Monthly Archives: August 2014

Being creative in electronics as a hobbyist

I am not an Electronics Engineer. I am not officially trained and have no related certifications. I am however, what I would call “experienced”. I was introduced to electronics as a hobby in the late 1960’s as a kid in home where electronics was paying the bills, so to speak. My father was, at the time, an electronics systems technician working for a large military contractor.

It probably started the day I “went to work” with him and he showed me the project he was working on… It was a missile launch system loaded with cool control panels and of course, Nixie number indicator tubes.

So, at around age 13 or 14, I wanted to know how all this stuff worked. Unlike today, we had nothing like the Internet so find out how stuff worked involved going to the library and reading books or the magazines of day like Popular Electronics. My dad also had a collection of technical books and schematics that I would read over and over again.

So it started to become clear to me that a “designer” would use a collection of parts and arrange them in a particular way to take advantage of their physical “laws” to achieve a particular result. It also became clear that the characteristics of each individual part were as important as how they were assembled together. A particular device is chosen based on the effect it’s value and parameters have on the overall assembly. It sometimes became clear to me that some parts are chosen based on availability and commonality making them what the assembly is built around.

In my case, I started to understand schematics and the meaning of the symbols rather quickly. I also discovered that unless I truly know what a part does, I don’t try to design with it. This lead to the start of a collection of component “data books”. Logically, these are no longer produced as it requires dead trees and we are much better served by online PDF files known as “Data Sheets”.

So, what does it mean to be a hobbyist?

Well, we are actually able to willfully misuse parts in ways they were never intended to be used, which is a luxury a professional designer doesn’t have. We don’t have a boss looking over our shoulder saying “Is it done yet? We are on a schedule here!”. In short, we can play. We can be creative. We can build and not be driven by time constraints and production budgets. We can have fun.

Where to start?

1) Try to learn some electronics theory. Nothing too deep. You should not have to go far beyond learning OHMS Law to be good enough. Lot of web resources exist already
2) Sketch your ideas out on paper before starting on the breadboard.
3) A solder-less breadboard and some jumper wires
4) Datasheets are king. Don’t try to use a part, especially a transistor or integrated circuit without one
5) Get some tools. You can get a good “temperature controlled” solder station for as little as $14. Wire cutters, needle-nose pliers and solder-sucker are all also high on the list of “should have’s”. A cheap un-controlled “fire-stick” or a “gun” type soldering iron are unsuitable for electronics.

With that out of the way… what’s next?

Find what interests you. For example, even after 50 years, we still use discrete transistors. It is still a major building block in electronics. Learning how they work can be a fun adventure so I’ll tell you about how I learned about transistors. I found a book in the library about transistor “multi-vibrators” and not having a clue what a multi-vibrator was, I started reading it. It turns out, it’s a circuit family based on a design using at least 2 transistors with a feedback path where the state of one transistor affects the state of another. Such a nice place to start. I learned about R/C (resistor/capacitor) interaction and how it could create a time delay and how this R/C behavior could create an oscillator or a circuit that could extend a small pulse into a long one.

Thus began my long journey of learning something new nearly every day… and the start of a fun hobby.