Igniting connections across the globe.

Making Stuff

By Michael Cassera

I really like to build things. At home, I have a multitude of projects I’m working on. Currently, I’m constructing a robot that will solve a Rubik’s cube, and I’m working on some plans to make an automatic dog door. I’m even building a vintage video game for my commodore 64 written in machine language. I think this need to build things goes back to when I was a kid.

Before my long and illustrious career in the theatre arts, I set my sights on becoming an electrical engineer, like my father. My dad designed complete factory control, lighting, and power systems for various manufacturers over the years. Even when Dad wasn’t working, though, he made amazing things. Back in the day, we were looking to get our first color television in the house. Of course, my dad wanted to build one. He bought a Heathkit television kit, and he assembled the TV over the summer. This was not a simple project. Essentially, he purchased bags of parts and empty circuit boards. He was building this baby from scratch.

I had the opportunity to work with my dad at his job throughout high school and into my college years. During that time, he started his own consulting company, AMC Engineering. For a long time, I was his only employee, and I earned how to draft on a drafting table and how to diagram motor starter, interconnection, and loop diagrams, for example. I learned how to size fuses and breakers from power feeds down to the last branch circuits. I grew to understand the math involved in determining how many fluorescent fixtures need to go into a room based on the type of fixture combined with the reflectance properties of the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of the room in question. When the company got its first IBM XT, I became the IT kid and helped get AutoCAD up and running. Soon, I was writing our own software to estimate the number of fixtures needed for the project at hand.

For a long time, theatre gave me this creative fix, one that kept my mind sharp and me entertained. Over the years, I worked my way up to a department head position at a large production show, one with a long life span. I love the work and stability, but my focus has shifted from technical troubleshooting and creation to project and people management. In short, my creative technical needs were no longer being met.

My solution was to find projects that challenge me outside of my workplace.

However, is there any real value to teaching myself how to program a 40-year-old computer in its native assembly language, how to design a machine that can solve a Rubik’s cube, or how to build a miniature arcade system? I have a lot of fascinating books on many of these subjects. But, I retain information much better when I jump into action. Reading about RS-232 serial connections, timing, and communication in a book is ok, but making an RS-232 serial connection communicate in the real world? That I will remember.

Although these practices might not be directly useful to my day job, or even to my daily life, they keep my brain sharp. I exercise skills in algorithm building, rudimentary logic, binary/hex/decimal conversion, communication, electronics, and more. I keep my technical brain muscle ready. When a unique problem arises at work, I’m ready to troubleshoot right along with my crew.