April 28, 1998

I wasn't here last week, and I apologize. I was the guest of honor at a personal celebration of modern electronics. First, on Friday, the radio problems in my airplane reappeared after a month's absence. It was my wife's first flight in "our" plane, which she has named the "scarlet harlot", and I was anxious that things should go well between the three of us. We had a nice flight, and apparently I was the one most bothered by the problem.

Saturday dawned with another bout of "mystery death syndrome", an affliction peculiar to my daughter's car. For $800 we bought a rust- free 1988 Eagle Premier last summer because both kids were excited about its good looks. I was deeply suspicious of its pedigree, being the ill- conceived offspring of those two engineering giants, AMC and Renault. I made the purchase after deciding that the kids would either be happy or would learn a lesson.

I have an idea of the car's problem from a theoretical point of view, but the retail car manuals do not do a good job of presenting wiring diagrams. Sometimes the car won't start, no spark is fed to the distributor. After a while, minutes to a half hour, the car will start and run just fine. Once started it never has cut out en route. Trying to repair intermittent electrical problems in a circuit with a thousand connections is frustrating, especially with incomplete data.

Sunday brought the grand finale, the crash of the new computer. My computer guy and I tried to straighten things out, but the hard drive was so far gone that it wouldn't even accept the "fall back and punt" <format> command. I am still trying to get all the programs, peripherals, and data files reinstalled. Computers, I think, don't save a whisker of time, they have only moved the competition to outdo the other guy to a different arena and raised the price of admission.

As soon as I had vowed to secede from this century, I started to see some hope, and I am working my way back to accepting life as it exists today. I rapidly progressed from the year 1898 to 1939 on Monday when I worked on a Piper Cub of that vintage. I have admired Cubs for years as simple and honest airplanes. An airplane for people who know and appreciate the difference between flying and going places fast.

This particular Cub looks to be in good condition, but it has been on static display in a museum for the last four years. Complicating matters, a disgruntled individual had intentionally destroyed the plane's logbooks. With no maintenance or operating history, the airplane had to be treated as if all detailed inspection items are due. That means among other things, that the magnetos had to be disassembled for inspection.

I had never seen magnetos like this before, and was a little hesitant. Once removed from the airplane, I immediately noticed that they had four threaded holes on the bottom, where they would have mounted on a farm tractor's engine. I chuckled that I was like an anthropologist who was holding in his hand a relic from the magic moment that Man split from Ape. I held evidence of a time when magnetos were built with both a flange mount and a base mount, for farm engines or airplane engines.

Opening the first magneto I immediately liked what I saw. I had already taken notice that they were almost twice the size of modern magnetos, and I quickly saw the benefit that size had given these magnetos. Magnetos have become smaller and lighter so that they can be crammed into more crowded engine compartments, which to no surprise are a lot hotter. The mag is in a hotter spot, and being smaller, is less capable of shedding its own heat. Being smaller also means that there are more places where the ignition voltage stray from its intended path.

High voltage respects wide open spaces, and that is what this magneto has. The coil is big, it has room for real insulation. The breaker points are big and meaty. The distributor section has widely spaced terminals that present an impossible path for high voltage flasharound. As though to add sweetness to beauty, the magneto has an internal paddle fan and large air vent openings.

I gazed at the magneto as it laid on the bench and considered its practicality. It was made for the long and steady pull, not for flash and dazzle. When it broke, it was designed to be fixed with the pliers and a screwdriver held by a farmer's chapped and battered hands. These magnetos have a message for all who may care to listen.

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