The Last Electronics Project I Completed

A Bad Time to Have a Prop-Making Fake Bomb Lab

By Timothy M. O'Brien
September 11, 2009 | Comments: 2

During the Summer of 2001, I spent a great deal of my time thinking about bombs: how to build them and how to make them look authentic. No, I wasn't a terrorist, I was a prop maker for an advertisement produced by a friend of friend, a filmmaker named Dave and his partner Ben who wanted me to develop a series of spy-themed devices, including a fake bomb, during the months of July and August.

The Toy Company

The original plan in early 2001, was to find some use for my EE degree. I had been working at a series of dot coms for two years, and the irrational exuberance of those years was wearing thin. I thought it was time to find a way to capitalize on all that dormant knowledge of capacitors, integrated circuits, and VLSI. My original plan was to start a small toy company on my off hours and see if I could come up with a few ideas. For months, I tinkered around with Basic Stamps and USB controllers. I started working on a USB controlled DEFCON indicator that we could use to reflect the state of our production network at work. After a few months, a friend of mine connected me with a filmmaker named Dave who needed someone to design and develop some electronic props.

The Asssignment

The assignment was to make a bomb prop that looked realistic and which featured a fake plastic explosive and a count-down timer. "Think Tom Cruise. Think Mission Impossible." were the instructions. The filmmaker had very little input other than, "make it look cool, I want something reminiscent of a proximity sensor from Aliens, and I also want something that looks like a bomb with a timer". This was an ad for a hardware manufacturer (who will remain unnamed) who was releasing a new series of Unix-based servers. It featured two operatives, trying to break into a machine room, only to be amazed at the sheer computing power of the new "XYZ" server.

I was hesitant at first, I thought a bit about it... wasn't sure I wanted to get into the business of making fake bombs, but the price was right and I figured that this side job would help me get some of the equipment I needed to start designing electronic toys. I took the job, and I got into it. I'd make some fake bombs, and in the process subsidize my electronic experiments. Why not? My girlfriend was out of town for a few weeks, and I had a large apartment in Manhattan's Chinatown all to myself, I could use my balcony as a great place to solder and work on the props.

The Devices

It took me a few weeks to hone in on some specs and technology, but in the end, I delivered three devices. In the process of coming up with a design, I must have rented and watched just about every spy and action movie that contained a bomb-like prop. I really got into the process, and like a method actor, I tried to put myself in the mindset of someone building these devices. The bomb-like device had a countdown timer, a blinking blue LED, and springy metallic-looking coil attached to a block of grayish clay. The "proximity sensor" device was a 16x16 LED array that swept a bar vertical, then swept a bar horizontal, then lit a single LED. I tried to make these devices programmable so that the film-makers had a few parameters to alter during the shoot, and I also delivered an interesting "data sniffer" device which tried to convey the sense that the "spies" in the ad were sniffing packets.

To complete the project, I over purchased from Mouser by a factor of five. I got seriously carried away purchasing LEDs because I wanted to have more LED options than I needed. Once I figured out what I needed to build, I drew circuits, modeled everything with pencil and paper, and drew out a board on ExpressPCB. Paid a couple hundred for a rushed printed circuit board, waited a couple days, made sure I had all the parts, and once the boards arrived, soldered for two days straight on my balcony with an expansive, breathtaking view of the Trade Center towers.

Projects like this almost never go as planned, I blew up a few (ridiculously fragile and expensive) Basic Stamps, and fully realized just how little I remembered from my circuits classes. It is never the logic that got me, it was always power management and wiring, I hate wire wrapping and I'm awful at soldering. I was also surprised by how much work is involved with finding the right enclosure and mastering the art of cutting metal. I ended up charging about two grand and spending most of the money on parts from Mouser, you can see the devices in the following slow motion captures of the advertisement.

No, you can't see the bomb device, the company that sponsored these videos, canceled the series later that year, and that particular episode was yanked.

Starting to Have"Questions"

Things are going great, I'm being paid to dig into the 'Art of Electronics' and I'm starting to make cool looking spy gadgets and a fake bomb... If you've ever been paid to make fake bombs (which I'm reasonably sure that most of you haven't) you might understand that it brings up some interesting issues and questions about law.

Halfway through the effort, I started to ask myself (and others around me) interesting questions about what I was doing. "Um, hey, so I'm making these props for Dave. He wants a bomb with a countdown timer. I'm ordering all of this equipment from Mouser and drawing all these diagrams. At first it was interesting, but now I'm wondering if I need some sort of license or permission to do what I'm doing. If someone saw my bedroom right now, I'd probably be whisked off to jail and charged with something. ". (This was in August)

  • What happens if the property manager needs to fix my radiator and stumbles in on this prop-making lab? Do I need to tell them what I'm doing? How exactly do you tell anyone about this?
  • Are the neighbors going to wonder what this reclusive guy with the dremmel tool and soldering iron is doing on the balcony?
  • How exactly am I going to transport this faux bomb to the studios in Midtown Manhattan on the Subway?
  • Do I need a license to do what I'm doing? If your job is to make fake bombs that are designed to look real, should you be in contact with law enforcement?

One month into the project, out for a drink with my friend Rock... "Shit, if it is this easy to make a fake one, I don't feel safe. This project is making me aware of things I'd rather not be aware of." I started to become more aware of terrorism in the news. I found it interesting how easy it was to do what I was doing, and I was worried that others were doing the same with completely different intentions. These weren't things I wanted to consider, I lived in Manhattan, and the fear of something happening in Manhattan was always there for me - I remembered watching TV when the '93 bombings happened, and I worked right next to the trade center for a few years at my first job.

I think my prop bomb-making amplified a fear I already had. (I've been known to worry, the meaning of the name Tim is: "To fear God", and while I certainly don't fear God, I'm am generally "fearful". There might just be something my name's original meaning.)

Delivering the Device

The day of the shoot in late August, I prepped and tested the device in my lab, made some final tweaks to make sure that it would still operate, and packed some tools and a voltmeter in the bag just in case something came loose during transport. The device had some "issues" mostly due to the fact that there was some cranky connections and initialization issues with the registers that drove the LEDs. After a week of testing, some of the LEDs stopped working and the devices ate 9 volt batteries faster than I thought possible. Either there was a short somewhere or I just was lighting that many LEDs, it would eat through a 9 volt battery in about a minute.

I threw everything into a suspicious looking, tattered duffle bag from college, and got on the F train northbound. I'd have to switch at 4th to a train that would take me to Midtown West, where the studio was. It wasn't going to happen, but I had already thought about what to say if I was stopped for any reason. I have to say, I felt a little nervous carrying a fake bomb on a subway train. I get to the studio, Dave and his partner are readying for the shoot. I give him the device and a lesson in how to operate the (increasingly uncooperative and delicate) blinken lights device. I don't stick around for the shoot, and I return to my apartment exhausted and not interested in electronics for the next few weeks.

Eventually, Dave sends me some of the footage and a link to the advertisement. It looks great, the production and acting is really professional, they've used the devices in several different ways. The ad happens to be about a product I would personally use (a Unix server) so I find the whole thing interesting. It was a five part series that was eventually pulled, but you can see excerpts at Dave's web site.

The Aftermath

In the weeks after the project was finished, I'm telling my friend Rock that I'm burnt out on electronics. I joke with him that "my days as a bomb maker are over". A few days later the towers were hit, and my balcony, my workspace, became a front row seat to the Apocalypse.

On the same patio furniture that I had used to solder the last circuits for my fake bomb, I witnessed real destruction that I can still see very clearly to this day. Even years after that event, I still go to lengths to avoid being exposed to images on the news on anniversary. I've always wondered if I had a more difficult time coming to terms with the events of that day because I had had this strange side-job that put me in this odd state of awareness about terrorism. The project was over, but I was still thinking about the assignment and the questions I had about if it was legal and what it meant to "make" something like this.

After the attack, I thought about cleaning up my apartment so that it wouldn't look too suspicious, but things happened faster than I can remember that day. 20 minutes after the towers fell, a distressed stranger from the stock exchange was washing trade center dust from his eyes in my bathroom sink. He thanked me and left, too busy to notice all the strange electronic equipment, and it was becoming clear that I also had to evacuate north and find my way to a boat that would take me to Jersey. I witnessed an F-15 do an Immelman above the Empire State Building (which I'll have to say is the loudest thing I've ever heard), it was a crazy, awful day. I had to leave my apartment, camouflaged military transport trucks were pulling up in front of Rutgers and East Broadway, and an ominous cloud of dust was drifting closer to my apartment.

I left my suspicious prop making lab intact, and it was a constant source of worry as the world changed that day. On Monday, I would have told just about anyone that I had had a strange assignment to fabricate a fake bomb prop in my apartment. On Wednesday, my apartment was in the middle of a evacuated war zone. As I returned to my apartment from Jersey three days after the attack, I had to pass through several layers of ID verification just to get to my apartment, and everyone was paranoid about what was coming next.

Tuesday, September the 11th, 2001 was not the day to have a fake bomb-making lab in your Lower Manhattan apartment, and I wonder if any other makers had similar thoughts in the days after the attacks - "I've got a weird lab that would be tough to explain."

The First Thing I Did

Days later, when I got back to my apartment. The first thing I did was clean up that lab and get rid of any diagrams that even hinted at the product of my former side job. It wasn't the electronics that worried me the most, it was my notebook. Unless you knew who I was and what I was doing, that notebook was indistinguishable from the real thing. Scrawled in the margins, "this needs to look real!", "can I get the seven segment to speed up the closer the countdown gets to zero?", and "this needs to look a little homemade to be authentic, it can't look factory produced = make the metal cuts a bit ragged"...

Before 9/11 I was concerned about even working on that job, after 9/11 I was realistically freaked out that someone would stumble upon my lab and that I'd be whisked away to some detention center to be interrogated by Jack Bauer. After the events of 9/11, I wouldn't take the same job for a million dollars. I'm now almost certain that possessing a fake bomb is illegal even if you don't have any intention of "placing" it. Maybe it was a totally irrational paranoia at the time, maybe it wasn't.

Note: Some people have read this and asked me what I was "trying to say". I'm not trying to say much, just capturing the odd intersection of chance and how it affected me on that day. I never wrote this down in eight years, partly because I've never wanted to think about 9/11 on 9/11, enough time has passed that I can think about that day without reacting. What an awful day. Now, I'm going to go back, turn off the TV, and get back to work. Maybe it is time to get back into electronics?


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2 Comments

I can understand what you're saying, even though I didn't experience anything close to what you did. I grew up a military brat and I love to write. As a teenager, one of the things I did for the fun of it was to check out from the base library some books on nuclear physics, nuclear weapons, and military vehicles. From that I drew up a detailed plan to wipe out the top layers of our government, the Constitution, The Bill of Rights, and the Library of Congress. That plan was going to be used to provide the scenario data I would use in my book. By the time I got the planning done, I was really scared about letting anyone even see that stuff. I'm sure now that there were tons of holes in my plans, but at that time and given my age it just seemed so feasible that I was afraid someone would find my detailed plans and utilize them to accomplish in the real world what I was planning to write as fiction.

I think the plans only lasted two weeks after completion before I burned them. I still remember those plans, they still seem feasible, but there is no way I can write such a story in that genre any more, or at least not comfortably. And after 9/11...I'm not sure I ever will.

great to see such work, god bless you

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