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'The capacitors exploded, showering the lab in flaming confetti'

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"Horrendous fumes from pencil lead? Wouldn't that just be CO2?"

Depends on what binding agent they used to bind the graphite powder. Clay, or maybe something man made.

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Pint

Exploding electrolytics.

As a new junior tech in a UK radio manufacturers test dept at the end of the production line, I had the job of turning things on for the very 1st time and running through a test document the QA Dept gave us for each product. This one was a portable HF amp, AC powered.

The end of this box nearest the AC was a BIG (think baked bean can sized) electrolytic, a transformer and another BIG (bean can) electrolytic on the more interesting, almost DC bit of the device (smoothing I think).

Visual check, red wires going to +ve, black wires going to -ve. Connect up meters at the proscribed test points and turn on.

Meters rapidly shot to the far right (in some cases so violently the needles came back looking like false eyelashes.

ENORMOUS bang and a veritable mushroom cloud of paper and green gunk.

Most of the test bench including me was also covered in green gunk and a nice post apocalyptic shower of shredded foiled paper shards descended.

Cause. The lower rated bean can that should have been on the DC side was on the AC side of the transformer and vice versa. That box went to the ladies wot fix things once the techs have decided what's faulty. It was still there 3 years later when I left.

But the incident did create 2 new procedures.

Check the right components are in the right place, especially large ones that could go bang.

Don't connect anything to the kit until you're sure somethings not going to go BANG! PP

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Surely...

Those acronyms should read Survive, not Support.

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Mushroom

Exploding chips - not fun

Been there, done that, though fortunately not taking out any other equipment.

Again as an electronics undergrad, I was building a relay drive circuit using ULN2803 Darlington drivers. Due to a wiring fault one output had been shorted to the supply rail instead of via the relay. When that output was energised the driver exploded, and a small lump of the IC plastic hit me just under the eye! Yes, I counted myself very lucky that it didn't hit about 5mm higher and take out my eye, but it did narrow the fault down to between one or two pins.

Blowing things up - it's the only way to really learn.

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Re: Exploding chips - not fun

I got a nasty burn of one of the first Athlon processors. That was when I learned:

"These days processors needs fans and heatsinks and paste at all times and will not even run for 2 seconds without reaching lava like temperatures and a meltdown costing you £80"

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Re: Exploding chips - not fun

Modern silicon does seem a little more fragile than old TTL. Many years ago a miswired quad gate package explosively delidded exposing the chip glowing red. Still worked after cooling down.

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Re: Exploding chips - not fun

I never did it myself, but each of the three desks around me in UG labs managed to separately insert Op-Amps into their circuits round the wrong way.

They each blew the top half of the casing off and sent it bouncing around the room with a surprisingly large bang.

I've also seen the magic smoke released numerous times from faulty motherboards (ran a recycling (back into use) shop a while ago) but those occasions somehow all managed to be surprisingly quiet. (small pops followed by fizzles mostly, one "whoosh")

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Flame

Re: Exploding chips - not fun

I had a similar experience with a home brew EPROM burner; The first clue that the circuit I had built was faulty was the silicon under the little window in the package was do a rather good impersonation of an LED.

The thing that surprised be was the damned thing worked after... Erase, re-program to whole 9 yards.

Never trusted it enough to use in an actual machine; but kept it around as a scratch EPROM and good luck charm :)

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Capacitor

I remember a fellow student getting bored waiting for a formal and safety-conscious demonstration of destroying an electrolytic capacitor, and jamming a large one straight into a mains socket in the lab creating quite an impressive (but mercifully harmless) fireworks display. In his defence he thought there was a 50/50 chance of getting it the right way round... 50 had something to do with the reality of course, but is a homophone with hurts.

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Mushroom

Re: Capacitor, HAH !! I raise you 2 stories

Yeah, I worked as an apprentice for a Telco, we had our own school. This was the 80's. One guy wanted to pay another for a prank earlier in the day. He soldered an electro backwards across the 50V supply in a hidden spot on the cct board we were working on, just as we were being let out for lunch. Every lunch as a precaution the Instructor would turn off the 50v so no fire could start. The cct was duly plugged in as he left. ...... After lunch we all filed in and sat at our desk, the instruction discussed the cct and then turned around and flicked the breakers for the 50v to on. Immediately we were all deafened by a loud bang and confetti. Needless to say pranks were stopped that day...

Another time another guy was fault finding his project that involved making a set of telephone exchange relays work in a certain sequence, we had built the loom ourselves and were expected to fault find if it didn't work. Fault finding included making each relay work by pressing the relay in the expected sequence and testing the circuit.. All was progressing well until he pressed the second last relay which closed the contacts across 50v. The battery bank that supplied the training site ran a mini mechanical exchange and supplied power to all the buildings and could supply more than 600A without breaking a sweat. For a minuscule fraction of a second it tried to give that 600+A.... results :: one very shocked and slightly blinded student, tripped breakers and vapourized relay contacts and all the magical smoke let out never to be returned..... happy days hope you enjoyed it.... Atomic picture coz that was the Instructor in story #1

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Re: Capacitor, HAH !! I raise you 2 stories

The battery bank that supplied the training site ran a mini mechanical exchange and supplied power to all the buildings and could supply more than 600A without breaking a sweat.

That may have been it's "rated" capacity, but I bet it could supply considerably more (try adding a zero, or even 2 zeros) than that to a fault.

I did get told a story (so second hand, and unverifiable) about someone doing work in an exchange and dropping a crowbar across the DC buss bars. Before he could grab it, it turned dull red, bright red, bright orange, and then dripped onto the floor. For good measure, he got a bill from BT for recharging the batteries.

But given what I know about batteries, and the size of batteries used in large exchanges, the story is at least plausible.

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Re: Capacitor, HAH !! I raise you 2 stories

Can I raise you a 3rd story...DO NOTE: that I am NOT a degreed Electrical Engineer, merely knowledgeable enough to be dangerous! At a special computing facility which shall remain nameless but is located somewhere in Western Canada, we speared a rather large pork roast (40 lbs or 15kg+) onto a smaller-diameter copper alloy buss-bar and attached within the large 100 KV (aka 100 000 volts at probably 400 amps) industrial mains shunt switch circuit (which usually trips ONLY during a lightning strike or transmission line over-current situation!) and then flipped the very large fully manual test switch!

Let us say that our pork roast was BEAUTIFULLY AND PERFECTLY WELL DONE within 5.0 seconds.

And yes we DID have a nice bottle of our locally grown wine along with said roast! AND...it was NOT the first or last time we did our lunch roasts that way....!!! The key was to SOAK the roast in water first for a few hours with some spices and salt and let the quickly glowing-hot buss-bar superheat said meat within less than 5 seconds until it exploded into a non-conductive container we attached judiciously around the test subject! VERY TASTY i dare say! A Stooopid but DEFINITELY delicious test scenario!

P.S. The battery and generator backups kicked in during such test scenarios AUTOMATICALLY, so NO DATA or computing system was EVER halted or lost during said lunchtime escapade! We were MERELY running a Emergency Failover and Backup Test Scenario! ;-) :-)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Capacitor, HAH !! I raise you 2 stories

"[...] dropping a crowbar across the DC buss bars"

The 1960s EELM KDF7 was an industrial process control computer. It had an extremely large NiCD battery for power fail orderly shutdown. The battery terminals were two large studs with hexagon nuts to clamp the connection leads. The terminals were sufficiently close together to bridge them with a spanner. Apparently sufficient current would flow to weld the spanner in place.

One sat in the yard rusting for while having been salvaged from a fire. On being turned on again it reported the time of its failure.

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Re: Capacitor, HAH !! I raise you 2 stories

Ah, yes. Those happy days. We ware called in by the office administrator one day because her computer was "misbehaving." We inquired as to the specific bad acting and were informed that something "smelled bad." We could indeed smell hot electric somethings, but had our own, real jobs as well. So we remarked that we hoped her files were backed up, they were. We also told her we were happy to hear that she had not seen any smoke. She made some inquiry to which we informed her that "those ICs run on smoke. If it gets out they stop working." To which she sniffed contemptuously and snarled "no they don't." A very short while later she screamed quite loudly. We went running in to observe, or call emergency services, or laugh depending. She was standing up, backed against a wall. A thin wisp of smoke was drifting out of the louvers on the case. We broke out a screw driver and - after unplugging the beast - dismantled it. There, on the small processor board of a hard drive, in a largish chip was a small crater with a small amount of smoke lifting from it. We showed it to her and said, "see?"

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Capacitor, HAH !! I raise you 2 stories

Many years ago, for a high school class project, a friend and I built a railgun. (I'm kinda surprised that teacher didn't get fired...) To supply the high current, we needed a ton of capacitance on the cheap, so we got a couple trash bags of used, disposable cameras from 1-hour film developers, and proceeded to disassemble the cameras and desolder the capacitors - open the case, short the cap, then desolder. I handed a couple to my buddy while "accidentally" hitting the charge button... the screwdriver he was using to short the capacitor ended up with a chip out of the tip...

Finally, we had 150 electrolytic capacitors, mostly 150 uF each, rated for 300V+. (We checked; didn't want to make THAT mistake!) I had to go home, but he still had some time, so he proceeded to solder them to a pair of rails to make one massive capacitor bank. Then, to test it out, he hooked a bridge rectifier across the rails and plugged it into an extension cord. Apparently he got exactly ONE capacitor wired backwards. He said the bang and 3-foot column of flame was quite impressive.

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Finding fault capacitors with high current PSUs used to be the norm

Back in the early 80s when repairing old memory boards, at a time when 48 KB was a board about 2 foot square with a gazillion small decoupling caps and one of them was dragging the psu down

A quick application of a car battery to the 12v line would sort the men from the boys capacitor wise and reduce fault finding time no end

Note: No I can't remember what chips they were that needed a 12v line either - but certainly remember the process

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Boffin

Re: Finding fault capacitors with high current PSUs used to be the norm

4116.

+/- 5V, 12V.

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Mushroom

Re: Finding fault capacitors with high current PSUs used to be the norm

A quick application of a car battery to the 12v line would sort the men from the boys capacitor wise and reduce fault finding time no end

We'd do the same thing, except we used a 5V supply with the current limit turned off, so as not to overvoltage the chips.

Regarding "Alvin" in the original article:

He even managed to get the disk working again, by buying an identical drive and marrying its logic board to the platters from the dead machine.

He should get passing marks, simply for thinking of (and successfully doing) this!

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Re: Finding fault capacitors with high current PSUs used to be the norm

Sadly this no longer works since about 40GB drives I think, as they have specific configuration per pair of circuit board and platter pair.

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Re: Finding fault capacitors with high current PSUs used to be the norm

I have however done it with an XBox 360 optical disk drive.

This was to replace the mechanical hardware, the electronics being cryptographically signed and registered to each machine.

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Re: Finding fault capacitors with high current PSUs used to be the norm

Actually, it worked with Netapps up until around 15 years ago, with the Fibre Channel based drives in the old DEC StorageWorks contrainers on the F330s and F740 series filers. We had a triple disk failure in a raidgroup on a *very* important volume. I managed to pull the working circuit board from the drive making the scraping noises and put it onto the drive which just sat there doing nothing. And presto, the darn thing booted up again and served data again. There were alot of very relieved engineers that day since it held the main ClearCase database for the product the company made.

That was certainly a stressful day, since going to tape was going to take a *long* time no matter what with DLT7k drives to restore multiple terabytes of data. Ugh!

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Re: Finding fault capacitors with high current PSUs used to be the norm

"+/-5V, 12V."

Ah, good old NMOS. Absolutely had to have -5V applied before other voltages or it would fry.

I managed to fry several NMOS-based 8080 processors. Because of the flaky power supply I had hastily cobbled together. Rather expensive lesson.

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I always switch off at the wall now.

Instances from my own computer and friend's of PSU exploding spontaneously when PC off but left plugged in. Visible burn mark on the wall adjacent. PC assemblers using cheap PSUs doubtless to blame.

Personal best for stupidity; replaced capacitors on a flatscreen. Checked it worked while still in parts. Reassembled. Over-long or over-tightened screws on the VESA bracket at the back, shorted something out. Big bang when next switched on.

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Re: I always switch off at the wall now.

"Over-long or over-tightened screws on the VESA bracket at the back, shorted something out. Big bang when next switched on."

Or, more likely, screws got mixed up and short ones went in where long ones should go and vice versa. Been there, done that, and now always lay out the screws in the right order/pattern for putting them back in.

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Can't remember the product details but in the 80s/90s the relays we used in process control switch cabinets had a built-in fuse, one per relay. If it blew, a small cylindrical projectile would fire at high speed from the fuse towards the eyes of the technician standing in front of the relay bank.

A fuse cover had to be added to each relay.

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Boffin

top tip - If you've changed a capacitor that has blown, especially without really looking at why it blew, When you power the thing up dont get eyeball-to-cap to look for signs of heat , or noise.....

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Confetti

I was once close to a high voltage paper separater capacitor that blew up. The bang and the confetti were impressive. After the bang, the resulting shock/fear reaction, enhances the surreal effect of the confetti in the air.

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Many years ago

A friend, sadly no-longer with us, had a nervous breakdown whilst doing his degree - as part of his rehabilitation he was given some work in the medical sciences research bit of the nearby hospital (some of you may know a city has the mental hospital adjacent to a medical research campus). He was a bright guy but unfortunately had a compulsion to set knobs to zero, which was unhelpful.

As an attempt to cure him of this a bit of fake equipment was rigged up with a large enticing dial on it [this was in the 70s which explains a lot], set so that when it was zeroed, an enormous capacitor would explode. Apparently he covered the 10 metres to the door in a world record time.

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One more kaboom

Does any one remember the onl ISC 3651 desktop colour computer? One of the very first dsktop colour computers, it was an 8080 based machine offering a stunning 127 x 127 charagter based graphics capability.

It also had a power supply section designed by someone who thought it was a good idea to use el cheapo electrolytice capacitors, and that it would be great to have the rectified mains feed on a track running between the legs of one of those capacitors.

All went well until the inevitable day said capacitor gave up the ghost and pissed electolyte onto the PCB, straignt between the track and the ground pin of the capacitor.

Didn't 'arf make a big hole in the PCB.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: One more kaboom

Did a Google search - Intecolor terminal???

Fortunately as a YTS trainee, I wasn't allowed to work on high voltages

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Old news. I did that with vacuum tubes in high school.

In my high school electronics class, early '70's, we were breadboarding five tube AM radios. You know, real voltages and currents, not this wimpy low-voltage stuff. One team had to build in a fault and the other team had to troubleshoot it. My team member and I realized that most of the class was simply "troubleshooting" by looking at the physical layout of the parts and jumper wires on the breadboard.

So we laid out the parts so the radio worked but with the parts scattered all over the place. For example, the antenna was no longer in the upper left-hand corner and the speaker was no longer in the lower right-hand corner and the Intermediate Frequency amplifier was no longer in the center.

One of the changes we came up with was to place the tube plate load resistor right next to the cathode bias resistor. If you're never worked on vacuum tube stuff, the plate resistor had roughly 250 volts applied with several milliamps flowing through it. The cathode resistor was the exact opposite. It developed its potential (voltage) by the flow of the current through the tube. So it had very low voltage and its components, particularly the cathode bypass capacitor, was rated at a very low voltage.

Anyway, the power supply was up on a shelf and we didn't have long leads so the 250 volt plate wire was stretched like a guitar wire to the far end of the breadboard because we had re-arranged the parts layout. (All of the connections were uninsulated alligator clips <- important point).

While the other team was trying to find the fault by pushing and prodding, they bumped the taut plate power wire. Its alligator clip moved slightly and now also touched the cathode lead of the tube. Not only did this give them a second problem to find, it put 250 volts across the cathode bypass capacitor rated at 6 volts DC. The ammeter on that Heathkit power supply pegged out at 250 milliamps.

Why didn't the fuse in the power supply blow? Because we were always blowing those fuses through mistakes so we put in oversized ones. Why? Because the instructor yelled at us for using up his fuses, of course.

Fascinated, we watched that power supply push over a quarter-amp through that poor capacitor but nothing happened. After a few minutes the two of us decided to wander to the other side of the room so we would not be near the breadboard whenever what was going to happen happened.

A few minutes later, with the two "troubleshooters" hunched over that board and oblivious to the high current, a very, very loud bang occurred followed by non-flaming confetti. The two students fell off their metal stools to the concrete floor but fortunately neither were injured.Smoke filled the lab.

They and the instructor were very mad at us but since we were far away when it happened, we denied any knowledge. We looked over the breadboard and pointed out the short circuit we already knew about. No proof meant no suspension.

That capacitor did not shoot anyone's eye out but it easily could have. Lesson learned about wearing safety glasses.

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Anonymous Coward

Belfast, mid-80s

Things were mostly calmer then, but not always.

One afternoon a colleague had just finished some work on a PC, inserting a new card or something, plugged it in, and pressed the mains-on switch. Entirely by coincidence, at that very moment a car bomb left at the end of the street exploded without warning, ours was the closest building not to lose its windows. Took my colleague quite a while to get any colour back in his face...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Belfast, mid-80s

My mother was always very nervous about anything to do with electricity. One day I was fixing our TV. Plugged it into the mains - and there was a loud rumble and a cloud of smoke went up from the area's 132kv electricity distribution yard across the street. My mother was not convinced it was a coincidence.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Belfast, mid-80s

I had a former co-worker who liked to stand behind people doing electrical work, and clap his hands behind their head at the very moment a tool or multimeter lead would touch contacts...

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uninsulated alligator clips

on tube (testing) equipment, hilarious!!!!!!!!!!!!

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MOSFETs

In the 1980s I was in charge of an expensive instrument that had a DAC controlling a large electromagnet. It cycled from a high current to a low current every second or so. The controller had very large MOSFET power transistors switching about 40A Occasionally when the power wobbled the circuit would become unstable and the MOSFETs would explode. The sound was similar to a large calibre revolver report. As that happened every few weeks, until we sorted out the mains supply, that may be one reason why in old age my hearing is crap.

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Now this was a big bang!

Way back in the 70’s I was working in one of the Philips military companies who were involved in the Clansman Radio systems. To filter out all the noise from the tank power infrastructure they suppled a power conditioning unit. This consisted of some of the largest electrolytic capacitors around – they were about 15cm high and about 10cm round. One day the production staff had wire a couple of these the wrong way around. After being turned on in the test area a few minutes later there was an almighty explosion – not a bang, an explosion that shook the whole factory – and it was a large factory. Once the cloud of smoke had cleared everyone started looking for the remains of the test engineer. Just as we got close to the bench, a waving hand with a white handkerchief came up from under the bench - he had just managed to see the capacitors bulging moment before the explosion and dived under the bench. This is a true story.

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Joke

Re: Now this was a big bang!

this is the reg. there will be at least one dick who doesn't believe you....

writing "this is a true story" will only encourage them...

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Good shout El Reg. This should be a nice antidote to the occasional "user used CD drive tray as cup holder. Oh how we laughed" entries to On-Call.

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Coat

hey you stole my anecdote!

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Mushroom

A couple of incidents spring to mind

When in college doing electronic systems I think it was, there was this sorted of breadboarded stuff which was like lego with little diagrams of components on the back - you could plug them in to create a circuit so you had a visual representation from the top. Power was supplied by a separate box with lots of dials.

Whilst doing an exercise, there was a loud bang, looking round there was a mushroom cloud billowing to the ceiiling and across it whilst a student standing in front had a stricken look of terror on his face.

From this, we (the rest of his classmates) formualted the theory of random connections in electronis :)

Another incident when working was in a computer room early 90's and needing a monitor plugged into a headless PC. Designated monitor was on, so we thought, fine. Turned off, unplugged and plugged into headless PC

<FLASH><BANG!> - I was standing over the top of it when it bliew, the ensuing mushroom cloud billowed up and there was a frantic rush to find anything to dissipate it before it hit the smoke detectors in any kind of concentration!

That's not including the ICL 2900's that could be crashed by accidently banging into them (never done that) and EPO cable that was incorrectly labelled such that when an elecrician cut it because he thought iwas a power cable that was being removed, the whole DC went down.

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Boffin

Re: A couple of incidents spring to mind

"Like lego with little diagrams of components on the back"

Not one of these, perchance?

Gakken EX-150

I had one myself. Excellent it was.

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We had a batch of PC's once with duff auto voltage sensing power supplies...

Every so often one would set itself to 110 V US instead of the correct 230V UK. They were on desks back to back so some poor soul would be half asleep first thing in the morning when their colleague opposite turned their PC on....then rudely awoken by the loud crack of the PSU blowing a fuse 2 feet in front of them.....

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TITSUP

KABOOM : Kit All Broken Out of Malice.

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I remember in my days working as a teenager in the 90's in a local PC shop I put a floppy ribbon cable on one pin out (can't remember if it was to the side or just connected to one row of pins) and when I turned that PC on a few of the wires in the ribbon cable lit up like a light bulb.

A few years before that I remember putting in a random 4mb 72 pin stick of RAM into an IBM PS/2 model 70 and when turning that on the RAM caught fire and a thick, heavy, flow of purple smoke ran across the motherboard, onto the table and nearly made the floor before dispersing. That smelt nice.

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Joke

I'm truly surprised

...that no one else mentioned having "Dave Seville"'s voice ring angrily in their head:

"ALLLLLL-VVIIIIINNNN!!!"

(With apologies to the Bogdasarian family.)

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Mushroom

Re: I'm truly surprised

I was going to & still am going with

Alvin & The ChipSmokes!

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Mushroom

127V or 220V ?

My sister was working at a University Lab, as an undergraduate, and the place had gone under a major expansion and reform. Repainting, new furniture, more sockets, more lighting... the place was pretty much turned on 24/7 for lab experiments, except for illumination...

...but some sensitive lab equipment never survived the first weekend. And then 3 weeks in a row. Computers and more mundane gear as TVs survived without a problem.

So she asked a lift to complete an experiment on a Saturday, then we would go for lunch, so I waited for her to complete her task, and she explained the whole story. She turned off the lights and hell broke loose. Again.

We are not sure HOW the sparky managed to do it, but the 127V lights were somehow connected in series with all the power sockets...

As soon you turned all the lights off, all sockets would switch from 127V to 220V. I noticed literal sparks out of an empty socket when she turned the lights off, which shouldn't happen. At all.

A multi-meter and some turn-on-turn-off-lights later...

TVs and computers had multi-voltage PSUs and didn't give a damn about the voltage they were being fed... while the sensitive equipment, being really old, had fixed voltage PSU inputs...

I've never seen or heard of such a feat.

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WTF?

And the idiot award goes to...

When I was a lad I used to tinker with very basic electrical/electronic equipment including video recorders (when they used to cost more money in real terms). Friends mum had one that was being skipped as it had broken down, so I got my grubby paws on it.

Pulled out my trusty Voltmeter and tested power on the AC input side of the transformer. Then tested power on the output side. All ok.

And then my brain farted and I connected the Voltmeter *ACROSS* the transformer (1 pin on input, 1 pin on output). Despite previously seeing voltage on the output pins, my brain said something akin to "but is the power flowing correctly through the transformer". WTF?

Amazingly bright flash and a loud bang that left me temporarily deaf for around 5 mins. My glasses caught the main impact of the glass fuse - would have been much worse if I hadn't been wearing those.

That was the last time I ever worked on electronics. Gave me a very healthy respect for electricity.

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Silver badge

Re: And the idiot award goes to...

Say what...? As recounted, that would have been a non-event - assuming one of the sides is floating, you can't measure anything at all between two sides of a transformer, or indeed produce any kind of current flow, let alone an eventful one. At the very least, a voltmeter capable of measuring mains on the primary side should have had zero problems measuring across the sides of any transformer, regardless of what it was referenced to. I'm sure you did blow up something, but the details seem somewhat misremembered/understood...

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