Make: Electronics Helps You Learn From the Circuits Up

Geek Culture

Have you ever cracked open that broken gadget or toy and looked at the cool components inside, and wondered what they did and how? Have you ever thought about perhaps figuring out which component has burned out and replacing it or turning that gadget into something else? If so, you really need to check out Make: Electronics, the ultimate guide to learning about electronics.

I’ve read a bunch of how-to books on the subject and most of them start easy for the noobs, but then quickly ramp up to EE-level complexity, causing the reader’s eyes to glaze over — it’s no longer fun. By contrast, Make: Electronics starts the easiest, and while the projects likewise become more and more challenging, the book never stops being fun.

Case in point: author Charles Platt guides the reader through the silly-sounding but absolutely necessary process of blowing up, wrecking, shorting out and otherwise destroying electronic components. Think about it, how can you truly know your way around a soldering iron unless you know what a fried LED, a blown fuse, or a hosed capacitor look and act like? And the best way to learn is by doing.

The core of the book, however, is the collection of 36 experiments, each more challenging than the last. As mentioned, the beginning experiments are truly inclusive — the first one simply involves sticking the leads of a 9-volt battery onto your tongue. Bzzt. Nothing easier. You don’t even solder until Experiment 12 fer goshsake… of course the author includes a lengthy tutorial on the subject.

Here are some sample experiments:

#10: Transistor Switching. I liked this one because it is a very basic experiment that gets you using a transistor, the most basic form of semiconductor. It’s a simple project: just turning on a LED, but it’s the sort of thing that prepares you for much more challenging projects: it’s the transistor, not the switch, that turns on the LED.

#16 is the first that deals with an integrated circuit chip, a 555 timer. This is a great chip to start with — over a billion 555s are produced every year and they have a million uses including timekeeping as well as precise oscillations such as one might find in a music-making device.

#23 uses 3 IC chips to create a random die roller. As a gamer, this topic is near and dear to my heart. I especially like it because it has a (relatively) practical purpose. You might really need to roll a d6 and not have one around.

While the experiments are king, the non-experiment parts of the book are extremely robust. There are bios of famous inventors, historical explanations, as well as a heaping helping of theory: magnetism, desktop power generation, coils, motors, you name it, Platt covers it. He even goes into the basics of programming microcontrollers. However, he never lets you get bogged down with theory — it doesn’t get in the way of the book’s flow.

Other than the blowing-stuff-up aspect, the most fun in the book are Platt’s neat cartoons. The story goes that Platt drew the cartoons with the expectation that a professional illustrator would redo them for the book, but the editors found them too charming to merit a redo.

The last thing I want to write about is the cost and effort involved with buying the hardware you need to perform the experiments found in the book. Yes, you’d have to buy resistors, potentiometers, LEDs, and so on. The good news is that Platt provides an equipment list for every project, allowing you to buy just what you need so you don’t have to drop a bunch of bucks from the get-go. Conversely, if you do want to pick up everything you need in one fell swoop, you can grab the Make: Electronics Components Pack 1 and Components Pack 2 from the Maker Shed, which not only feature all the parts you’d need to do the experiments, but also include compartmentalized boxes for easy storage.

The bottom line is that Platt makes a difficult subject fun — between the goofy cartoons, the clear writing and blowing stuff up combined with incredible amounts of information and enjoyable experiments make Make: Electronics a must-have for anyone who wants to learn electronics.

Update: O’Reilly has the ebook version of Make: Electronics on sale for $9.99 in honor of Father’s Day. Use this link and the code DDMED to get the deal.

[Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to Make: Online and write for MAKE Magazine, both of which are really excellently cool. Those folks are the cats behind this book, but I had nothing to do with it.]

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