Virgil Matheson: mentor


I’ve mentioned Virgil Matheson in these pages a few times, but never made a full accounting. When I had my O’Reilly book published, I submitted a simple dedication in the manuscript:

for Virgil

But for whatever reason, it didn’t make it into the printed edition. This post is a small step toward letting the world know about someone important to me.

We first met in 1985 or thereabouts. One day while riding my bike through a back-alley, I stopped to look at an equipment rack set outside a spare garage. Virgil came out to give a get-off-my-lawn kind of speech, and somehow we ended up talking about electronics.  This led to discussions about crystal radios, and in a subsequent visit, we built one, he explaining the principles of operation. Virgil, it turns out, was a retired teacher at the North Dakota State School of Science, where he taught AC theory and thermodynamics. I was going through some rough times, and Virgil ended up being a much-needed role model.

Around that time, I had ttempted to build a Heathkit radio set, but couldn’t quite get it working. I brought it to Virgil, and we traced through the schematic diagrams, eventually getting it working. Along the way, Virgil introduced me to all kinds of electronic test equipment, including oscilloscopes and galvanometers that he had hand-wound in his younger days.

The next year, I needed a science project, and I had become fixated on Tesla Coils. Virgil had worked at Westinghouse (but not in overlap with the good N. Tesla) and found this project right up his alley. We used his wood lathe to turn a base for the coil, and a standard lathe to wind a primary and two perfectly-spaced secondary coils on PVC pipe, after which we sprayed them down with insulating paint. We built a high-voltage power supply out of a car battery, ignition coil, and relay-type regulator from the junkyard. The thing would turn out serious spark on the primary side, and at one point, I accidentally made contact with it, knocking me clear off the metal bench I was sitting on. We used a spark gap and high-voltage capacitors from old equipment to make a resonator, and got the coil working. It could light a fluorescent tube from my full arm-span away. It was a smash hit at the science fair, too.

For one so knowledgable about the foundations of technology, he was awfully curmudgeonly about it. He bemoaned the day students started showing up in his class with hand-calculators instead of slide rules. He would never answer the phone (but would speak on it, if you could get his brother to pick up).

We kept meeting on and off, and we would have epic discussions/debates about technology, thermodynamics, perpetual motion machines, higher mathematics, theology, building test equipment, and logic puzzles. He taught me, in short, how to think.

A non-exhaustive list of things he taught me:

  • How to build a crystal radio set
  • How to troubleshoot a conventional radio (hint–check for signal at the volume control–that will narrow down the problem to either the front-end or back-end)
  • How to compute resonant LC circuits
  • How to use a slide rule
  • How to pick locks
  • How to compute power factor and plot phasor diagrams for AC circuits
  • The value of good tools and how to care for them
  • How to build a Tesla Coil
  • How to debate
  • Respect for high voltage
  • The joy of back-issues of Scientific American
  • The trouble with Pascal’s wager
  • How to debunk perpetual motion claims
  • How (and why) to use a planimeter

On a recent vacation, I went to see Virgil again–now in his 90s. He’s still vigorous and feisty, though his memory is starting to slip a little. It was difficult to come to terms with the possibility that, given the frequency with which I make it to that part of the country, it may be the last time I see him. Since this is posted online, he’ll probably never see it. But if he could speak to each one of you, I think he’d offer advice something like this:

Cherish the people in your life. Treat every meeting as if it might be the one that sets you on a new course–one that you’ll look back at years later in wonder. Don’t worry what others think of you, and never stop learning.

Thank you, Virgil, for all you’ve given me. -m

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