Hobbyist Electronics

I am sure I disappointed my dad growing up. He tried mightily to get me interested in electronics, even building many Heathkit projects with me. I remember an AM radio, and a few others, but for me it was boring, and as a pre-teen, I just didn’t get into it.

He had a Heathkit oscilloscope, and had built our hi-fi system from Heathkits, among many others. We had a B&W TV that often needed new tubes, and I recall taking tubes to the tester at the local K-Mart back before it became white trash shopping. But the bug never bit.

Perhaps it was because I came of age at the dawn of the personal computer, the rise of Apple, and my own affinity for the Atari 8-bit computers. Or, as described in the wikipedia link above, the advent of IC’s, and VLSI technology meant that the mainstay of Heathkit, the ability to save bucks building something following the instructions, over a pre-built product was waning. I’ll leave that to the guesswork and clarity of hindsight.

Of course, where I work I have peers and colleagues that went the other way, doing circuit design, and even IC layout work. But the nitty-gritty details never appealed to me.

There were some flashes. During my Physics degree, I had to take an electronics lab, and when we covered TTL circuits, it was clear that I knew more about boolean algebra than the professor. However, wiring the circuits seemed tedious, until we got to play with a single board computer. A 6502 based system, it was a lot like this KIM, and for the final in the class, we had to wire an Analog to digital converter, a digital to analog converter,read the input and output it backwards, and display it on an oscilloscope.

That was fun, and I think I completed the exercise in about 40 minutes, and walked out with an A in the class.

Much later in life I wanted to buy one of those boards, (they were about $150 when I was in school) but alas, they have become ridiculously expensive collector’s items. Perhaps I will build one one day…

Circling back to today, there is a lively trade in hobby electronics. Instead of hand wiring your own boards from bags of components, and chips, or learning to wire wrap, you can start with some well defined and well supported building blocks.

For those who want a more multipurpose computer experience, the Raspberry Pi is a great foundation, for about $40 you can get a fully functional PC, with very flexible GPIO block, and a huge space of projects and tutorials. I remember having an A to D and D to A module for my 8 bit Atari back in the day, and this is a lot like that.

For those who have a bit of a lower level view of the world, Arduino provides a micro-controller platform that is approachable, if not as novice friendly as the Raspberry Pi.

Perhaps, had these been around when I was a teenager, I would have caught the bug. Better late than never.