again.
Chris: Were you outside sipping a glass of ice lemonade .. ahhh this is so refreshing.
Forrest: Actually I thought I took a few pictures of them doing that, I did I took pictures of them doing that.
Chris: That should definitely go in the next memoir I think.
Forrest: It’s in Solar Connections.
Chris: Oh it is in that one good.
Dave: Oh you have to leave that one in.
Chris: I haven’t read that one, I think that’s going to be next on my list.
Forrest: I’m looking at it right here there’s a picture of the Western Electric attorney himself. Western Electric attorney moving box of documents from Mims’s attic.
Chris: That’s just great
Dave: That’s just gold. Do we have Reddit questions? Chris?
Chris: Yes, we do have some Reddit questions. So we can ask these and then …
Dave: Sir Why has a question – what do you think of the Altair clones and the other things all those retro clones sort of making a mini comeback I guess?
Forrest: There are some very serious hobbyists who are building replicas of the Altair. Several have contacted me. original Altairs, some of them are worth money.
Dave: Oh yeah big money.
Forrest: I wrote the original manual like I mentioned a while ago and Ed would give me equipment in return and he gave me number 5. Well it was one of the first 5 prototypes that they built after they built the one for Popular Electronics. I gave that one to the Smithsonian Institution, which was a big mistake, I should have kept it. They displayed it for 18 years but sometimes they would have it on the floor next to the Apple. It preceded the Apple by a year! Not to take away from Steve Wozniak – Wozniak is a genius ok – but he was inspired by that computer so it seemed to me that that computer the Altair should sit next to the Apple, not be underneath it on the floor. Whatever. These hobby guys I think it’s fascinating what they are doing some of them have build working duplicates of the Altair.
Dave: Was the Altair as horribly unreliable as people claim.
Forrest: The big problem with the Altair was the memory. That wasn’t so much Ed’s fault as it was the memory chips fault. The memory was a big problem. 1:15:42.8
Dave: Do tell.
Forrest: The actual motherboard of the computer, some people who may be listening had a problem with the motherboard but it was the memory board. The spin off of that was competing companies began making better quality memory boards so at the World Altair Computer Convention WACC held at the airport Marina Hotel in Albuquerque. I went their with Les Solomon for Popular Electronics and Larry Steckler from Radio Electronics. I had both those guys in the car at the same time big competitors, we went to that conventions. I remember going up the elevator to seventh or eight floor and there was a huge mob of people trying to get into the room of one of these manufacturers of these boards that would work in the Altair and work better in the Altair and that’s when Ed finally realized we’ve got big competition. everybody realized that at that time.
Dave: After that they did last that long did they because then the S100 which is the Altair bus, it became the S100 standard and then everyone made effectively made clones or S100 compatible computers and that was all she wrote.
Forrest: Ed’s big claim to fame in one way would be the S100 bus, which became the IEEE standard. So yeah IMSAI was the really big competitor, they built a really first class machine but they were learning from What Ed did with the Altair. Ed was way ahead of everybody. Ed for example, when he sold his company to Pertec, he developed a laptop computer that Pertec didn’t want to proceed with. everything that ever happened in the PC industry happened with the Altair first, magazine, newsletter, first computer stores, everything…
Dave: First computer book which you wrote, technically.
Forrest: Book yeah he really pioneered it but he left it, he sold out to Pertec for I don’t remember exactly how much it was …
Dave: Yeah it wasn’t much..
Forrest: The low millions and then of course Paul Allen, Bill Gates stayed at Microsoft and you know what happened then.
Dave: Are there any of those old companies left? The only one I can think of is technically Apple. Apple is still around.
Chris: Microsoft’s a hardware company again …
Dave: Lets not include Microsoft.. we’re talking hardware computer companies.
Forrest: I really don’t know if any of these other folks are still around but you’re right it’s interesting that Apple is still around I think that’s fascinating. By the way, the Altair did not have a video monitor and did not have keyboard input, it did eventually. People had to use teletypes to communicate with it in fact Ed did. Les Solomon did in NYC and made the Ziff Davis bosses angry because the teletype made a lot of racket, they wanted him to get rid of it. That became the founding for their company ZDNet as a result of that. Steve Wozniak, the guy could design a keyboard interface, the guy could design the actual hardware, he wrote the code, he wrote the assembler, he did everything. Wozniak is a true genius. I used to think he was a genius because he could design an analog power supply and a digital computer. He did a lot more than that.
Dave: We are going to have to get him on the show. How can we get him on the show?
Forrest: You’ve got to get him. He’s on Facebook I corresponded with him a few times, he really should be on your program.
Dave: OK you’ve twisted our arm.
Chris: Now that we’ve had Forrest Mims on, that’s the important one so …So you’re talking about the legacy of these companies. What about the legacy of the hobbyist market and seeing that kind of cycle back around I think it was 2003 RadioShack stopped publishing a bunch of books and RadioShack took a nosedive for a while but even they are coming back and the maker movement and all that. What’s your general feeling about that stuff.
Forrest: Well that’s fascinating, if my books sold less than 20,000 a year they were dropped from the stores. Imagine that 20,000. 20,000 is almost a best seller anywhere else.
Dave: I know
Forrest: RadioShack had 8,00 stores and then they dropped all these books, well the books supported the electronics and so that cut a big hole in their electronics business. They are now selling my books again. I was selling directly to RadioShack and my books are being sold for very low prices. Now they are having to buy them at the same price that I sell them to my publisher and to Amazon and so on and it’s a lot more money.
Dave: My ones got $1.99 on it 1979. 1:20:19.1
Forrest: That’s right and that books started at that. Getting started in electronics was when they dropped it I think $3.95 and now it’s like $19.95 and it would probably be $5 if I was selling it directly but they got out of that and I’m trapped into another situation. There’s another angle, they also dropped my lab kits, including my best selling lab kit – Electronics Learning Lab which is used by a lot of schools. That really hurt because school kids needed those, well they have brought that back. It will be in stores this Christmas if all goes well.
Forrest: So hopefully they will survive but RadioShack is in trouble. Hobby electronics is not what it once was. I don’t build data loggers, I buy them it’s a lot cheaper to buy one than it is to go build one.
Dave: Were you thinking the same as me, before all this maker movement came along probably the late 90s early 2000s did you think the electronics hobbyist movement was dead or dying.
Forrest: I thought it was dying it will never be dead.
Dave: No it will never be dead but it was dying.
Forrest: when you go to a hardware store today you buy the same screws and nails they were selling 100 years ago along with all the modern counterparts and so forth. You’ll always have that audience, it’s just going to be harder and harder to find certain parts like TTL logic for example is much harder to find. It’s always going to be there, it’s just I don’t think it will ever be at the level it once was because things are so cheaply manufactured now. I’ve got a hone next to me that’s my pocket radar and satellite, it’s my world library. We hobbyists can’t build that but we can take what’s in that phone – it’s not a phone really it’s a computer with a phone app. We can take that technology and do incredible things with it. I do science. The maker movement is phenomenal. I have a column in make magazine and I love writing that column because I want to challenge these makers who do fantastic mechanical things to do science with their mechanical talents. In other words instead of building bicycles that ride upside down in a tank of water, why not build something that can collect data from a sounding rocket? I’m kind of hoping to build that kind of audience at some point.
Dave: Awesome. What’s the circulation of Make magazine? I read somewhere that Popular Electronics was 450,000 subscribers.
Forrest: I thought it was 600,000 it was a huge circulation. Make is nowhere near that but I don’t know what it is. Make magazine is, there are two magazines that are must reading. make and nuts and bolts. Nuts and Bolts is popular electronics today with first class state of the art up to date articles. They have a little bit of fluff but some of that stuff is really really good. Some really creative writers. So I urge everybody to checkout Nuts and Bolts magazine, the editor is a fabulous guy. He’s got a PhD, he just write a book. In fact I wrote the foreword to this book. It’s a book on taking stuff apart, dismantling stuff to se how it works. Make magazine is like a book in itself, it’s not really a magazine it’s like a little book. It’s a quarterly but I think they are going to bring it out more often. I don’t know if I am supposed to say that but I think that is in the he works.
Dave: what do you think is the reason for this maker revolution? People are getting back into taking stuff apart.
Forrest: OK have you ever been to a robotics show of any kind competition.
Dave: I have been to a robot wars competition yeah.
Forrest: My daughter is very famous for discoveries she made in high school, all three – if you want to be in my family you have to do a science fair project.
Forrest: Church on Sunday and a science fair project in March and so my kids are famous they are all over the world. My son’s project won most number of awards out of a regional science fair, my oldest daughter her science fair projects about sun spots are detecting solar x-ray flares with a Geiger counter that’s a chapter in a book and our youngest daughter Sarah, she detected living spores and bacteria, living microbes in smoke arriving in Texas from Yucatan.
Forrest: That’s fascinating. Unknown to me she was also the president of her high school robotics club.
Chris: Was this first or was it a different type of ….
Forrest: No it was not first it was a different one. They had a package of materials I don’t know who provided that I don’t remember but when I found out about it I was intrigued. I never went to any of her meetings or anything but I did go to the competition and they had this really clunky robot but it worked. It really really worked. I think the robotics movement is really where it’s at. I’m working on a column about a special kind of robotics competition right now in Make magazine, proposing a new style of competition. instead of throwing balls and catching hoops I’ve got an idea that would teach people science through robotics. The kids operating the robots will not know what is happening. They are going to be behind a curtain and their robot is going to go through this curtain and it’s going to do all the things that I have planned for it, all the sensing it has to do. It’s going to be a MARS lander type deal. The robot operators, the kids will be able to see what the robot is looking at and they steer it be following a particular protocol that they have to follow, they’ll go a smooth surface, a rocky surface. Then they are going to be measuring sunlight it will be a simulated sun in the form of a big light they are going underneath a smoke screen which will simulate a Martian dust storm. They will have to measure the change in sunlight and from that calculate the optical depth. Then they are going to have to sample some soil and sample some gravel. They bring all that stuff back through the curtain and they are scored on how well they do on all those tasks and on the reduction of the scientific data. 1:26:35.3
Chris: Wow and then they go outside and launches a huge rocket.
Forrest: There you go!
Chris: Great. And you know there’s a very real possibility that those kids just could be the next ones that are at JPL and celebrating when the rover touches down, that’s great.
Dave: well you see a lead flasher, like a triple 5 lead flasher just doesn’t cut it anymore as excitement for the kids does it?
Forrest: I’d have to say one thing about that it is a little odd that people would use a micro or Arduino for example to build a little flasher when they could just use the 555 to do the same thing. And another thing when you take for example, I give a lot of talks to schools and adult groups, service clubs and you take a silver coin and you pull that out of your pocket , a silver dime and you put that next to a piece of magnesium and you out a piece of moist paper in between with a little lemon juice on it and you light up a little LED with that homemade battery. I don’t care who they are they are just amazed. Absolutely amazed they see something like that and they never occurred to them that you could make electricity with a silver dime. So there are things that people can be impressed by that are ultra simple. For example the concept of using an LED to detect light still fascinates people.
Chris &Dave: Yeah
Chris: And it doesn’t have to cost $365 in order to make people really excited about it either.
Forrest: My desk here is covered with LEDS I’m testing for another instrument I’m going to be making that will use a specific kind of LED that will measure these twilight glows. I’m also using this to measure sky light pollution, pollution caused by city lights that bothers telescope users. The same photometer will measure that.
Chris: Like light pollution you said.
Forrest: Light pollution, exactly.
Dave: You’ll notice he called it 555 there Chris.
Chris: what did I say 5 5 5?
Dave: Well I say triple 5
Chris: I think we will have to defer to Forrest, we did a survey on the show a hundred episodes ago about how people say it and how it’s different around the country – we can link it in too. The least often used was triple nickel but uh …
Dave: That’s ridiculous, triple nickel.
Chris: But yes there was a wide range of how people say it and everything as well.
Dave: Forrest is in the 555 camp.
Forrest: This has never occurred to me in all these years. Every time I talk to people about the 555 I guess they assume that’s the way it is supposed to be said. The inventor is he not still around? Hanz..
Dave: Unfortunately he is not no. Hanz Camenzind
Forrest: That’s too bad.
Chris: There is an audio interview with him that’s pretty good. I’m not sure if he mentions it anywhere in there but there is a 1 or 2 part interview with him that’s worth a listen to. It was sad to hear he had passed. He passed this past year I think.
Forrest: He is really .. we owe him a lot. The guy was a genius. He and Wozniak are in a class of their own.
Chris: Yeah right, and he has a couple of books I think online.
Forrest: Yes excellent material.
Chris: His and yours as well all the people you brought into the hobby and kept them around. We wouldn’t have an audience without you I don’t think so …we do appreciate it.
Forrest: Well I’ve enjoyed visiting with you guys thank you very much.
Dave: Thank you very much for .. it’s been fantastic an hour and half worth of awesomeness. There we go.
Forrest: Well it’s been fun.
Chris: Right Forrest well thanks again and please do let us know when the next round of books I can only assume, the slew of books that hit the shelves, please do let us know and we’ll let everyone know here and hopefully have you back on at some point.
Forrest: I’ll do that Chris I’ll do that.
Dave: And where can people follow you on Twitter? Are you a tweeting man.
Forrest: @fmims on Twitter and I’m on Facebook and I’m on my website. On Facebook and same with Twitter
Dave: Facebook sucks right.
Forrest: Well I put a note that some of the science I’m doing and a whole bunch of people responded and I thought that was kind of cool so I occasionally put a note on about the science I’m doing or I have a weekly science column in the newspapers and I’ll sometime post that so I do use Facebook for that and a few family things but I don’t get overly wrapped up in it. My website has got a lot of information about what we have been talking about. Forrestmims.org you know …
Chris: We’ll link everything into the show notes
Forrest: Oh super.
Chris: Lot of good stuff here so lot of links for people to click.
Forrest: Well you guys are doing a great service and what I’m going to do is … I didn’t even know about the Amp Hour until you contacted me so I’m going to start listening to your stuff when I’m driving down the highway. 1:31:37.6
Dave: Fantastic, you’ve only got 150 episodes to catch up on.
Chris: 171 actually this is 171.
Dave: Although it’s hardly 25 years worth of atmospheric research Chris.
Chris: When we get 25 we will let you know.
Dave: We’ll be rocking on our porch going “Welcome to the Amp Hour!”
Dave: Oh goodness anyway it’s been awesome, thank you very much Forrest!
Forrest: Thank you Dave thanks Chris.
Chris: Thank you Forrest. Alright we’ll talk to you soon.
Forrest: Take care, bye.
Dave: See you mate bye.