Electronic Design

Whatever Happened To The Electronics Hobbyist?

Electronics used to be one of the greatest hobbies ever. There were literally hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of people who used to play around with electronics as an avocation or part-time interest and activity. There were at least a dozen magazines supporting this group and plenty of parts and kits suppliers to keep them happy. Kids learned electricity and electronics in school. As a result, when they ended up getting the bug, they ended up not only adopting electronics as a hobby, but also made it into a career. You don’t see too mach of that going on anymore. So what the devil happened to the electronic hobbyist?

I started playing around with old radios in junior high and got interested in ham radio. I built the classic crystal radio and was able to hear a couple of local AM stations. My next-door neighbor and I strung a two wire cable we found in a vacant lot between our two houses and used our ear phones to make a simple telephone...by accident. What a thrill. Then my dad gave me his old Hallicrafters S-38 shortwave radio. That really did it. I was hooked. A local police officer gave code and basic electronics lessons to my neighbor and I after school, and we eventually got our novice ham licenses. We built tube transmitters to go with our receivers and had a ball on CW. I eventually went on and learned electronics in college, got a degree, and became first a technician, then an engineer. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I suspect that my background is similar to many of yours. But that path from hobbyist to engineer is disappearing—if it hasn’t already dissolved entirely. The hobby aspect of electronics seems to have gone away and thereby virtually eliminated one of the best sources of new engineers and techs. But why has this happened?

What Is a Hobbyist?

First, let me clarify what an electronic hobbyist is. I define an electronic hobbyist as someone who enjoys learning more about electronics by building, and in some cases designing, electronic devices. In the days of tubes and discrete transistors and components you could easily build a radio receiver, transmitter, or some other gadget for a few dollars. If you couldn't design it yourself, you could go to one of the many monthly magazines like Popular Electronics, Radio-Electronics, Elementary Electronics, Electronics World, QST, and Nuts & Volts and find a project of interest. And for those who didn't want to venture out too far on their own, there were the kit manufacturers. The king of kits was Heathkit, of course, but there were a bunch of others way back when like Eico and Allied (Knight kits) and a whole slew of smaller ones.

Typical hobbyist projects ranged from a few simple parts to really elaborate complete pieces of equipment like a power supply, audio amplifier, communications receiver, or photo timer. When ICs came along in the 1970s, experimenting really took off. You could build even more elaborate devices with better performance, thanks to op amps and digital ICs. Experimenters went wild. At least 108 projects were based on the 555 IC timer. Later in the 1970s, the microprocessor came along and the personal computer kit came on the market. That set off a whole new wave of experimenting and started a whole new industry. Another batch of magazines like Byte, Interface Age, Kilobaud, Creative Computing and a few others offered lots of projects to build and ushered in a whole new dimension...software and programming.. Many electronic hobbyists became computer hobbyists—what we called hackers back then.

There were all sorts of electronic hobbyists. Hams probably dominated the category as they were a serious bunch simply because you had to get an FCC license to play in that arena. They built their own transmitters, receivers, antennas, keyers, test equipment, and lots of other accessories. There were also audio hobbyists who dabbled in hi-fi and stereo equipment, speakers, etc. Radio-controlled airplanes and boats were also popular. And one unique category of electronics hobbyists was that bunch who could fix not only their own TV sets, but their neighbor’s as well. Take the tubes down to the drug store, test them, buy new ones, and away you go. And I suppose you could put CBers into this category...the breaker, breaker…10-4 good buddy crowd.

In short, electronic hobbyists built things either from scratch, from plans, or a kit. They made accessories, gadgets, toys, and all sorts of other entertaining things. It was a satisfying process to see what you made actually work or solve some useful problem. And you learned a little more each time you did it.

So What Happened to the Hobbyist?

The hobbyist has not disappeared entirely. But the ranks have thinned considerably. I suspect that today there are probably less than a quarter of the hobbyists there used to be. My best guess is that the hobby era peaked sometime in the 1980s. Most of the magazines died out by the early 1990s—the same time most of the kit companies started to fade away. The demise of those businesses directly affected the number of current and future hobbyists and engineers.

The number one reason why the electronic hobbyist has declined in number is...the integrated circuit. If you are not buying this, consider the following. In the beginning, ICs made electronic hobbying fun and productive. You could build ever larger and more complex things without extensive knowledge. But ICs, on their way to fulfilling Moore's law over the years, got smaller in size (but with larger transistor counts). Digital speeds increased from a few MHz to over hundreds of MHz and today many GHz. Analog circuits also got higher performance and operated at higher frequencies. Packages got smaller and the ICs with pins for through-hole PC boards (PCBs) have evaporated. Surface mount ICs are the norm today, as are surface mount discretes that are about the size of a piece of rice.

Have you ever tried to breadboard a circuit or build a project with surface mount parts? Fun isn't it? You need tweezers, a magnifying glass, and a tiny heat-controlled soldering iron. And with pin spacings of a mm or less, it is easy to short out a few pins or miss a pin entirely. And how do you solder a ball grid array IC? Yes, there are ways to breadboard with these parts. Neal Greenberg of SchmartBOARD sent me a few samples of their breadboard products that really facilitate the soldering of surface mount parts for experimentation. (www.schmartboard.com.) This size and build problem was foremost in killing home built projects. Even today, the few electronic experimenters still around routinely use many of the parts from yesteryear with pins that can be soldered or plugged into breadboarding sockets. Why are there so many 555 timers, 741 op amps, and 7400 TTL projects even today when in real modern electronic products these parts have disappeared long ago?

Another problem is that as ICs got larger in scale (not size), it became more complex to make a product. Instead of simple projects you could build whole systems. That left many of the novices in the dust, as there were few real engineering types willing build the big systems.

Another factor was the emergence of massive cheap off-shore manufacturing. This meant you could buy ready-built products cheaper than you could buy the parts and build one yourself. A good example is a power supply. Even a complex switch mode supply for a PC cost less than $30 bucks. Why bother with building your own? Lots of products turned out like this, especially computer-related boards and modules. No wonder the kit companies went away.

One other problem is test equipment. At one time you could test what you built with a volt-ohmmeter and maybe a cheap 5 MHz single channel scope. Signal generators, power/SWR meters and counters were pretty inexpensive and you could even build your own. But today, you need a scope with a bandwidth of up to 1 GHz, a logic analyzer, and maybe even an AWG. With typical prices over $10k each, what hobbyist could afford them?

Anyway, you get the picture.

But the large scale ICs had another affect. It allowed manufacturers to create whole new families of exciting and useful products like cell phones, MP3 players, DVDs, and laptop computers. How do you get a 10-year-old kid excited about receiving an AM radio station on a crystal radio if he already has his own cell phone, MP3 player, and TV set? Boooorring... Although if you can get a 10-year-old to build a crystal set, I have found that the "Eureka effect" of having made something yourself that actually works, simple as it is, still yields a positive, confidence-building end result.

Where Are We Today?

Yes there are still some of the electronic hobbyists I described active today. Their nature has changed considerably, but they still like to build small projects with older parts. And there are a few kit companies still out there to serve them (Ramsey, Elenco, Kelvin, Jameco, and a few others). There seems to be three distinct concentrations of hobbyist: amateur radio hams, those who like robots, and the new breed of hobbyist that builds projects with embedded controllers. The hams are a big category. There are about 650,000 hams in the U.S. and about 3 million worldwide according to Allen Pitts of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for ham radio. Of those 650,000, I suspect that over half are what we generally refer to as "appliance operators." These are the hams who buy all their commercial gear and really don't get into building equipment. The remainder are indeed true hobbyists, as they do build, design, experiment, and get involved at a greater depth with the equipment. The ARRLs publications (QST and QEX) are probably the best electronic hobbyist magazines available. (www.arrl.org)

The robot crowd has been around for a few years. It all started back in the 1980s with a robot interest group spinning off from the computer hobbyists. Then the Heathkit Hero robot came along and created a stir that has grown year after year. The Battle Bots competitions on TV also turned many on to this hobby of building and playing around with robots. There are lots of kits available, many of which are used as teaching platforms in some colleges. The Lego robot platform is a super product that is a toy and a serious learning tool. The robot guys even have their own magazine, Servo.

The embedded controller bunch is a growing category that attracted some of the older hardware crowd, but also a new batch of hobbyists who are more akin to programmers than electronic engineers. Since every electronic product has an embedded controller today, it makes sense for hobbyists to pursue such projects. There are tons of cheap development boards, kits, and other stuff to make things interesting. The premier magazine serving this group is Circuit Cellar. Nuts & Volts magazine, about the only surviving generic electronic experimenter magazine, also covers embedded controller projects.

The "Systems" Hobbyist

There is also what appears to be another kind of electronic hobbyist emerging. This is what I refer to as a systems hobbyist. Systems hobbyists buy and experiment with every electronic gadget. They might be fascinated with FRS (family radio service) two-way radios for example. They have surround sound audio systems and were probably the first in their neighborhood to get the big screen HDTV, TiVo, satellite TV dish, and all the other related stuff. Or they do shortwave listening or experiment with the new HD, XM, or Sirius satellite radios to their car. These people also do geocaching with their GPS receivers and install 400-W stereo systems in their trucks. Others hook up their MP3 players to their stereo systems. Some install their own home security systems. PC gamers are in this category with their hyped up super computer-level PCs with graphics that will blow you away. Anyway, they are the non-ham equivalent to an appliance operator. They work strictly at the system level, but still need a general understanding about what goes on inside these devices. They connect stuff together and make it work. They hang around at Best Buy and Circuit City rather than Radio Shack. It is fun stuff. Yikes, what I just described is all the rest of us. The consumer electronics person.

Consumers are more enamored of their electronic devices than ever before. The whole consumer electronics space has grown horrendously over the years. And we all own more electronic products than ever. I guess that does make us all electronic hobbyists of a sort.

Am I an experimenter? I actually am. I have a bench with test equipment, breadboards, and mostly older used stuff (100 MHz analog scope, etc.) and some power supplies and odds and ends of ham test equipment like a counter, signal generator, power/SWR meter, etc. And I have several PIC and 68HC11 embedded controller development kits I use for the programming, mostly still in assembler (I hate C.) I have been playing around with some of the many ISM wireless modules lately. Really cool how cheap and easy it is to make almost anything wireless. And like in ham radio, the experimenting possibilities with antennas are limitless. I just put up a G5RV antenna, but ended up needing an automatic antenna tuner to get it to work. Endless fun.

Electronics has evolved and so, as a result, has the hobbyist. So perhaps the whole electronic hobby thing didn't really go away, it just changed. It is different now because the way we design, build, and make electronic equipment just does not make it practical to work at the component level. We don't fix much of our electronic equipment anyway. We just throw it away and get new and better ones. Aren't we all just looking for our cell phone to fail or get lost so we can get a cool new smart phone?

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