My father was an old school electrician taught through the old methods before OSHA and electrical safety was on anyone’s radar. He passed his knowledge onto me. I learned about different types of wiring methods and different voltages. I understood what a fuse and circuit breaker did. I could strip Type AC cable. His training included testing for the presence of AC voltage by touching conductors with his fingers. This required knowing the expected circuit voltage before attempting. Even though I had seen him use insulated gloves for other equipment, he did not use them when working around the house. I, however, was not allowed to test for AC voltage because I was too small. You needed to be full grown to handle the shock. For low voltage DC control circuits, the presence of voltage was determined by tasting. I was taught to make sure that the two conductor ends didn’t touch each other because that could burn my tongue.
For the younger crowd, touching energized conductors was not only considered to be an acceptable method of determining the presence of voltage, it was specifically taught as part of electrician training. Test by touch was not considered to be a “shock”, “near miss”, or “near death” situation. It just was. Electricians were willfully exposing themselves to a potential electrocution rather than using a meter. Tarry thee not amongst those who engage in intentional shocks for they are surely non-believers and are not long for this world. Back then every work day in the United States more than two employees were killed by contact with electricity. Even as a kid I knew electricians who had been electrocuted. I assisted my father for several years. There was no energized equipment safety training other than knowing if there was voltage present or not. Therein lies my tale.
I was a budding engineer who built all kinds of Rube Goldberg devices. One day I was making a model car and decided to give it working headlights. I took apart two flashlights to get the bulbs. I then put the headlights into the model with a wire run into the trunk where a single AAA battery would be installed to power the lights. A quick check with the battery proved that everything worked. It was then that the greatest idea crossed my pre-teen mind. If the lights were powered with more than 1½ volts they would be brighter. The car could then be used as my bedroom lamp. So, I found an old vacuum cleaner cord in the basement. I drilled a hole in the model, pulled the cord into the trunk and twisted the conductors to the wire I used for the headlights. I put a wire nut over the twisted conductors. When I plugged it in nothing happened.
It didn’t cross my mind to unplug the car. I had seen my father work bare handed on energized 120 volt circuits more times than I could count. When I opened the trunk I noticed that the conductors were disconnected. I held the two wires in one hand and twisted them back together with the other hand. For a brief instant, the headlights were very bright. My forearm muscles twitched and tingled. The small lamps exploded. I was startled and scared at what had just happened.
I had my first “near death” electrical experience at twelve. Call these incidents what they are. A GFCI protective device would not have saved my life. I missed being electrocuted most likely because the lamps blew. As I write this I can still feel the sensation of the current in my arm. It was well beyond the situation of a child being electrocuted by sticking a paperclip into a receptacle. I knew what I was doing. For all the training my father had given me, how not to become a fatality was not really part of it. Maybe that incident subconsciously led me to the career path I have chosen.
Although my children help me just as I helped my father, they have never seen me work on an energized circuit. They also know why that is the case because, when it comes to electrical safety, ignorance is a very dangerous thing.
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