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Otaniemi, like coming back home

Tauno Voipio, godfather of the Electric Workshop course, believes in learning through doing.
Alumni Tauno Voipio kuvattuna Otakaari 1 -rakennuksen aulassa. Kuvaaja: Mikko Raskinen.
The place where their eyes met. The lobby of the A and B halls at Otakaari 1 is especially meaningful to Tauno Voipio because it is where he first met his future wife Marja. Photo: Mikko Raskinen.

It looks very different from what it was when I first came to the building, Tauno Voipio notes inside the renovated Dipoli. Back then, in winter 1966, he and other freshmen were carrying loads of planks used to cast concrete in the ballroom.

The planks were heavy and studded with nails, while the ballroom was cramped and difficult to navigate. Students would pick up a few planks at a time for others to carry out of the near-complete Dipoli, which was being built by the student union to serve as a venue for formal celebrations. First-year students had been assigned a few weekends of work to save on labour costs.

Tech student life

When Tauno Voipio started his computer science and electronics studies in 1965, the main building of the Helsinki University of Technology still smelled of fresh paint and all of Otaniemi was covered in scaffolding.

Once, when Voipio and his fellow students were leaving a calculation exercise class held in the hall of the main building, they noticed flames bellowing at the chemistry department construction site. The students rushed down the stairs to inform the caretaker of the situation. It took time to convince the dubious man that there really was a fire at the site, and the students considered thinking up a ruse to lure him away from his hut so that they could call for help.

Thankfully, the situation was resolved without resorting to ruses or pranks – something for which the tech student community was and still is famous for. Such antics only ever played a very minor part in Voipio’s life as a student, however, as his free time was taken up by tinkering with radios and cars.

At the student radio club, Voipio got to know a lot of people who would later work on the first Nokia mobile phones. And the car club’s defensive driving lessons came in handy later, when work took him on the road, sometimes covering as much as tens of thousands of kilometres a year.

From hobby to profession

Tauno Voipio’s career represents a coming together of his hobbies: radio technology, electronics and aviation. As a young boy, he liked to dismantle and reassemble various devices. He built his first radio as a 12-year-old and was the first member of his family to acquire an amateur radio permit almost 60 years ago.

Aviation has interested Voipio since childhood. As a boy, he entered a self-build model aircraft in a competition held at Helsinki’s old exhibition hall. But it took decades before he acquired a pilot’s license because of the glasses he has needed to wear since 14, and a plane crash his uncle was involved in, scaring his mother.

Voipio didn’t plan for a career in the aviation industry. That his hobby turned into a profession came as a surprise. Half by accident, he got involved with a radar project at Helsinki airport, and this launched a career spanning nearly three decades at the Finnish Civil Aviation Administration, where Voipio held various positions in administration, among other things. The airport’s runways, flight control, simulators and many other functions also benefited from Voipio’s interdisciplinary expertise.

His teaching career, which started with an assistant’s post at Otaniemi, later continued in the role of flight instructor at his own aviation school. 

The importance of working with your hands

In addition to building radios and model aircraft, Tauno Voipio’s hands have put together a lot of other things as well. His nimble fingers were good at playing the piano as well as at soldering minute electronics components. The Museum of Technology still displays a computer, which was built by a team including Voipio more than 50 years ago. It was the second computer recorded as made in Finland, although some imported devices had been in use, too. Voipio’s finger bears a scar as a memento of the assembly – the vacuum desoldering tool used to remove faulty components bit off a piece.

The spouses of the group involved in the computer assembly project came up with the term a computing minute. You never could tell whether tinkering with the device would take five minutes, an hour or the entire night.

This computer is the subject of many a story. When his children were teenagers, the family visited the Museum of Technology. The children were sceptical when the proud father revealed that he’d contributed to the building of the showcased computer. Only after they found his name mentioned in the computer’s reservation book did they believe he’d played a part in Finnish computing history, and still cheekily suggested that perhaps a glass display cabinet, with daddy in it, could be put next to the machine.

Children, grandchildren, family, friends, workmates and employees star in Voipio’s stories. And the turning point of his career is also associated with people. He was working in a technology firm when restructuring cut Voipio’s team so harshly that he felt unable to continue with the same company. The decision was also influenced by his teenage kids and his youngest child, who was just a toddler. Voipio’s sons have followed their dad into the technology sector, while his daughter is an expert in Nordic languages. His family has earned five tasseled caps and is also musically gifted.

His own godchild, the Electric Workshop

Tauno Voipio confesses to feeling a bit envious of today’s students. Aalto University’s Electric Workshop is precisely what he would have wanted his own studies to include in the 1960s: the opportunity to do tangible work with your own hands and learn through trial and error.

Participants in the Electric Workshop course are making a microcontroller. This project assignment utilises a very small computer and enables the students to test their learning in practice. Testing things in this way speeds up learning and requires participants to lean on knowledge that can’t be looked up on a screen.

Among other things, Voipio has donated start-up capital for the Electric Workshop. He wants to support the experts of the future because ‘Finland’s success requires us to do things better than the rest.’ And this means that we need to educate the right people throughout their lives.

Voipio is himself a good example of how pre-made plans don’t necessarily determine the direction of your career. Being prepared to constantly learn and practise new things in your life and career is essential. It is important that today’s students take these lessons onboard.  

‘The more you learn, the better you understand that there are so many things that you don’t know yet. You notice that every single day.’

Tauno Voipio looks out the window from Dipoli: at the green trees and red-brick buildings. The scenery is familiar, even though the campus has changed radically from when he studied here. Still, coming to Otaniemi is like coming back home.

Text: Riikka Hopiavaara.

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 25, October 2019.

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