I met this lovely man when I called a year or two ago to service his harpsichord. He brought me coffee in a shaky hand and I invited him to see if I had set up the instrument to his liking. He slowly sat at the keyboard, positioned his hands and played the J.S.Bach Italian Concerto perfectly. That's a moment I shall never forget - thank you Chuck.
In loving memory of the late Charles Schaffer who sadly passed away on 24th September 2014 aged 89 years.
From Andy Neuschatz (Nephew)
My uncle Chuck died last week, at 89 , and he was a pretty remarkable guy, so I'd like to tell you about him.
Chuck seemed to be born with an aptitude for things mechanical and electric. At age 13 he modified his electric train set--by making it voice-controlled. Imagine seeing a toy train respond when a kid said "go!" in 1938. It must have seemed like magic.
Next thing, he was building one of those newfangled radios that send pictures. It's lucky that he grew up in Schenectady, New York, since perhaps the only television signals in America at that time were the tests coming from down the road at General Electric, Thomas Edison's old lab.
Chuck had a major illness in his teen years that cost him most of his hearing in one ear. As hard as that was, it had two positive side-effects: It kept him out of World War II. And it sparked his lifelong interest in medical machinery. He spent his entire career as a biomedical engineer at the Albany Medical Center, for which he created all kids of new devices. One specialty was low-light cameras, which they’d use to look deep inside a patient’s eye without having to shine bright lights. I expect he could have patented and published left and right, but it just wasn't his nature to pursue that.
But somebody did take notice: he received a request for a low-light camera from, of all places, the Hughes Aircraft Corporation. They couldn't tell him what it was for... but they did say that it had to be watertight even under intense pressure.
Apparently his camera (which might or might not have been used to watch Soviet submarines) worked quite well, because Hughes requested another, and another, and another.
Twenty or thirty large checks later, Chuck’s father finally let go of the idea that his son should stop fiddling with gadgets and get a normal job in business.
As kids, my brother and I loved visiting his house piled high with fabulous devices. Here were his telescopes, over there was the 2-way radio where he'd talk to people on the other side of the world. I must admit, it seemed to me that when he made contact with somebody out in Japan or England, the only thing they talked about was what kind of radio they were using. I preferred our excursions on his beautiful mahogany boat, on which we'd explore the Mohawk River.
Inside his house, as you looked around at the electronics, you might suddenly hear a giant blast of music, as though you’re in a cathedral. That's just Chuck playing the enormous pipe organ that he installed directly into the walls. He never took lessons, just figured out the tunes for himself, so he never learned to read music. But play a Bach or Telemann piece for him once, and he’d play the whole thing back to you, every trill and bass chord. If he whistled it, you’d hear two notes at once.
Chuck taught me things from electronics to astronomy, but I think the main thing I learned is the joy of engineering, of looking for the simplest possible solution. I remember when he wanted his VCR (he was the first person around to have one, of course) to skip commercials when it recorded shows. He didn't have to set up a timer that held the schedule of commercial breaks, or something that would notice sudden changes of scene. He just made a sound sensor: when the volume jumped up, it stopped recording. Simple as that—because it turns out, commercials are loud. His device was pretty much always right. That’s how I try to do it: when I'm writing software, I always look for the simplest solution. I ask myself what Chuck would do.
Chuck had no kids of his own. But since before I can remember, he had the Weekend Gang, a bunch of kids from various families he knew. Every weekend six or eight of them would come over; he’d take them to the movies or out on his boat; at night we'd all roll out sleeping bags. As some grew up and moved on, others would take their place. I suppose this would raise an eyebrow in our more suspicious time, which is too bad. These kids were from pretty disadvantaged homes, and I’m sure he was glad to open new worlds to them. But mostly, I think, he just really liked kids. They had the same wonder he did, they liked playing with stuff, and everybody could make each other laugh.
Chuck found his true love later in life--or actually rediscovered her. His pal Gwyneth, from two trips to Wales when he was in his twenties, got in touch after many decades. Things between them took off immediately, and they were married a few months later. They split their time between homes in Schenectady (boat on the river), Southern California (view of ships in the harbor) and, later, Reedham, England (boats across the street in the canal). Gwyneth gave him the love and companionship he’d always needed, as well as—instantly—a grand family. He always spoke proudly of "our grandson" or "our great-granddaughter." He had his Weekend Gang all over again, times ten.
Chuck Schaffer lived a pretty unusual life, but he was no iconoclast. I just don’t think he ever considered whether he was doing things like other people. Most people who like music don’t install pipe organs in their living rooms. Most people who wish they had kids don’t think of borrowing a half-dozen of them each weekend. And that’s OK for them. But for Chuck, life was too full of interesting ideas. He just kept tinkering with them.
Thanks for reading.