A Little Bit of Knowledge

Have you ever been a little too overconfident in your own ability to perform a task? Discovery that you weren’t quite as knowledgeable or skilled as you thought is a very humbling experience.  You might find a little bit of knowledge is dangerous.

In the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, I was enrolled in the Mining Technology program at Pikeville College. (They no longer have this program since the decline of the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky.) One of the required classes, along with mining law, coal preparation, mine safety, rescue and first aid was mining electricity. Adjunct faculty for this course was a very successful electrical engineer.

Leave the electrical work for the experts

Leave the electrical work for the experts

As a class we studied schematics of circuits and I learned the meaning of such terms as ohms, resistance, voltage drop, circuits, etc. Prior to this course, my brain had never been “wired” to think about such complex concepts.   I struggled in this class and I was not alone. Fortunately, due to some group effort by those with the real aptitude and a lot of grace from my instructor, I managed to pass the course. If you quizzed me today on what I learned, it would be a short quiz. The most profound thing I took away from this course would not be realized until about 3 years later. I can personally vouch for the fact that “A little bit of knowledge is dangerous!” 🙂 Read on for my personal moment of revelation.

I’m a self-proclaimed connoisseur of good coffee and as you may know, all really good coffee must be brewed at an optimal water temperature of 195 – 205 F.   Life is far too short to accept cold, stale, or substandard coffee! I happened to have a Bunn coffeemaker at the time and it was not keeping my reservoir tank hot enough for that perfect brew. I thought this must be due to lime deposits on the inside element. I decided I’d just repair it myself. After all, I had taken a class in electricity. I knew how to do this. It would be a piece of cake!

I slowly disassembled the coffeemaker, trying to make sure I’d remember where each screw and part should be.  I recognized the problem immediately (or so I thought). I spent the next 2 hours scraping “lime” deposits off the heating coil. No wonder the coffeemaker wasn’t working! The heating element/coil looked to me like the spring inside a ballpoint pen. Only it wasn’t connected continuously. This must also be a reason my reservoir tank was not hot enough.  It simply wasn’t getting a good connection. So I “fixed” that too. I made sure the coils were all connected to each other in a continual loop.

More than two hours later, when I finally reassembled, I had only a few extra screws left over. The moment of truth always happens when you reconnect an appliance to the power source. I extended my hand toward the outlet, cautiously drawing back the rest of my body and turning my face away as I did so. At the moment the plug made contact with the outlet, there was a huge blue flash from the outlet.  No breaker was tripped, but I’m certain my heart skipped several beats! I should have had a ground fault breaker. (Thank God I didn’t attempt to “fix” that too! Otherwise my story might have made the evening news.) My heart continued to pound as I imagined I had just narrowly escaped electrocuting myself!

The moment of truth comes when you plug in to the power source!

The moment of truth comes when you plug in to the power source!

I immediately gathered up the remains of my seriously defunct coffeemaker (& the left over screws) and walked next door to ask my neighbor for help. He was an old retired coal miner with a lot of common sense and I thought he might tell me what I had done wrong).  I watched him slowly take it back apart, then suddenly he started getting a smug little smile on his face. He looked up at me and asked in a low voice that I’m sure was struggling to hold back laughter.

“Pam, do you know what they use porcelain for in electrical work?”

‘Yes, I sure do,’ I replied. ‘It’s an insulator.’

“That’s right.” He said.

“Do you know what all that white stuff was that you thought was “lime” on the heating coil? It was porcelain!” What you have here is a dead ground.

I learned two valuable lessons that day (after discarding my coffeemaker and investing in a new one):

1) A little bit of knowledge is dangerous

2) Leave all electrical work to the real expert electricians & electrical engineers!

The best stories are made when you learn to laugh at yourself! Confession is a good thing too. Surely I’m not the only one who has acted on “a little bit of knowledge.”  There’s another story I haven’t shared about the time I watched a video on installation of laminate flooring and thought I could do that myself too.  (After all, the woman in the video didn’t seem to be having a problem.)  Fortunately I realized I needed a real carpenter.   Feel free to (admit to) and share your own stories under the comments section. 

Pam Baker, RN



The quote “A little bit of knowledge is dangerous” is attributed to Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744). The reference is found in An Essay on Criticism, written in 1709. Lengthy as his essay was, the content is just as relevant today as it was over 300 years ago.






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