For a long time I had imagined that the nickelodeon themed clock sitting next to my bed was some sort of magical box that just knew exactly what time it was. If I pushed the right part of it I could tell it where to start, make it sing songs on the radio, or have it make some obnoxious noise that was bound to wake me up every morning. This was all well and good for a while, but there came a point in my life when curiosity got the better of me and I decided, it was time to see what’s inside.

There were a few first steps to taking this clock apart, the first of those was closing my bedroom door. I was sure that if my mom walked in and saw the clock she had paid for in a multitude of tiny little pieces all over the ground she would not have been pleased. The next step was finding a screw driver. Here began the scientific process of determining which of the pile of screw drivers would fit the shape of the screw while also being small enough to work its way into the little opening made hardly accessible so kids like me didn’t take their clocks apart. After a few trips up and down the stairs I found success. At this point I went to town on this poor little clock. I found all of the screws I could and took them out, but for some reason the clock wouldn’t miraculously come apart and show me all of its secrets so I resolved to pry it open with the biggest flat head screw drivers I could find. After a snap or two the front cover was gone and I could see the meat of the clock.

Now was time to explore. First, I found the extra screws that had been hidden below various part of the façade and the plastic still attached to the screw that used to be attached to the casing. I took those screws out so I could freely move everything around. My first point of exploration was the buttons. I found that the soft seemingly magical interface of this clock with the outside world wasn’t much more than a piece of rubber or plastic covering a switch on some green board that was dotted with metal. I investigated more and took off all of the removable pieces until I got to the point where I wrote the rest off as electronics. I was around ten years old and accepted that circuit boards were something I would learn about later in life. What concerned me was how the clock interacted with me, I could care less about its brain. So that led me to the little screen next. The clock was unplugged so I was out of luck as far as much interaction with that went, but I did manage to disconnect the screen from the rest of the circuit board, figuring out that when connecting electronics, a lot of wires all hooked up differently. Next I found the lighting system, amazingly it was just one tiny little bulb that made this whole green zig zag tube burst with light! Though it was a sad realization when I put two and two together that I couldn’t go to the store and pick up any old bright green zig zag light bulb. Lastly, I had to know where out of this little not-so-magical-anymore contraption the sound came out. I found tiny little speakers no bigger than an inch in diameter. I was amazed that all of the sound could come out of this tiny little thing and that the only connection telling it what to do was a twine sized wire connecting it back to the circuit board (which was promptly disconnected to further my understanding of electrical connections).

After all of that, and a little more mess making, my appetite for determining how my digital alarm clock works was satisfied. This left one minor step: reassembly. This process posed to be more difficult than I imagined, I had figured that if I could take it apart that I would be able to put it all back together again, after all I would have established such an understanding of its workings that it should be a piece of cake. As one can imagine, this was not the case. I spent a while (though I didn’t know how long because my precious time keeper was lying in pieces in my hands) attempting to put everything back together just as I had found it. I shoved the display and speakers back into their respective connectors, I put the rubber back on all of the switches, snapped the covering back on and screwed back in the few screws that hadn’t fallen under my bed. Minus the fact that I could still see to the circuit board through some sort of switch covering that I had misplaced, the clock looked perfectly healthy to me. However, upon plugging it in and hoping for some light I was rather disappointed. I had officially broken my clock and while this was sad, I was still rather proud of my new understanding of how it (once) worked.

I promised my mom I wouldn’t try to open my new alarm clock when she replaced it, but my enthusiasm and desire for scientific investigation of the things around me had just begun. I went on to take apart most of the toys and electronics in my closet. I learned from my mistakes and would clear off a working table so that I wouldn’t lose the pieces I took apart. I realized that brute force was not generally how things were put together and thus was not the best way to take them apart. I developed a fool proof method of placing all of the parts of my nerf gun (for example) in the shape of a nerf gun on my table as I dissected it. Thus when it came time to put everything back together I had a simple map and shape to follow.

It was starting with failure that drove me to determine a clear cut method and use my own formulated scientific approach to work through satisfying my curiosity. More so, it was my later successes in mechanical dissection and reassembly that led me to realize that there truly wasn’t anything that I couldn’t eventually out. I have spent the last 12 years since then working to do just that, figure out the world around me. In these later years I have found how to take things apart in my head and without destroying them with my parents’ toolkit. I occasionally still take small machines around the house apart in an effort to fix them and I am often astounded in my ability to find small problems, correct, and then reassemble them such that they run rather nicely when I am done – the engineer in me finally satisfied.