children

Teen electrocuted while taking apart unplugged computer

Oct. 9, 2012 at 3:37 PM ET

In an activity familiar to any kid with a passion for electronics, the life of a 16-year-old boy in Shawnee, Kan., was cut short last month while he was taking apart a computer, stripping it for parts to build another.

"He was always kinda tinkering with computers," Capt. Dan Tennis of the Shawnee Police Department said of the teen, whose name wasn't released to the press. Capt. Tennis described the boy as "one of those kids," the clever type who'd often take apart all sorts of electronics and put them back together (or build entirely new things). A whiz kid. A true geek.

The details of the teen's death were reported by outlets including KCTV in Kansas after a police investigation. He died on Aug. 16. The official cause was deemed to be electrocution. 

This boy died while doing what he loves and what he'd done so very often — dismantling a computer — Capt. Tennis told TODAY.com. He'd done this often enough to know what he's doing and how to do it safely, the police officer said. Unfortunately, this last time he happened to get too close to the device's power supply. Maybe he was careless this once, maybe he was distracted, maybe he was just unlucky.

It's not known what exactly happened. We simply know that the boy's father arrived at home to find his child dead.

"People pull all sorts of parts, put in all sorts of parts," Tennis said, "and they're not shocked," explaining that it is unusual for someone to suffer a fatal shock while repairing or taking apart a computer. One would have to work on a component which retains a charge, such as the power supply. These components are typically covered in warnings and reminders of the looming danger.

Kyle Wiens, co-founder of repair site iFixit, echoes Capt. Tennis. "I don't think disassembling just a computer is a risk," he told TODAY.com. "Power supplies are a sealed box inside the computer that have additional high voltage stickers and warnings on them."

"Fundamentally these capacitors just store charge like a battery and can take a while to discharge," Anand Shimpi, editor in chief of AnandTech, adds. "That's why even after unplugging you can get yourself into trouble."

But Wiens emphasizes that "millions of people have built computers without anything like this happening."

"When stories like this happen, it's easy to become afraid of things we don't understand. But the future of our society depends on young tinkerers experimenting and getting excited about engineering," Wiens says. "Rather than telling people not to disassemble electronics, we should be teaching them about electricity and how to work with capacitors safely."

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