How I got my MIT 6.004 nerd kit past airport security

As an undergrad at MIT in the late 80s, in my Digital Design and Computer Architecture courses we actually built stuff using discrete TTL parts on high-end protoboards with integrated power supplies. At MIT these lab kits, ubiquitous on campus because of the large size of those intro courses, went by the moniker nerd kits.

My vintage ~1987 nerd kit had been sitting in storage in northern New Jersey pretty much since graduation, so during my 4th of July weekend visit, I decided to repatriate it to my home in San Francisco, where I have a small collection vintage computer equipment.

You can see why I was apprehensive about getting through airport security, worrying about what a TSA security screener might think this is:

My vintage (c.1987) MIT 6.004 nerd kit

I left plenty of extra time to check in at Logan Airport. As expected, after it went through the conveyor X-ray, it was pulled aside to the separate station where they swab things to make sure they’re not bombs. I assured him that I was a computer science instructor transporting a piece of vintage teaching equipment, there was nothing dangerous or sharp in the case, and he was free to open, examine, and do whatever else he wished for as long as he needed to, and that I’d be happy to answer any of his questions.

When the TSA security tech opened the cover, a gentleman next to me who had been observing the proceedings said: “I see you have a nerd kit.”

I was stunned, since this immediately meant he not only had an MIT connection, but had probably had one for a long time, since kits like these haven’t been used at MIT since at least the 90s. He looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place him. I asked how he knew what it was.

“I taught using those back in the 80’s,” he said. ”I assume you took 6.004.”

Me: “Yes, and I won the design contest, which is why I got to keep this. But you weren’t teaching that class when I took it, in 1987.”

Him: “Ah, yes. I was teaching 6.001 around that time [a rigorous entry-level software course].”

Finally it clicked who he was, and I lit up. ”You’re Rodney Brooks! I didn’t recognize you with short hair, but when I took 6.001, you taught my recitation section and you were really great! Of course, you taught thousands of students so I wouldn’t expect you to remember me.”

Brooks: “Hmmm…and your name is…?” I told him. ”Oh yes! Sure I remember you! You’re faculty at Berkeley now, right?” Then he turned to the security guy swabbing my nerd kit: “It’s OK. I taught this guy when he was just a boy.”

The security guy closed up the nerd kit and sent me on my way.

Stranger than fiction.