Shelly Palmer

Could You Tell a Clock from a Bomb?

A homemade digital clock and a homemade bomb might share several component parts. Both devices might include a timing circuit, a display, a power supply, some switches, a radio (WiFi, Bluetooth or RF), a bunch of wires and some kind of housing or case. There are, however, some nontrivial differences. As a rule, homemade digital clocks do not contain detonators or explosives. That said, a time bomb needs a timer, and a homemade digital clock would do that job nicely. So could you tell the difference between the two devices? Could you tell a clock from a bomb?

The Maker Movement

I don’t know if Ahmed Mohammed, the 14-year-old arrested for bringing a homemade digital alarm clock to school in Texas, is a “Maker” (the maker culture is a technology-based extension of DIY culture) or just a geeky kid who likes to solder. It doesn’t matter. Is it possible that he’s the only kid in Irving, Texas, who knows how to build an electronic device? And, more importantly, when Ahmed said it was a clock, how is it possible that no teacher, law enforcement officer or just plain adult knew what they were looking at?

If you attend a maker faire or a science fair or just hang out with a few geeky kids, you are going to find all kinds of homebrew and hacked electronics. Don’t they have science fairs in Texas?


In practice, most of the people I work with could easily tell a homebrew digital clock from an improvised explosive device (IED). With the smallest amount of training (or common sense), you could tell the difference, too. Certainly any science, math or engineering teacher should be able to tell the difference at a glance. And if the English teacher who freaked out on the kid really didn’t know what she was looking at, surely the law enforcement officers should have instantly known the device did not contain explosives.

He Didn’t Build It!

True enough. Looking at the picture, I think this is the guts of a 1980’s vintage Micronta 63-765A. The large LED segmented display and the location of the buttons on are my basic clues. I’ve created a composite picture in Photoshop – see my letter key below:

A – The snooze button
B – Four switches (Hour, Minute, Time, Alarm)
C – Alarm
D – Dimmer
E – LED Segmented Display
F – 9v Battery Backup Clip
G – AC Power Supply
H – Ribbon connector (commercial part – pretty hard to find)
I – Printed circuit board (commercial part – not much hand soldering here – so not much hacking done)

That said, taking stuff apart and putting it back together and goofing around with it is key to understanding how stuff works. Professionals call it “Reverse Engineering.” Some call it “hacking.” It doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s a common behavior of every curious person I know. What is this thing? How does it work? Could I build it? Could I make it better?

It Was A Briefcase Filled With Wires!

Nope! Look at the LED screwed into the case (Letter E in the previous picture). It fills the space edge to edge. This “briefcase” is not a briefcase at all, it’s a Vaultz Locking Pencil Box, 8.25 x 5.5 x 2.5 Inches, Black (VZ01479) which you can get at Amazon. This is literally the size of a paperback book.

A Hoax Bomb

They arrested Ahmed for having a “hoax bomb.” But where was the fake explosive? Where was the fake detonator? Did he threaten anyone? Did he say, “Hey… look at the bomb I made”? He said it was a clock and they took him out in handcuffs.

Was This Ahmed’s First Day At This School?

Is this the first time Ahmed Mohamed ever met his teachers? If he’s a geek/tinkerer/hacker-type (and he sure looks like one), the kind of kid who builds stuff and likes science class, wouldn’t you expect the teachers to know he wasn’t a threat? Clearly something else is afoot.


A few years ago I visited a nonclassified installation called JTCOIC, which is an acronym for the U.S. Army’s Joint Training Counter IED Operations Integration Center. I will never forget the first thing the executive in charge (a retired General Officer) told me: “IEDs pose the greatest threat to our military and civilian operations.” It wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it. The deck that was presented to me opened with this slide.

Looking at the picture in the middle of the slide, I asked, “Isn’t this racial profiling?” He said, “Racial profiling is a civilian concept. We’re in the military. This is the enemy. Our job is to hunt him down and kill him before he kills us.” He said it with a steely conviction that haunts me to this day.

JTCOIC was a virtual reality training facility built to help JIEDDO (the Joint IED Defeat Organization) train and prepare our joint forces to protect themselves from IEDs. It had a very specific three-part mission: Attack the enemy network, defeat the enemy devices, and train our forces.

While the type of training JTCOIC specialized in is not available to the general public, if the people of Texas believe that IEDs are a threat in their state, training is available for its employees and public servants. The Internet is a good place to start. Arresting 14-year-old clock makers? Not so much.

STEM Is Super Important!

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills are critical to our future. We need to teach our children to dream about what is possible and strive to answer questions that may seem impossible. Inquisitive, aspirational young minds are a national treasure, and while I do not know Ahmed Mohammed, he’s the kind of 14-year-old kid I’d love to meet.

The hash tag #IStandWithAhmed was trending on Twitter the other day. Everyone took sides. If people need this to be a racial or a political issue, so be it. To me it is neither; it is a referendum on the quality of our teachers, the quality of the curriculum and our serious lack of vision for the future.

Make a Clock!

Ahmed, I know everyone in the tech world (and the president) has invited you to meet with them. I’d love to meet you too, but what I’d really like to do is honor your aspirations by asking everyone to organize some after-school groups or clubs that promote STEM education. Make a clock. Roll up your sleeves, get a soldering iron, get some components and make one. Here’s a how-to article from Popular Science and here are 12 clock kits you can buy from Maker Shed. Then bring it to work or school and show everyone what you’ve learned. Then send it to the board of education in Irving, Texas. Someone needs to take them to school!