Hobbyist Electronics – Old and New

As my son grows older, being about the same age I was when starting in the hobby, I’ve learned that he is developing the same interest in “tinkering” with technology as I did. While looking for suitable resources for him to get started in the hobby, I’m perturbed at the lack of local parts sources. When I was younger, my second home was Radio Shack. They may have not stocked every known part in existence, but they used to have enough components in stock to build something productive. Today, try finding more than a few TTL logic chips on the shelves.

Bear in mind, I’m not bashing Radio Shack. It’s just that I wish they didn’t turn into the run-of-the-mill consumer electronics store that they became. I’m hopeful that there is change on the horizon, as I’m beginning to see more hobbyist components on their shelves… or in those drawers. Hopefully, that trend will continue for all of the future generations of electronic engineers. Right now, almost every electronics component I buy is mail ordered (via the Internet). Until a local source moves in, I must accept the idea that I may need to wait a couple days for my parts.

That aside, I was also enlightened by what is considered to be a paradigm shift in the hobby. I formally got into the hobby in 1977, on Halloween to be exact. Here I was, a young’en jumping in during a rise in the popularity of hobbyist grade integrated circuits. Before this time, transistors and vacuum tubes were dominant. So, I suppose the seasoned hobbyists at the time may have felt the way I do now… a little out of touch with the present. What constitutes “out of touch”? Not necessarily an inability to comprehend modern technology, but not readily being able to accept the changes in modern technology.

I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of designing circuits (mostly digital) and getting them to run using basic building blocks such as 74XX or 40XX IC logic. These days, one of the basic building blocks is microprocessor technology (PIC, ATMel, Freescale, etc.). At first, I wondered where all the fun is in that. Where is the design challenge? In pondering that question, I’ve eventually learned to accept the hobby’s new basic building blocks and can now readily guide my son into the world of microprocessors. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not for being able to understand the technology, it’s for being able to accept it as the norm. All I needed to do was remember way back when and realize that those seasoned hobbyists building transistor only circuits in the 1970’s probably had to learn to accept integrated circuits and simply move on with them.

Overall, I find microprocessors a wonderful basic building block. As a computer programmer by trade, I was able to segue into microprocessors with ease. I’m basically shifting hardware based knowledge to a software based platform and adding a few supporting electronic components into the mix. The projects are still quite challenging and I will still be able to train my son and answer any questions he may have about the hobby.

Do you agree in this paradigm shift? Do you have any anecdotes of your own to share with others. If so, please comment on this article using the link below.

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