[Image: Unrelated photo of an Ohio suburb, via the Library of Congress, altered by BLDGBLOG].
When most of the electronic car fobs and garage door openers stopped working in an Ohio suburb, the explanation was found only by systematically mapping the town’s electromagnetic landscape.
This involved tracking down stray power signals, then turning those signals off one by one to determine which of them had been interfering with the frequencies emitted by car electronics. It was like tuning a neighborhood back to radio silence.
I’m reminded of an anecdote about experimental musician Felix Hess, as described in David Toop’s excellent book, Ocean of Sound. Requiring a performance space bothered by no “extraneous sounds,” Hess soon found that total silence was an impossible goal. There were tiny noises everywhere.
“So first we turned off the air conditioner in the room,” Toop writes in his book, “and then we turned off the one on the second floor. Then we turned off the refrigerator and the electric cooking equipment in the adjoining cafe, the power of the multi-vision in the foyer, and the power of the vending machine in a space about ten metres away. One by one we took away these continual noises, which together created a kind of drone… Hess was very interested in this and said things like, ‘From now on maybe I should do a performance of turning off sounds.’”
This town in Ohio was like a Felix Hess performance recast as a police operation.
Eventually, it led to one particular house in the neighborhood where radio signal emissions were “extraordinarily powerful.” They were coming from a kind of amateur burglar alarm, “a homemade battery-operated device designed by a local resident to alert him if someone was upstairs when he was working in his basement,” we read. “The inventor and other residents of his home had no idea that the device was wreaking havoc on the neighborhood, he said, until [local resident] Mr. Glassburn and a volunteer with expertise in radio frequencies knocked on the door.”
In any case, I love the idea of this strange, invisible world of radio signals infesting our quietest, most domestic neighborhoods, of future potential conflicts simmering amongst neighbors with the installation of every new burglar alarm, every car fob, every wireless speaker, even every cutting-edge medical implant, of gathering storms of electromagnetic contamination causing suburban garage doors to freeze in place or shudder open at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Think of the bizarre story of Hulk Hogan’s back implant that allowed him to open garage doors from a distance, but now scale that up to a domestic comedy set in a town of retirees, all of whom are amateur home-electronics tinkerers, where every day is a new electromagnetic misadventure.
2 thoughts on “Fob Jam”
My father worked for the FAA hunting down interference in airport systems (http://www.airwaypioneers.com/showresume.asp?Mem_Nmbr=3612). One of the more interesting occurrences was when he narrowed a signal down to a phone pole with a transformer. Loose bolts in the cross-member had rusted causing a diode effect and were vibrating within the EM field of the transformer, thereby producing a signal that was interfering with nearby aviation navigation aids (I’m not an electronics engineer, but this is how I remember the explanation). The prevention was simply a matter of having electric companies direct their personnel to ensure they checked bolts for tightness any time the climbed a pole for maintenance.
Fascinating to imagine a single loose, or ill-fixed, bolt turning a pole into a transmitter. Thanks, Kris.