Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Life as a Geek

Me and the World's Smallest Telephone (as verified by the Guinness Book of World Records) back in 1980.

Once upon a time, back in the days of film, time exposures (like of the picture below, which was taken at 2:00 AM using a 20-minute exposure) were very much a trial-and-error process.  It was difficult to know how long to keep the shutter open, as the light was too low for the camera's meter to measure accurately, and even if you had a Sekonic handheld light meter (famous for ultra-low-light sensitivity) you still had to account for something called film reciprocity, a property where film would become less sensitive to light the more light hit it.

What to do?  I solved the problem back in college by hooking up my camera to a Hewlett Packard 41C calculator (really, it was a computer), building some custom hardware, and programming the calculator to try different exposure values based on an initial time.  So if I put in a base time of "1 minute", it would take six sequential pictures, one each at 1 minute, 2 minutes, 4 minutes, 8 minutes, 16 minutes, and 32 minutes (one stop apart).  When I got home and looked at my slides, one of those exposures was sure to be the right one.  Here's one example where computers could do all the work for me while I stayed warm inside, sipping hot chocolate.

My HP-41C calculator was always in my camera bag.  Not only could it control my camera (using some homebrew circuitry and custom programming), but it could also tell me the sunrise and sunset times based on my location.

I had a long history of using computers to alleviate the "dog work" of photography.  Anyone who's ever spent long evenings in the darkroom not only has lungs full of Dektol fumes, but also can attest to the fact that there's a lot room for automation.  And so the same calculator that got me through my Engineering degree also saved me time in the darkroom, free to concentrate on the creative aspects.

The automated darkroom controller

Using similar techniques to the camera controller above, I was able to have my calculator turn the enlarger on and off.  But it didn't end there!

First it turned on the enlarger so I could frame and focus accurately.
Then using a light-sensitive mouse (which I affectionately called a RAT), I took light readings from the brightest, the darkest, and the "18% Greyest" part of the negative.

The calculator would recommend an exposure time and a Polycontrast Filter # based on the three readings.  I would pop in the recommended filter and then press a button, and the enlarger would turn on for exactly the right amount of time.
Then the print went into the chemical baths, and the calculator would give  distinct audible signals when it was time to move a print from one bath to another.  No longer did I have to watch the clock to see when it was time to change!
It also gave a visual count of how many prints were in the fixer and how many were in the wash. 
Okay, one more example...

Back in the olden days, "multimedia" meant two slide projectors, a dissolve unit (so one image would "dissolve" into the next) and synchronized sound track.  But back in 1984 there weren't any dissolve controllers that met my needs, so I did what any self-respecting engineer would do - I designed and built my own circuitry, and programmed my HP-71 calculator (MUCH more powerful than the HP-41 previously mentioned!) in assembly language just to put on a show that moved people emotionally (like this one).  

These are but three inventions which eventually led to my engineering position at NASA, working on the pioneering Voyager and Galileo interplanetary spacecraft. 

Why am I telling you all this?  Last year when I was in Copenhagen I was asked by the LOF-SKOLEN school to give an evening lecture of my decade at NASA and the inventions that led up to me working there.  For posterity, I videotaped that talk and you can see it for free (FREE!) at the end of this blog post.

Why did I make this video?
  • So my grandchildren can know that I used to be a cool and accomplished person.  (I've also created another website to document it all in greater detail.  You can peruse it all here: https://grandpasinventions.blogspot.com )
  • So my parents could have a DVD they could watch over and over again. :-)
  • To help jump-start my public speaking career.  :-)  Maybe one of you is a member of an engineering society and you'd like me to give this talk (or another one I'm working on, called "The 10 Entrepreneurial Myths Every Engineer Must Know") at a chapter meeting.  I am willing to fly anywhere in the world to give a talk.
Anyway, the entire 2-hour lecture can be seen at the bottom of this blog post.  Grab some popcorn and  a blanket and enjoy!

Where do you go from 'up'? :-)

The Seattle, Washington seminar is just days away (June 22-23), and I just secured a larger room to accommodate everyone.  So there's now lots of room if you're thinking of joining at the last minute.

Also, the Australia and New Zealand seminars are now open for registration!  The New Zealand one takes place in Wellington; but feel free to contact me if you think it should be in Auckland instead. :-)  Here are links to learn more and sign up:

Brisbane, AustraliaSeptember 7-8, 2013Learn more and sign up!
Sydney, AustraliaSeptember 14-15, 2013Learn more and sign up!
Wellington, New ZealandSeptember 21-22, 2013Learn more and sign up!

If you're new to the list, the Friedman Archives Seminars reveals the long-forgotten secrets of how the Kodachrome shooters were able to get "Wow!" type images without Photoshop (and without a fancy camera).  You'll learn what's really important in photography (hint: it's not the gear!) in a fun, intuitive, and memorable weekend.  Click on the links above to learn more and read testimonials from past attendees!

Next Time in Cameracraft

The next issue of Cameracraft is shaping up to be our most interesting yet.  (And that has nothing to do with the fact that I have two articles in it instead of my usual one!)  

Many people turn to religion for answers to life’s big questions. Melisa Teo started on that very path but discovered that her camera – not the religions themselves – became the catalyst for her spiritual journey.  It's really too difficult to get the essence of her story across in just a couple of sentences, but her eye is remarkable and her journey is amazing.  

Subscribe to the always intriguing and ad-free Cameracraft today and you'll also learn about the famous 1806 painting that compared George Washington to a horse's ass (and why it's relevant to photography today!).  (Cameracraft subscribers - please post your impressions of the magazine in the comments section below so others will know I'm not just blowing smoke - this really is a different animal and is as far away from the usual photography magazines as you can get!)  We're now up to 1,000 subscribers - a small amount by traditional magazine standards, but as David Kilpatrick (editor / publisher and runner of PhotoClubAlpha.com) points out, it's 1/11th of the Royal Photographic Society's readership! :-)  

The A58 Ebook is Out!

Say what you will, this is the most capable low-end Alpha model I've ever used.  Unlike the 290 and 390 (two cameras I didn't even write about because I didn't think much of them), the A58 is the first low-end camera I could easily shoot with on a day-to-day basis.  Spread the word!  The main page is here.  

Now Tony Phillips (co-author of the A58 book) is wondering what camera to write about next, and he's considering the Fujifilm X100s.  What do you think?  Mike Hendren is also going to write about the recently-announced Olympus E-P5, an impressive camera that, like the Fujifilm, deserves a better instruction manual.  Please help spread the word about these new undertakings, as the Friedman Archives Press starts to expand its scope!

And now, My Life As A Geek - My Decade at NASA and the Inventions that Got Me There
(Special thanks to Peter Hollbaum-Hansen for making this happen in the first place!)

Until next time,
Yours Truly, Gary Friedman


  1. I still like using a quality calculator; my main ones are currently a HP-48G+ and a TI-89. My HP-41 needs a little TLC.

    HP-41's go for pretty good money on Ebay. HP-71s are available, but don't seem to be a hot seller.

    Getting sort-of back to photography, I've done some machine vision jobs, and I'd say the most important items are:
    #1 by far: appropriate lighting (type, color, etc)
    #2 the right lens (depth of field, working distance, field of view, etc)
    #3 the machine vision software
    #4 the camera
    Kinda similar to good photography....

  2. Geez, Gary. You used to be good looking. What happened?

  3. Haha - very good on the 'good looking' comment.
    But impressed with what you've done!

  4. Kudos to you and David for Cameracraft magazine. It is a source of inspiration. Thanks for talking about your engineering background and for the video. It's great to see geeks with a wide array of talents and interests. Now, if we can only get more people into engineering and the sciences.

    1. Agreed about getting more people interested in the sciences!! See this blog post about my summer volunteering at MIT. https://friedmanarchives.blogspot.com/2022/08/geeking-with-gary.html

  5. I have bought quite a few of your books, for the next book title i am suggesting olympus epl5.

  6. Agreed, Cameracraft magazine is an excellent publication; beautiful images and fascinating explorations of technique.

  7. WOW Gary! thanks for featuring the video on your life as a geek! You're really amazing! We share the same interests and I just love your Minolta and Sony Camera e-books! By the way I'm a Cameracraft magazine subscriber too! An excellent publication that I'll keep and treasure with my other Sony books and Minolta Mirror Magazine collection!

  8. I am an Engineer, used to be a geek (before we had such a name) and still have my HP41C. In retrospect realise had to understand stuff to be able to properly use techo-skills. Wish I had $1 for every nit wit who claimed skills in Project Management - and then demonstrate they knew how to use software BUT had no understanding of anything important.
    YOU do and have demonstrated it in several areas. Thank you.

  9. Gary, I'm on your list as i bought a NEX-5n and found your book most helpful. It lives on my iPad. I'm still reading it. I'm at the intermission of your talk, and enjoying that too. I'm about the same age and also had various phone devices i but, although not as elaborate as you. I wanted to be sure you knew about a book that just came out "Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell " which is very well researched, and i'm also enjoying that, bringing me back to those times as a teenager hacking the phone system. There is mention of how high school and college kids in Los Angeles had dial a joke and the like. You will enjoy the read, if you haven't already. -Paul

    1. Was I mentioned in that book? I was one of those kids who started a Dial-a-joke! It was called "Runch II" (for no good reason).


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