My beloved pinball machine; Pinbot, broke. The scoring displays are made from 80s style gas plasma, soldered to a circuit board, not LEDs. I looked online and found that I could upgrade it to LEDs, but I like that my Pinbot (the greatest of all pinball games,) is old school and original.
So, I looked long and hard and I found that I could get a new plasma scoring display. The problem is, that I would have to remove the old one from the circuit board and solder a new one on.
I called several local arcades to see if I could bring it in and pay a technician to do it…
but none know how.
All the old electronic stores, where they actually fixed things are gone, replaced by Circuit City and Best Buy. I brought my circuit board and display to both, but the kids employed there looked at me like I was nuts. I looked in the phone book and was able to find a couple of electronic stores that weren’t chains, but they didn’t fix things that involved working on circuit boards either.
Nothing at a computer store that was an authorized repair place for HP, and Apple.
There is nobody left who can solder a circuit board. We live in a world where everything is made to be broken and thrown out. “Repair men” don’t repair anything. They just replace modular components.
This depressed me far beyond what it should have. I didn’t want a modular solution. I didn’t want to upgrade. I didn’t want to remove five perfectly fine displays, circuit boards, various cables and a motherboard and replace them all with a modular LED just because one display outgassed to the point of failure. I wanted it fixed.
I’d replaced light bulbs and plungers and actuators, and made various little repairs to my machine. It was in service for more than 20 years before I got it, sitting in bars and arcades and what have you, being played and played hard. Over those years all kinds of things had broken, and when I open up the machine I can see the legacy of those repairs in solder drips and new parts mixed with old.
This was a machine that was designed to be repaired. It has all these access points. The playfield opens up for access. It even has a power socket inside it, so that one can plug in tools.
I would not sully my beautiful machine with an upgrade. I’d been playing Pinbot since the mid- 80s. I played it every time I saw it all over the country. Maybe I’d even played on this very machine before I owned it.
All those machines had plasma scoring displays.
I would fix it myself.
Back in grade school I had been interested in electronics and had soldered a circuit board on a computer we built. I kinda knew how to do this. The difference is that had been thirty years ago, and a board from a kit designed for a kid to learn how to solder on. This was a heavy duty piece of bar machinery, designed to be worked on by a competent tradesman.
Their are thirty two tiny little connectors a few milimeters apart. Each of these needed to be desoldered. Then the old display needed to be removed, the new one installed and each of those connectors needed to be soldered in place. It is absolutely imperative that at no time any solder go where it shouldn’t go and cross those connections. That would “hack” the board and blow it (and possibly many other components the moment power was restored.
It requires skill, patience, and pinpoint accuracy.
It also requires the right equipment.
I went to Radio Shack in search of a soldering station. They didn’t have any. It’s a special order item. Oh, they have soldering irons the kind you might use to install a car stereo, but not a precision instrument with a fine tip and temperature control that you need to solder a circuit board.
I was disgusted. Wasn’t this what Radio Shack existed for?
I went online and ordered a soldering station, and a desoldering tool. When they arrived, again I felt sad about the difficulty in acquiring these tools of a lost, nearly obsolete art. It pissed me off, that it was just sloth and excess wealth that had taken our society in such a direction that such things were no longer valued.
Today, if one tiny piece of something breaks we often throw it out. If it can be repaired, it’s usually one of these modular repairs. For example, to upgrade my machine to an LED would cost $250, and would entail the disposal and replacement of five different displays, six different circuit boards, and maybe a dozen dedicated cables all of which were working fine. All this to replace one worn out display. The display itself cost $30.
I suspected that the $250 repair would mean that I was putting in parts that while more modern, were vastly inferior to what I was taking out. There was no possibility of replacing a component of the LED display. The whole $250 assembly came as one piece.
What a waste.
So, it was out of an ethic of sorts that I spent $100 on soldering equipment.
I practiced on a broken toy of my kids. My four year old daughter was fascinated by all this arcane stuff I was working with.
I practiced desoldering. Using heating element one heats up the solder until it melts. In the other hand you hold the desoldering tool. This looks like a pen. You press a long plunger down against a spring. You hold the tip over the melted solder and press the trigger. The plunger shoots upward creating a vacuum which sucks up the solder into the tip. It instantly solidifies and inside the desoldering tool are all these little pieces of solder, frozen in flight, rattling around.
Then I practiced soldering. I made little cubes out of paper clips, smaller and smaller with more precise joints. At my daughter’s behest, we made little men out of the paper clips.
Finally, I took the old circuit board cut off the old component carefully with an xacto knife and then attacked the board with clamps to my little hobby clamp and magnifying glass. Painstakingly through the magnifying glass I desoldered each delicate connection and cleaned the board.
Now I was ready to attach the new display glass, bending and soldering the 32 delicate filaments into place. I took the glass out of the box and once again removed the bubble wrap, where I’d stored it after examining it upon arrival.
Something was wrong. All the filaments were bent and the glass was cracked.
I stared at it in shock. It had been perfect when it arrived. I’d replaced it perfectly in it’s wrap and box. How did this break?
I turned the part over and over in my hands wondering, and I couldn’t help but notice that my daughter who had been so animated and interested had suddenly gone quiet.
“Can you fix it?” she asked.
“No. This is broken. Did you break it?”
“Yes.” There were tears in her eyes now. She was on the verge of going into a crying meltdown. It was pretty easy to figure out. She had been very interested in the ongoing project, the soldering of boxes out of paperclips, and little men, and the eventual repair of the pinball machine. She had wanted to look at the new part, and had taken it out of the box on her own, and dropped it.
“Don’t worry honey. Daddy breaks things, too. We’ll order a new piece and try again.”
“Ok,” she said.
I wasn’t really upset, either. Once I’d fixed the part, all the soldering stuff would go into a box and it would probably be years, if ever, that I used it again. The skill I’d acquired would fade and the fun my daughter and I had had would be over.
This way the adventure would go on for a little longer.
I’d been thinking about this lost art, since. It’s a shame that we don’t build things well or carefully enough to be fixed, that this skill is worthless for the most part.
It offends me that things aren’t built to last, that we replace whole expensive assemblies, or entire appliances just because some little tiny part goes bad. We don’t fix things. We don’t build things with enough value to warrant fixing them. We just replace.
Electronic soldering. That’s the lost art, I revived in my house these last two weeks.
What lost arts do you know? Are they worth reviving? Keeping alive?