Unemployed and just out of school
with a shiny but untested sheepskin, I returned home in
May 1984 to seek employment. My father Norm graciously
let me tag along on a few consulting gigs as I was
trolling about for a full-time position. Having barely
eked my way out of Virginia Tech (go Hokies!), the
offers were not, ahem, pouring in. However, these were
the days of intense FCC attention on computing devices
and the market for EMC engineering was heating up and
the work, though diaphanous, was pretty steady, if one
had a knack for fixing electronic doo-dads afflicted
with mysterious and unseen maladies.
first task we worked on together was an electronics
typewriter-one of its forebears pictured here (no
transistors nor EMI problems with this one, tho').
The device we worked on had the
propensity to carry on without pressing any keys, losing
its way across the page and generating random &#@E!s and
$%*#^s, like a fumbled Blackberry message. The problem
was a susceptibility to static electricity, or, more
properly, the energy produced when the static
discharged. The *zap* produces a brief, nasty pulse of
energy that can scramble the bits doled out along the
wiring and circuits in a computer device.
Thing is, back then, no one knew a lot
about how this stuff (EMI) affected circuits; well,
let's just say that there was a lot of room between the
theory and the "shotgun" approach to solving these
problems. We sought a middle ground: a physics-based
solutions to the issues.
Violette Engineering Corporation
ultimately fixed the problem, employing our budding
skills along with copper tape and fairy dust and as May
turned to September that year, I was still at it with
Norm. He didn�t seem to mind and we eventually evolved
JLN Violette & Associates into Violette Engineering
Corporation, moved out of the basement into our first
office in Falls Church, VA.
that time we had an interesting job protecting the
Statue of Liberty from lightning. Well, actually,
she doesn't need much protection, being a giant copper
shell on a stainless steel skeleton (armature). But the
work was fascinating, climbing about on the extensive
scaffolding that rose 150 feet from the pedestal, an
engineering feat in itself that wound about but never
touched Bartholdi's grand creation, checking the
grounding and voltage protection circuits for new
cameras, lighting and other gadgets. During the
restoration, Eiffel's entire structural steel armature
was wholly replaced; and piece-by-piece the old cast
iron and leather parts were replaced with stainless
steel and Teflon attachments, each individually drawn
and replicated. I still have a hunk of the steel used
for the armature somewhere.
The statue project linked
us up with a number of NYC-based clients and, to this
day, we do some work mid and up-town, performing
engineering analysis and site surveys for data centers,
research institutes, the transit system and other
clients in that busy environment.
Riding up and down the
service elevator with the operator drinking a can of
Schlitz was a frothy introduction to New York City labor
practices. The view of lower Manhattan was phenomenal.
The Twin Towers glinted in the bright sun.
about 1987, with Liv's extensive help, we wrote The
Electromagnetic Compatibility Handbook, published by
Van Nostrand Rheinhold and pounded out on 5-1/4" floppy
drive, pre-IBM compatible (Northstar Horizon computers
running *Wordstar*). Maybe no Pulitzer winner, but it's
on a few shelves here and there. I recommend the chapter
on "Antenna Factors".
The EMC Handbook was the
beginning of a spate of publishing activities, which
carry on to this day, mostly in the form of articles and
an occasional travel-blog.
So things went during the
1980s as we worked on various problems and noisy
dilemmas in various locations: a potato chip factory,
research laboratories, hospitals and data centers. Norm
taught courses and explained electromagnetic theory in a
way that could be consumed without antacid. We developed
particular expertise in troubleshooting and design for
EMC. All the while, testing laboratories were springing
up around the country (and the world) as the evolution
brought on by the development of the microprocessor and
PC profoundly impacted all of our lives. A mad scramble
by everyone from IBM to Apple to Commodore (remember
those guys?) to create new innovations pushed the
understanding of the very best in the field. Clock
frequencies surged past 4.77MHz. RAM exploded to 1024
KB. Hard drives held a massive amount of data (40 MB).
How high could this kite fly? We asked.
Taiwan emerged from forty
years of martial law to become the wellspring of PC
clones and electronics development.
And then a crazy guy named Sugar walked
into our lives.
It was a warm evening in early May-a
Thursday, perhaps-after this full day working with my
friends at Rhein Tech, with a nice end-of-week buzz from
a good toil, I took the toll road home with no real
plans for the next day. All known projects were done and
I was looking forward to a long weekend starting with a
light Friday. So much for plaa...
My phone rang as I walked in the door.
Liv answered. "It's the guy from the lab. He needs to
talk to you."
Sighing, I took the phone. "Hello?"
"Mike, it's Andy. Hey." He sighed with
complete exasperation. "Can you come back in tonight?
This guy walked in the door fifteen minutes ago, with
his computer. He failed at the FCC and he managed to
work out a retest tomorrow morning, first thing." Andy
was sounding desperate, "He just won't leave."
I patted my son on his head and jumped
back in the car; you see, those were the days when we
turned down no work (kind of like these days).
By two a.m., the 125 MHz signal was
squished and the PC was passing the FCC requirements.
Mr. Sugar was there the whole time, chatting nervously,
pouring coffee, ordering Chinese takeout, sucking
cigarettes and pacing in and out of the test chamber. We
only had 'til the next morning to fix this problem and
retest the machine at the FCC�s lab in Columbia. How he
wrangled a retest at the Commission was the stuff of
whispered intrigue. No one had ever busted the queue. I
was to find out that this guy was very persuasive.
Sugar moved quickly to direct motherboards and PCs in
our direction, cajoling me with late night phone calls,
"Get a lease! Get some equipment! Don't worry, you'll
have plenty of work!" Starting with a leased
Hewlett-Packard Spectrum analyzer and two antennas, we
set up in Gaithersburg, MD, not far from where we are
Working through the 90s with loads of
good folks in the I-270 "Technology Corridor," we rode
the CE Marking wave, which brought our first bit of
international work. Norm (and mom) traveled to Singapore
and Malaysia, making initial forays into Asia and
teaching his favorite subject: Lightning Protection.
Some other overseas activities included some shielding
work in Eastern Turkey (the Kurdish city of Diyabakir)
and trips to France to work with laboratories in Paris
and Lyon-including the gastronomical and sensory
indulgences. Later, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, India.
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