To build with one’s hands and explore with one’s mind — this is what many at Tech came here to do. One such student is Josh Johnson, a freshman computer engineering major with a burning interest in electronics that started when he was just five years old. This interest has led him to many projects, such as a mid-twentieth century radio and the creation from the ground up of a simple processor, and ultimately led him to his current spot here at Tech.
What drives Johnson forward in these projects is a desire to understand the principles technology is built on at every level.
“I think it’s very important that abstractions are understood fully, and that not trying to do that leaves a lot of questions unanswered, really leaves the entire picture incomplete,” Johnson said.
He described how the computer science class he attended in high school explained how the code worked but didn’t explain what made the computer itself tick. This motivated him to go on and build a processor out of basic circuit elements, which is able to multiply two numbers together and print the output in binary. This interest in fundamentals is what helped to sustain his fondness for electrical engineering.
“Basic electrical engineering is very close to the physics of electrons,” Johnson said.
He also expressed appreciation for the field’s usefulness and ubiquity, asking, “Can you imagine a car without electronics? It’s the backbone of modern society.”
Johnson’s range of interests have brought him into contact with technology both old and new. He described how one of his history teachers, a retired army colonel, had an old radio which he gave him for repair — not a simple task given it’s age.
“The thing had dust bunnies the size of my fist!” Johnson exclaimed. “I had to go to the antique store — they don’t make vacuum tubes any more — and I had to run through half a dozen to find four that worked out of the many that didn’t.”
But he was successful and noted that AM stations on a vacuum tube radio sound better than they do on more modern equipment.
The attraction and fascination with electronics went back to an early age. His father is a Tech graduate and mechanical engineer from the class of ‘91, and his mother is a chemist, so he was exposed to science kits from an early age. However, electronics was the first one that stuck.
“I was given a chemistry set — most of the reactions didn’t work right,” Johnson said. “I was given a light microscope, and it couldn’t focus. I was given many biological experiments, and some of these failed miserably, including one that got me sick. But I was always able to get the electronic experiments to work.”
He recalled how when he was in the Boy Scouts, he would be excited to go to meetings to talk with an electrical engineer from a local TV station who was there and “discuss hypothetical circuits for hours.”
These days, Johnson hasn’t had much time for any electrical engineering personal projects — he’s been delving into the material needed for his studies at Tech. He said he’d like to someday build a transmission electron microscope, but that’s a plan for far in the future while he continues to study and learns about how such a project might be feasible. For now, he’s learning all he can and enjoying his new environment of inquisitive minds.