Sunday, July 02, 2006

Genius with Humor

I should save this story until Christmas, but it just popped into my conscious memory. Six months from now surely it will be back to where memories hide from us.

About fifty years ago I was living in a cozy suburban community in North New Jersey. We were only a mile or so from the vast research campus of Bell Telephone Laboratories. The result was that a big part of our social scene was made up of “Bell Lab” people. We participated in a little theatre group and one of our stars was a very unique Bell Lab engineer. He had a mind like few I have ever known. He would drive the director of a production to the brink with his habit of never learning his lines during rehearsals. On the night of the dress rehearsal (with an audience) he suddenly knew his part and everyone else’s too. But that isn’t the story I started to tell.

Gus, our actor friend, did not have a college education and worked midst thousands of PhDs. Some treated him with distain for his lack of formal education, but they didn’t know Gus’s wild imagination and skills. He had a lab of his own and one November he locked himself in his lab and relocked it whenever he left it. This went on for several weeks. In December he came out in the hall and accosted one of the snobbish PhDs. Gus asked him if he thought it might be nice to write a holiday message on an oscilloscope tube. The PhD explained to Gus (patronizingly) that it was an analyzing device. Aside from some known voltage patterns; a specific pattern could not be created. (see dictionary definition:

oscilloscope |əˈsiləˌskōp| |əˌsɪləˈskoʊp| |əˌsɪləskəʊp|
a device for viewing oscillations, as of electrical voltage or current, by a display on the screen of a cathode-ray tube)

Gus waved this fellow into the lab and asked him to throw a switch in front of his oscilloscope. It wrote out in script :
"Merry Christmas" and after a pause, added: "to all" on a second line.

Over the coming weeks there was a steady stream of people, including the President of Bell Telephone, who came to see this miracle that Gus had accomplished. Meanwhile Gus had gone home to play with his kids for the holiday. He was also the first that worked flex-time with management tolerance. They knew genius when they saw it.

You also have probably seen an example of Gus’s genius in a novelty shop. Bell Lab licensed this one to novelty manufacturers. Remember the small coffin with a switch, like a light switch, above the coffin. When you throw the switch, the lid of the coffin opens and from it a forearm and hand rise up and turn off the switch, then descent back into the coffin and the lid closes. A silly gimmick, which uses new electronic principals never conceived of previously. The original was the outcome of another sojourn of Gus in a locked lab. The original arm was lifesize and wore Gus’s watch and wedding ring.

Gus was another proof that humor can share a genius’s brain and be a part of true creativity.


Mudpiglet said...

whoa thats pretty interesting. I used to have one of those little coffins

Archana said...

Wow! I have not seen those little coffins - but sounds like your friend is really smart!

Your camping vacation sounds like a lot of fun! The pictures look cool!

M. Freeman said...

Dear Sir,

I am a college student who writes a column for the Clayton Pioneer in California. The column is about blogging - more specifically to help people better understand and appreciate the increasing popularity of people writing their thoughts online.

While doing research for my next column, I discovered your blog through the Ageless Project. I was wondering if you would like to answer a few questions about what got you started blogging and why. If possible, I'd like to include a few of your comments in my column.

If you are interested, please email me at

Thanks, and keep blogging!

-M. Freeman

Coquette said...

That's a great story. I like people like Gus. Sounds like he had a theatrical flair (I mean that in a good way), great showmanship, by asking his coworker if the Christmas message could be done before showing that he had, in fact, suceeded. Hee. How satisfying.