Tek Scams

by Ed Sawicki

In the 1970s, when I was working for Tektronix in New York, there were five of us considered to be the technical brain trust in the office. Mark, Bill, and I had strong backgrounds in electronics. Jack Everson, one of our salesmen, was experimenting with microprocessor-based computers a year or so before I got involved. Fred Seitz was our commercial TV products engineer/salesman who would design transistorized circuits such as RF amplifiers in his spare time. Mark and I were extroverts and loved to have fun, while the others not so much.

Our manager, Dick, an ex-Navy guy, hired a young guy (I'll call him Dell) who was not technically competent enough for the job but he was personable. Dick rationalized the hire by telling Mark and I that customers will like him and he was another body to handle the routine service calls, saving us from the task. Dick was correct but we still vowed to have some fun with Dell.

Below are the two scams that I remember, There were more.

The drill

Our workbenches had about 8 holes drilled along the rear edge in which power cords were passed through. Slotted plastic grommets prevented the power cords from falling back through the hole.You could use a power cord and when you were finished with it, the cord would slide back down below the workbench, thus helping to achieve a neat and orderly workbench. A long powerstrip was installed on the underside of the workbench into which these power cords were plugged.

Mark was using an electric drill near my bench plugged into one of my power cords. Mark and I noticed Dell walking into the office. Dell had to turn in paperwork to the service desk, so I knew we had a minute or two to setup a scam. I grabbed a motor speed controller off a shelf and plugged it in to my bench powerstrip and then plugged the power cable that Mark was using for the drill into the speed controller. I could now control the speed of the drill by turning a knob.

Dell walked by and Mark cursed at the drill as I turned down the speed. Dell wanted to know what the problem was. Mark said the drill was intermittent. He demonstrated by pressing the trigger on the drill and moving the drill around while I adjusted the speed up and down randomly. Dell asked to look at the drill, so Mark handed it over.

Dell moved it around as Mark did and again I varied the speed. After a minute of this, Dell said, “I think the drill's power cord is bad.”  Just as he said this, our manager Dick walked into the room from behind me. Dell demonstrated for Dick the problem with the drill. When he flexed the drill's cord in one direction, I turned the speed up and when he flexed the cord in the opposite direction I turned the speed down.

From where Dick was standing, he could see that I was controlling the speed of the drill. He rolled his eyes, shook his head, and left the room. Dell offered to fix the drill but Mark said that he'd do it. Later, Dick scolded me for terrorizing his new hire and I apologized but not before he smiled and asked, “How do you two maniacs think of these things?”

Heavy metals

A few weeks later, I was reading a memo from the CRT Manufacturing Test Manager at corporate office. It outlined how they would be field testing a new recipe for the phosphor used in the storage tube CRTs (cathode ray tubes) that were used in Tek graphics terminals. The new recipe was supposed to extend the life of the tubes by making them more tolerant to phosphor burn-in. I had been communicating with them because I was supporting a life-test of Tek terminals being conducted by IBM at their Kingston, New York facility.

Since Mark was a chemistry major, he was interested in the composition of the new recipe. Dell was present when I told Mark that the phosphor recipe included Yttrium oxide. Mark told us how Yttrium was a rare earth element and a transition metal on the periodic table. I spotted a large box in the corner that contained a bad CRT, so I mentioned that we were expecting the CRT with the new recipe later that day. Dell left to visit a customer.

Mark, sensing another scam, asked what's up. I started removing the bad CRT from the box and asked Mark, “Transition metal as in heavy metal?” He responded, “Sawicki, you moron. Most metals are heavy metals. Metals with atomic weights...” His voice trailed off as I lifted the CRT up and down as if to indicate that it was heavy. He laughed as he realized what the scam was to be. “How heavy are you going to make it?”

I set the CRT on the bench and pried off part of the plastic base exposing the glass bead that sealed in the tube's vacuum. I broke the bead with pliers and the tube made a loud, high-pitched swoosh sound as air rushed in to fill the vacuum through the small opening. I took the tube over to the equipment wash room and filled it halfway with water. Then I used silicon caulking to seal the tube so the water wouldn't escape.

Mark said, “C'mon Sawicki, he's not going to buy this.”

“Sure he is.”  I said, as I used a marker to print EXPERIMENTAL #01 on the tube.

Dell came back a few hours later and spotted the CRT on the table. “Is that it?”, he asked.

“That's it. Experimental. First off the line.”

Mark said, “That Yttrium certainly is a heavy metal.” emphasizing the heavy but not really believing that Dell would fall for it. Dell lifted the tube and was shocked that it was so heavy. The three or fours gallons of water in the tube added about 25 to 30 pounds of weight; doubling the weight of the tube. Dell had a look of disbelief on his face and I had to turn away and pick up the telephone to keep from giving away the scam.

Mark was good at this. He launched into a plausible sounding explanation involving terms like metaloids, noble gases, atomic weights, and such. Dell bought the scam. Later, we tried the scam on Dionne but he didn't buy it. With his near-perfect British/Trinidadian accent, he asked, “Do I look like Dell?”  followed by one of his signature tsks. He was disappointed in us.

After a few weeks of this hazing, we backed off of Dell scams. I met his wife at a company backyard party. She was sweet and I felt bad that we acted so juvenile.

Additional Reading

Tektronix: The Storage Story