By now you have probably heard of the “maker” movement, a resurgence of interest in hobby electronics. It used to be popular in the 1950s through 1970s but faded later as the PC craze took over. Now over the past several years there has be a major increase in those interested in building, hacking and playing around with electronic things. There is serious interest in making robots and experimenting with the Arduino and Raspberry Pi embedded computers. Electronics seems to be fun again.
Part of this re-emergence is due to the influence of the popular magazine Make by publisher O’Reilly Media, now Maker Media. With well over 100K readers, Make is bringing back the popularity of making stuff, electronic, mechanical, wood, and otherwise. Their Maker Faire events attract thousands who can show off their latest creations and consort with other makers and learn new skills and techniques. Robots are a major focus of the DIYers.
Another influencer has been the push to bring more kids into engineering with the various STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) programs. STEM efforts hope to lure more students to college technical degrees to help build the U.S.’s engineering capability. I am not sure it is working but the promotions and events have certainly aided the DIY movement.
A big part of the experimentation resurgence is the availability of books supporting it. There have always been hobby electronic books but a new batch has helped many get started. Some examples are Gordon McComb and Earl Boysen’s Electronics for Dummies (Wiley, 2005) and Earl Boysen and Nancy Muir’s Electronic Projects for Dummies (Wiley, 2006). Even my own book, Electronics Explained (Newnes/Elsevier, 2010), has done well with the DIYers. But the real best seller has been Charles Platt’s Make: Electronics (O’Reilly, 2009). Platt is a contributing editor to Make magazine. The book is printed in full color on quality paper and puts forth a wide range of build-it-yourself electronic projects. All these books have one thing in common: help a person learn electronics and have fun making electronic games, gadgets and unusually useful items.
Now Charles Platt has a new follow on book called Make: More Electronics (Maker Media, 2014). It more or less assumes you have read the first book or have equivalent knowledge. It too is in full color and loaded with even more sophisticated projects. Most involve digital logic chips in a variety of forms, some pretty complex. I particularly like his I Ching simulator. Cool. Most of the projects involve games with light and sound and use lots of LEDs. Everything is built on prototype boards (breadboarding sockets). While I like Platt’s latest book, I really dislike the way he draws schematic diagrams. I realize these are probably laid out to show how to build them on a breadboarding socket, they really obfuscate the function, at least for me. Maybe I am just too used to the traditional left to right signal flow schematics.
An interesting thing about all these experimenter books is the heavy use of the older components. Everyone uses older transistors like 2N2222 and 2N3904 and diodes like 1N4001 or 1N4148. For ICs, the 555 timer IC is still king. Analog parts are invariably the 741 op amp or 386 audio power amp. Logic is heavily the 7400 series TTL and the CMOS 74HC equivalents. The old 4000 series CMOS ICs from Motorola are also still popular. Everything is in the larger DIP housings. While real electronic products are built with tiny surface mount parts, experimenters find it easier to use DIPs and wire lead components. It is hard to breadboard with a 4x4 mm IC and chip resistors and capacitors. Amazingly, all of these older parts are still available and cheap from multiple suppliers like Jameco, DigiKey, RadioShack, Mouser and others. And they work great for teaching the basics. Maker Shed the Make magazine parts supplier even has kits of parts already to go for those who get serious about the Make book projects.
If you know someone interested in learning more about electronics, these books are a great starting point. Next we need some good books on embedded controllers that don’t force you to learn C first.