My many hobbies and interests – School Days

I have followed a variety of interests and hobbies in my life. I decided to review these in a blog article, but as I recalled more activities, my recollections will be split over a series of articles.

In this first instalment I review my interests until the time I left school.

Science - reading books from the school library as well as books given to me for birthdays and Christmas. I watched Professor Julius Sumner Miller in his “Why Is it So” (click the link to watch episodes) series on ABC-TV. Doctor Who had a strong influence on my interest in science . The Frontiers of Science educational comic strip in the Sydney Morning Herald was part of my daily reading.

Chemistry - I set up up a “laboratory” in the outside laundry complete with a Bunsen burner connected to a butane gas bottle. I made fireworks using ammonium nitrate (purchased as fertiliser from the garden supplies shop), powdered  sulphur and powdered charcoal. I was pretending to be a “mad scientist” in search of new discoveries as I mixed up chemicals and explored chemical reactions. Later I made blueprints using ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide purchased at Selby’s scientific supplies in North Ryde. This activity transformed into my  interest in black and white photography. I often begged my mother to drive me to Selby’s Scientific Supplies in North Ryde  so I could purchase chemicals and equipment.  I used to own The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. Recently I learnt that it is valuable item as it tells its readers how to build bombs! I was able to find a PDF scan of the book which I am reading for nostalgic reasons.

Space Exploration - followed the Apollo space program by reading newspaper reports and watching television. I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in July 1969. The black and white images were fuzzy but the colour photos published later in a magazine were magnificent. I bought a cardboard make-it-yourself model of the Lunar Lander. The 1970 International Science School for high school school students at Sydney University had a theme of space exploration and I used to watch broadcasts on ABC TV.  This year I found a copy of the book from the 1970 Science School at a second hand book fair. I look forward to reading it. I was fortunate to be chosen to attend the science school in 1974 where I met students from the USA, Japan, UK and Sydney – my first contact with people from overseas, and especially Japan! I visited the Johnson Space Centre in 1996 but more about this is a later article.

Chess - I made a chess board in Year 8 woodwork and joined the school chess club. I knew the rules of chess, but wasn’t strong on the strategic sides of the game. I was more interested in the chess board, pieces and rules – the aesthetics of the pieces rather than playing the game. I occasionally studied the chess problems published in the newspaper but didn’t learn from them because I didn’t follow through.

Electronics - I was given a Radio Shack Electronics Kit for my 11th (or 12th?) birthday. I built various projects including a crystal AM radio, audio oscillator and various solar powered devices.

I enjoyed pulling apart old electronic devices to salvage the spare parts but I didn’t really make anything useful. I used to read Electronics Australia magazine but the projects were beyond my budget. I bought another magazine titled Electronics Today International and it had a series of articles on how to make a synthesiser. How I wanted to make this electronic instrument!

I did start building an oscilloscope but I didn’t get it working completely and I sold it through the Weekly Trading Post newspaper. I was a regular customer of Dick Smith Electronics in St Leonards where I purchased components for hobby projects.

Short Wave Radio - I used my father’s short wave radio to start listening to stations around the world. I rigged up an insulated wire aerial from our house to a neighbour’s garage (without permission). It is a great thrill to hear a broadcast from overseas, especially exotic locations like Russia, China or Tashkent.  I joined an enthusiasts club called the “Australian Radio DX Club”. DX is an amateur radio code meaning “distance” and is the hobby of tuning in and identifying distant radio stations. I would send listeners reports to the stations and receive postcards (“QSLs”) confirming my reception. My master reference was a book published each year: The World Radio and TV handbook which is now an online resource.    Now that we have access to the global Internet, the excitement of tuning in to the other side of the world is not so spectacular.  I learnt a lot about the propagation of Short Wave Radio waves and how they bounced from the ionosphere and how reception patterns changed throughout the day and throughout the year.  When I was 16 our family drove to Victoria for a holiday and I persuaded my parents to stop at Radio Australia’s broadcasting facility near Shepparton where we had a guided tour. Fortunately my father was interested in this too.  Read more about Short Wave Radio Listening on Wikipedia.

Penfriend – When I was about 13 I found a penfriend in the United States. I don’t know if school children have penfriends these days, but I started writing to Allan Posner in Baltimore, Maryland.  We discovered we had a lot in common including electronics, short wave radio and science.  We started a game of chess by correspondence and this went on for many months until we disagreed on which moves we had made.  Quite by chance, Allan found me on email in the late 1990s  and we reestablished our correspondence. We even had a few phone calls. Recently we have had Skype conversations and friended each other on Facebook.  Allan has two daughters, the younger is the same age as my younger daughter we suggested they contact each other for a Facebook “chat” – two generations of penfriends using different technologies.  I hope we can eventually meet face to face and have a meeting of our families.

Photography My photography hobby started with a Kodak Instamatic camera received on my 10th birthday. When I was 16 started using my father’s Minolta 35mm SLR . I started processing my own films and printing photographs using some borrowed darkroom equipment. I enjoyed the chemistry of this process. The story of photography continues after I started working full time.

Reading I enjoyed reading Science Fiction especially Arthur Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Isaac Asimov’s works. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was 13 and enjoyed a variety of novels from the school library and local library. Reading is an activity I have never ceased.

Guitar Started guitar lessons when I was 13 but since I was learning on a classical guitar and only learning to pick out basic melodies, this didn’t match my love of the music of Led Zeppelin. I gave up lessons fairly quickly and the rented guitar was returned. I revisited the guitar in my university days.

Popular Music I followed the popular music station 2SM. I bought a few singles but no albums. I used an open reel tape recorder to record songs from the radio using a microphone. When I was 15 my father bought a Technics cassette deck and I started the habit of recording my friends’s records. My favourite artists in high school days were Cat Stevens, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon), Jethro Tull and Switched on Bach by Walter Carlos. I used to go to my friend’s houses to listen to records. Radio station 2JJ went to air in 1975 and I recorded their first broadcast onto open-reel tape.

Hi Fi Listening to music meant high fidelity, so I got interested in acquiring superior audio equipment. I was interested in my father’s hobby of assembling a hi-fi system (amplifier, speakers and turntable) and his woodworking skills. It wasn’t until I started working that I could afford to buy a new amplifier, and I purchased a turntable with a 21st birthday monetary gift.

Computers and Calculators Our school bought a Sharp programmable calculator. These were the days before personal computers and this machine had a couple of rows of neon lights and used assembly language for programming. I learnt how to program it with another boy (who happened to be first in the state in Mathematics when we were in Year 12!). Later I read books about the BASIC programming language and used to design computer programs without having a computer to practice on. This same boy had a Hewlett Packard calculator which was very expensive and used tiny magnetic cards to store the programs. My father (a mechanical engineer at Shell Refining) had an HP-35 programmable calculator from his employer and I would grab any opportunity to play with it. I eventually bought an HP-25C when I started my university course. it could store programs of up to 49 steps and it was possible to program rudimentary games.My first calculator was a simple Casio device purchased for $10 just before I started university. It only had 8 digits so when I used it for my Accounting I assignments it ran out of digits.

Sport You are probably wondering where are the sporting activities? No football, cricket, swimming, athletics? I tried cricket for two seasons and hated it, and never played rugby in high school. The only sport I played and reasonable enjoyed was tennis. I used to have lessons on Saturday morning in Turramurra Park and I played tennis as a school sport until Year 11. Sport was not compulsory in the final year of school, so I dropped it. I was not a sporty teenager and only started running for leisure when I was in my last year of university.

When I left school my main interests were photography, music and reading. This story will be continued in a forthcoming blog article.

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