Turning On
Margaret, February 1, 2005

I was thinking of the question Paul Burkhouse had asked in the phone interview. He had inquired about my mechanical inclinations and to clarify, had asked: “if you turned on your computer and nothing happened, what would you do?” “If it did absolutely nothing?” I had responded. “Oh, that would be really bad. I’d have to take it apart.”

And so, now, I was staring incredulously at my computer sitting there on the table – a computer that did absolutely nothing when I hit the ON switch. And I was thinking about Paul’s question, and about my response. I sighed and went to collect a screwdriver from the toolbox.

Thankfully, removing the cover was nothing like the iMac, which I had partially disassembled less than a week ago. On that day, I had gone to work with my sister, Kirsten, who runs the technology program for a K-8 school. It was her one day that she didn’t teach a computer class, and so she spent much of the day on maintenance, fighting with a (broken) server, and answering students’ questions as they ambled by between classes or at lunch. She had given me a tour around the school, and introduced me to the other teachers and administrators. When she showed me one of the Kindergarten rooms, the teacher there had us take away one of the classroom’s iMacs to fix. Apparently two CDs had been stuck in the drive, and now no one could get either out. It had sounded like an easy enough project, so I got to work disassembling the computer to get to the CD drive to remove the offending CDs. I was wrong about the ease. It took me over an hour just to get the case off, and in doing so I accidentally dropped a screw into the rest of the machinery. It was another half-hour fishing the screw out. I finally got to the CD drive and removed the two offending CDs – plus a plastic coin – and then reassembled the contraption.

Now I was thinking about that iMac, and while it had taken forever to disassemble, at least I knew what the problem was. I pulled the side off my case. It was very dusty inside, but otherwise looked unharmed. A corner chip of the outside case had been broken off in transporting the machine from Germany back to the States, but I could tell looking inside that it was merely cosmetic damage. Hmm. Maybe the mechanical switch was broken. I pried off the front of the case, and encountered a wall of gray felt. This was no ordinary dust bunny. It was the dust bunny’s entire extended family. In just pulling off the major masses of dust, I was able to form a tennis-ball-sized wad. Hmm. Maybe the computer’s just too dirty to run. It seemed like a stretch, but worth trying. I carefully removed dust from cracks and crevices and wiped down flat plastic surfaces. I plugged in the computer and hit the ON switch. Nothing.

I turned my attention to the mechanics of the switch itself. It seemed intact and as functional as ever. For lack of other ideas, I decided to track the connection from the switch to the motherboard. I loosened up the front box that holds the hard and floppy drives to get a better look. The small card that converts the mechanical switch into a digital signal was undamaged. But wait! The wire connecting that card to the motherboard was loose on the motherboard end. I pushed the connector in, securing it. “Ah-ha!” I thought. “Just a loose connection, probably jiggled loose by the transport across the ocean.” With optimism, I plugged the computer in and hit the ON switch. Nothing. Deflated, I unplugged the computer once again, thinking about what to try next. And I heard a little sigh from the back of the computer. It was very soft, but unmistakable, like the sound of a motor coming to rest. I plugged the computer in again and listened. Nothing. I unplugged it. The sigh repeated.

Okay! So the computer was getting some power, just not enough to get going, apparently. I decided to check out the battery. I examined the case to determine how best to remove the battery. In doing so, I checked out the back of the machine, and my eyes wandered over to a familiar, yet forgotten, switch. It was red and read: “230”. Oh no. I felt both chagrinned and ecstatic. I flipped the switch so that it read “115”, plugged the electrical cord in, and hit the ON button. Whir. Click. Whirrrr. The LED on the front of the case lit up and the drives started spinning. The computer was on.

And I thought about Paul and his question. And I realized that though he had hired me, I had answered the question all wrong. The correct answer should have been: “first, I would check that the computer is securely plugged in, that the outlet works, and that the little red voltage switch in the back is set correctly for the current country’s electrical standard. If that didn’t work, then I would take apart the machine.”