Engineering and ethics clashed when his uncle the gambler asked him to fix the game
By Larry Sears ’69
In 1968, I was an electrical engineering undergraduate at Case Institute of Technology. I had an uncle who was a brilliant tool-and-die maker and a successful inventor. He also had a group of friends who would probably have described themselves as “business men.” Law enforcement authorities might have used different terminology.
One day, my uncle called me about a “project” he had in mind. The application was as follows: His associates would host a craps game in a motel. The game was, of course, strictly recreational. The craps table would be placed against a wall that served as a backstop as the dice were thrown against it. The dice had previously been modified with the careful addition of magnetic ink to some of the dots.
The gentleman also rented the adjacent motel room where my project would be set up. A massive electromagnet was to be placed against the common wall that formed the backstop of the dice table. One gentleman carried in his pocket a garage-door-opener transmitter that controlled the magnet. At the appropriate moment, he would switch on the magnet, which was powerful enough, even from one or two feet away, to generate enough force to attract the ferrous ink and slightly tilt the odds of the game.
The result, obviously, was a bigger payoff for the operators.
As I recall, a cluster of three large magnets was to be used. Each magnet consisted of an iron core about three inches in diameter and three-feet long, wound with about 100 pounds of wire. The three magnets together would have weighed about 500 pounds.
We couldn’t run them off the rectified AC line because the guests might notice the lights blink, so the plan was to operate from a stack of automobile batteries. A contactor was out of the question, since noise might be heard in the adjacent room. This is where I came in. Could I devise a solution? I indeed thought I had one.
The batteries would provide the energy for the magnets, of course. But it was necessary to switch the current on and then off under the command of the garage-door opener. I envisioned using several dozen 2N3055 power transistors to switch the coil current, along with the biggest flyback diodes I could find. The 2N3055 was a well- known transistor, specifically designed in the early 60s as a low-cost, high-power part. How I was going to get this material into the motel room was never contemplated.
I told my uncle I would think about it, but the ethical dilemma quickly dominated any technical considerations. I don’t recall exactly how much I was to be paid, but I remember that it was about half of my $3,500 annual tuition. What I was going to do would probably have been illegal, but I tried to convince myself that defrauding gangsters would somehow be compensatory.
I became distraught over this situation. I distinctly remember seeing the iron bars laying on my uncle’s garage floor and breaking out into a cold sweat. Besides desperately needing the tuition money, I didn’t want to disappoint my uncle, to whom I was close. Of course, I also envisioned the possibility of ending up in Lake Erie chained to the 60-pound iron bars.
Fortunately, I never had to make the decision. I was careful never to inquire why, but for some reason, the project was terminated — which, in fact, might have been what had happened to some of the participants.
My ethical dilemma vanished. I never had to fix the game. In retrospect, tough, I think my engineering was solid.
As founder of Hexagram Inc., Larry is responsible for the wireless meter-reading system used by utilities throughout the United States. He’s also an adjunct professor of electrical engineering at the Case School of Engineering. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Larry Sears ’69