Musings of An Old Man

by Brian K. Moore

BRIAN STICKS HIS TONGUE IN A LIGHT SOCKET

All my life I have been a little cavalier about encounters with electricity.
Having considerable knowledge of electricity has helped me maintain a healthy respect for it without having an undue fear of it.

For example I still test for voltage by touching the hot wires of an electric circuit with my bare fingers. This is not dangerous unless you do it wrong.

What you should do is:
Have shoes on to insulate you from any possible conductive material or water under foot.

Don’t let any part of your body come in contact with conductive or wet material during the test.

Test by using two fingers on the same hand. This allows current to pass only through the two fingers, not through your whole body.

If there is voltage present, you will feel a tingle in the two fingers used for the test. If your fingers are very dry, you may not feel it at all and will have to slightly moisten your fingers in order to feel the voltage.

Of course, you don’t have to do it this way. You could go get a voltmeter, but you might lose your macho image.

Fortunately household voltage is usually fairly harmless. It can give you a pretty nasty jolt without hurting you, and if you are accustomed to it it’s no big deal.

Household voltage can be dangerous, even fatal, under certain circumstances, like having a connected electrical device fall into the bathtub with you. A strong electrical shock through your body will contract your muscles so that you are unable to release your grip on things.

I started being cavalier about electricity at an early age. One of my first projects was building shock machines out of Model T Ford coils. I would put the coil and four flashlight batteries in a phony book with the pages removed and bring the two hot wires from the coil to the surface. Then as I walked around the high school, I would allow the part of the phony book where the wires surfaced to touch, or even come close (this thing would shoot a spark a half-inch long) to the victim. He would get a healthy shock. When he looked to see who did this to him, I would just be standing there with a book in my hand and an innocent look on my face. I found it best not to pick a big tough guy for a victim.

I learned about Ford coils at age six, from my brother, Joe. He was five years older than I and already knew all this stuff. One day he built a trap for me. In the morning after I was up and dressed I would usually sit in a comfortable chair with a blanket in it with the cat in my lap, while my mother fixed breakfast. This particular morning Joe had put several loops of very fine wire under the blanket on my chair and connected it to his Ford coil. The plan was, when I got set in the chair with the cat in my lap, he would turn the Ford coil on and blast me.

Well: It didn’t work that way. I had seen what he was doing and I went to another chair. My big payoff came when, later in the day, he sat in the wired chair and I had the opportunity to practice the golden rule. I did for him what he would do for me. I turned the Ford coil on. It was very effective. It worked as planned. But he didn’t seem to see as much humor in it as he would have if I had been sitting in the chair.

Along about age 8 or 9 my cousin Lee, who was just one day older than I, using our growing knowledge of electricity and particularly of Ford coils, wired a card table. My father and my mother and Lee’s father and his step mother, who was a rather strict disciplinarian frequently, played cards.

Lee and I had discovered that the top of the card table was conductive. It evidently had some kind of metal screen reinforcement in it. So we connected it with very small, hair size wire that could hardly be seen, to the Ford coil.

Then the folks sat down to play cards. We stood by the Ford coil. We let my father and mother and Uncle Art touch the table as card players normally would, but every now and then when Aunt Florence touched it, we would turn on the Ford coil.

She would react and jerk her hand away and the other folks would ask “What’s the matter, Florence?” She would explain and they would all touch the table and say, “I don’t feel anything.” And so it went. We got away with it without getting caught.
An aside on aunt Florence: About 30 years later, Aunt Florence was driving through Apple Valley on Highway 18. She saw a sign that said “Brian K. Moore, General Contractor.” She stopped and came in to see if that Brian K. Moore was me. It was! So we had a little reunion, but I never told her about the “hot” table. Maybe I should have.

Some time later another guy and I pulled the same trick on our teacher by wiring her desk blotter and then doing the Ford coil thing. Same result. She did considerable jumping and wondering, but not discovering. Again, we pulled off our trick and got away with it.

This brings me to the title line of this story, which is “Brian sticks his tongue in a light socket.”

By the time I was 16 I had already had ten years experience with electricity and shocks. One day I was checking to see if there was voltage in a light socket on an extension cord with my finger. I thought “I wonder what it would be like if I tested it with my tongue?”

I went over the risk aspects of it and decided that the risk was no greater than it would be with my finger, but the jolt would probably be quite a bit more severe because of the wetness.

I was accustomed to severe jolts having developed another macho shock/electricity trick, which was stopping an idling Model T engine by shorting out the ignition with my hands on all four spark plugs at the same time and holding my leg against the fender to provide a ground.

I decided to make this voltage test with my tongue. It was quickly over. I put my tongue into the socket with the sides of my tongue touching the sides of the socket and the tip of my tongue touching the little contact in the bottom of the socket. It was some kind of a jolt! Stronger than anything I had ever experienced up till that time, including stopping the Ford engines.

I doubt if there can be any excuse for doing something like this, so I will chalk it up to impetuous youth. But I will give myself credit for having correctly figured the risk factor that in this circuit, as long as no part of my body was in contact with a conducting material, the only current path was through my tongue.

This pretty well ended my career of getting shocked on purpose but, in the years since, I have had some substantial unintentional electrical shocks.

My youthful experience may have been useful in helping me deal with them.

I’ll tell the story of one of these unintentional shocks and one about Phyllis and then I’ll stop, because I suspect this shock story may have already become boring.
The carpenters on a framing job told me that they were getting shocks from a skill saw. This was in the days when plugs had two equal size prongs. I told them let’s just turn the plug around that will probably fix it. So we turned the plug around. I picked up the skill saw and felt no shock, so the quick fix had worked. I should have left it alone there, but I thought I’ll just put it back like it was to see if it goes back to giving shocks. Then I’ll change it back. So I changed the plug back to the shock position. My hands were dry and I was not sure that I was really feeling a shock, so I reached down and touched a water pipe with my left hand, to intensify the shock so that I could feel it. (A water pipe is a perfect ground). It intensified the shock so much that my left hand involuntarily grabbed the water pipe and my right hand involuntarily grabbed the skill saw and pulled the trigger. The guard on the skill saw was pinned back. This left me hanging on to a water pipe that I could not let go of with my left hand and hanging on to a skill saw with the blade spinning right near my right leg that I could not let go of. The guys watching me didn’t know anything was wrong.

I had just enough control of my lungs to barely squeak out, “Turn it off.” One of them heard me and pulled the plug. That’s the closest that I ever came to getting hurt in an electrically related accident.

Phyllis also had an electrically related accident. She was using the washing machine and she was wearing shorts. Unbeknownst to us, there was a short circuit in the washing machine and the whole washing machine was hot. She leaned on the washing machine with her bare legs while she reached for the water valves on the wall. (Water pipes, again, a perfect ground!) Her hands involuntarily grabbed the faucets and she could not release them, she was getting the full 120 volts through both hands to her bare legs against the hot washing machine. She couldn’t let go and she couldn’t cry out. She still had some control of her body and she wrenched back and literally tore her hands from the valves and fell to the floor making a loud thump.
Her escape maneuver was so strenuous that she dislocated her left shoulder. Although I was in an adjoining room on the phone, I didn’t know anything about it until I heard her hit the floor. I told the guy that I was talking to, “We have an emergency. Talk to you later” and went to Phyllis’ aid.

Phyllis would later facetiously complain that I finished my phone conversation before I came to help her!