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The Magic of Simple Ideas

3 comments Pearls of Wisdom

The human mind, it is said is a bundle of ideas. Everyday ideas, big and small come and hit us. We put them through different filters. What we do with them decides what we become in life.

We consider some as too big for us.
We consider some as too small us.
Some we think are not workable.
Some we do not attempt because others have failed at them.
We think some will only work for us if ......
We think some will not work for us because ........ So on and so fourth.

But life is unpredictable and what happens when we try one of those ideas no one really knows.

Those were the days when multimeters were expensive and even line testers were considered special for small time technicians. Those days technicians who did not have a "line tester" used to carry a "lamp tester" to test and troubleshoot electrical circuits. It used to be a simple incandescent lamp with two wires coming out of the lamp holder. The tips of the two wires were stripped to expose the few strands of bare copper conductors. The technician would connect one wire to the ground wire or the grounded metal body of the electrical panel and to know if any other terminal has voltage on it or not, he would briefly touch that terminal with the second wire from of the lamp tester. The lamp would glow briefly if there is voltage available on those terminals. If the lamp does not glow, there is no voltage on those terminals. Not the best method for detecting presence or absence of voltage. But necessity was the mother of invention.

double lamp tester

This story - almost 30 years old - is from the dark ages of the power industry when such "jugaad" was the only tool available for some to work with. With the advent of better tools and instruments available, such methods are a thing of past.

On several counts, it was a very crude and unsafe method and its use was always advised against. First, the lamp was only suitable for the phase to neutral voltage. If by any chance, the "tester" was connected between phase wires, the lamp would fail - and sometimes the lamp can burst causing potential injury to the user. In spite of such potential dangers, the technicians would use them because it was cheap. At some point in time, the "device" got smarter by using two lamps in series so that it does not fail in case it is connected by mistake across phase wires. It was a very crude improvement to an already crude "jugaad". But the contraption - two glass bulbs dangling at the end of two wires was not only looking odd, but also a pain to carry around and surely difficult to handle. Then the inventors took it through another version of improvement. The bulbs were used without removing their transport packing (cylindrical cover of corrugated paper) to keep the delicate glass bulbs from getting damaged.

One day, while taking lunch, someone asked what will happen if we replace one of the bulbs with a diode? A diode is a semiconductor device that conducts in one direction only, from the anode to cathode and does not conduct (offers high resistance) when a voltage of opposite polarity is applied to it.


Whoever suggested this knew one thing for sure - with a diode, only half the energy will be consumed and the bulb will not fail even if you connect it across phase wires by mistake. At least it will work with one bulb - making it a littler easier to carry around. By all means what he suggested made sense. We appreciated the simple idea but advised him not to spend time and energy on a crude idea like this. We forgot about this and went back to our everyday problems.

But simple ideas die hard. So the idea floated around. Liked but discarded by some, remembered and forgotten by others, but never really dead and abandoned. And one day we saw the final version of the "jugaad". This version was having only one bulb. Curiosity overcame my initial caution and dislike for the device.

So I asked the owner, "How come there is only one bulb?"
He replied, "Sir, this is a special one with a diode."

I looked closely. Someone has neatly put a "BY127" 1 amp/1000v diode right inside the holder of the bulb in series with one outgoing wire. I also noticed that the wire connected to the anode is red and the wire connected to the cathode is black. Was it on purpose? I did not ask.

BY127 diode
So I asked him, "Is this one any better than the two-bulb tester?" What he told me was very interesting. With the diode in the circuit, the tester does not fail when connected on to phase to phase voltage. That was the intent and that is what it achieves. But the there are plenty of other things that we never imagined.

diode lamp tester

If the bulb lights up at half brightness, we know it is 230 volts AC (phase voltage.)
If the bulb lights up at full brightness, we know it is 415 volts AC (phase to phase voltage.)

The "tester" also works on DC supply with some interesting observations.
If for a pair of terminals the tester lights up in one direction (red & black) and does not light up in the reverse (black & red), it indicates DC supply.

At full brightness, it tells that the circuit is 220 volts DC
At half brightness, it tells the circuit is 110 volts DC.

In addition, it also tells that the terminal on which the red wire is touched is positive and the terminal on which the black wire is negative. Now you understand that using red and black colored wires was with a purpose not by chance.

I have not seen many more of the special testers during my later years. As the economy grew and liberalized, awareness and availability of better and safer methods became more common and such contraptions vanished.
But this small idea to improve something remained with me.

So you see how life works? "You learn" it does not matter. "You understand" it does not really matter. "You think up something new" it still does not matter. "You try and do" one small thing it opens up a sea of opportunities.

India is a wonderland of organic "jugaad". With a scarcity of basic resources and the indomitable spirit to survive and perform within frugality, "jugaad" just happens and it does not stop. Who does what to "achieve" what is difficult to control or predict. That is a double edged sword. When established methods are compromised, "jugaad" is harmful and dangerous. But we try smart, creative ideas only when we are up against a wall.

Perhaps that is why putting satellites in orbit is cheaper in India.

Last modified onThursday, 11 August 2016 11:32
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