Geek Skills 101: Make: Electronics

Geek Culture

About a year ago my 4 year old son (3 at the time) was going through the monster phase at bedtime. Even with a night light and frequent checks under the bed, he was stressed out. For some odd reason, he had this belief that monsters feared the color green, so I’d put a green train (Percy) on his nightstand and other green toys here and there to ward off the bad guys. It worked for a bit, but he wanted something to use against the monsters — I found that giving him a flashlight was a bad idea as he’d keep it turned on or constantly flicking it around the room instead of sleeping. What he needed was the Monster-B-Gone — you push a button and a set of six green LEDs light up in a back-and-forth motion (similar to a cylon or KITT). And fortunately, his daddy had the skills to make him one. (Yes, we tried explaining that there’s no such thing as monsters, but for those of you with kids who have gone through this, you know that logic and reasoning go out the door when the light goes out.)

Now, six months earlier… I wouldn’t have had a clue how to even get started on the Monster-B-Gone. I knew how to do basic soldering, but reading a schematic and putting a simple circuit together was not something I would have been comfortable doing. I always wanted to have a better understanding of electronics so I could do some of the cool projects I would see on and in Make: Magazine. I had purchased a few books over the previous years, but none of them gave me what I was needing — some hands-on training with easy-to-understand explanations of how things worked and why. So when I picked up a copy of Make: Electronics and scanned its pages, I knew I’d found the right book.

Full Color Images

Make: Electronics is, in my opinion, the best book I’ve ever found that teaches basic electronics in a way that a non-technical person can understand. Written by Charles Platt (geek dads may recognize his name from his days at Wired magazine and as a science fiction writer), the book is a full-color paperback that uses a set of 36 experiments to teach you the basics of electronics. In clear language, the author provides you with explanations of voltage, resistance, and current, and provides experiments that build on one another. You’ll learn to use resistors and capacitors, wire up relays and LEDs, and configure the 555 timer chip and other integrated circuit (IC) chips that will allow you to start building your own circuits and special projects. (I found the basic circuit needed to control a series of LEDs moving back and forth on the Internet — with this book, I had the knowledge to tweak that circuit a bit to allow for a bit of random lighting before the scanning effect begins as well as incorporate the momentary pushbutton.)

I made a decision before beginning the book’s experiments that I wanted to document my work for anyone else working through the book. I created a simple blog called Hands-On Electronics and notified Make: Magazine that I was going to keep record of my successes and failures, post a lot of pictures and possibly some video, and just basically write up my thoughts on each of the experiments and the lessons I was learning. The Make crew was very supportive of my idea and even put me in touch with Charles Platt in case I had questions. (I did have questions… lots of questions. And Mr. Platt was always very quick to provide assistance that I, in turn, shared with my readers.) But what was really cool about the blog was the feedback from visitors, many of whom were also working through the book and sharing their own results for this or that experiment. In some instances I’d encounter a problem and a reader would be right there to suggest a solution. One experiment late into the book was giving me all sorts of grief until a reader pointed out a wiring problem in the close-up photo I’d posted of my circuit, saving me a ton of time rewiring the circuit.

You Will Understand This Circuit

I started the blog in January 2010 and finished it in January 2011. One year to work my way through the book. (I could have done it faster, but being a dad sometimes put the book on hold, so there were pauses here and there… I’m sure you understand.) And when I was done, I could honestly say that my understanding of electronics had significantly increased. One skill that I know got a big kick in the pants was reading schematics and then actually wiring them up. I’ve since wired up some fairly gnarly schematics I’ve obtained from the Internet or other sources and surprised myself by being able to wire up the circuits on a breadboard and having them actually work!

And dads… this book is not just for adults. As I stated on my final blog post on January 15, 2011this is the book I WISH I had in high school!

I can totally recommend this book to geek dads wanting to learn electronics, but I can also recommend it for kids… maybe ages 10 and up. There are some concepts in here that might require a little math, but they are few and not critical to successfully completing the projects. This book is perfect for a parent looking for a hands-on activity with a child — adult supervision is necessary for the younger folks, but after some basic safety explanations regarding a soldering iron and power supply, I don’t see any reason why an older child couldn’t work through some of the experiments solo. But really… if you’re wanting to learn electronics yourself and have a child old enough and with the interest to learn this stuff, you’ll absolutely love working through this book with a partner. And you’ll be giving them some skills that they’ll likely never lose.

Or You Can Use the Full Color Pic

There are a few things I should make you aware of regarding the book, however:

  • Cost Part 1 — there is an initial investment required if you wish to work through the entire book — soldering iron, breadboard, wire strippers/cutters, etc… you’ll find the author does a great job of providing you with explanations of the tools you’ll need and the ones you can skip for a while.
  • Cost Part 2 — the author also does a good job of providing you with shopping lists for the various electronics components at the beginning of each chapter, but you’ll probably want to save on shipping costs by placing fewer orders and instead ordering as many components for the experiments as possible at one time. I know I spent way more than I should because early on I was ordering components online (via All Electronics and Mouser and other online sources) one chapter at a time… don’t do this! Order 2 or 3 or even 4 chapters’ worth of components all at once or consider an option I did not have at the time and order one or both of the Electronics Parts Packs that Make sells — Pack 1 has 90% or more of the components you’ll need for the first 11 experiments. Pack 2 has about 80% of the components you’ll need for the most (but not all) of the remaining experiments.

If you check out my Hands-On Electronics blog first and look for the Shopping List tagged posts, you can often find some pricing comparisons I share between online sources… other times I simply share the prices I paid from Source X. Again, you can easily buy the components you need for certain experiments when you need them (more expensive this way) or buy a larger collection of components all at once (less expensive in terms of shipping and you’ll likely get some bulk savings). If I had to do the entire blog over, I’d go with purchasing the two Parts Packs and save myself a lot of online searching and grief. Your mileage may vary. Whatever you do, try to avoid Radio Shack in-store purchases except for those components you’ve lost or burned out or overlooked – I love The Shack, but their pricing cannot compete with online providers and you’re really paying for convenience, not any additional quality or special features. (I don’t know about Radio Shack’s online pricing… if anyone knows, please share your experiences or findings.)

Now, I hate to admit this, but you could just buy the book, read the lessons, examine the full-color circuit diagrams, and go over the author’s explanation of how each experiment works, and you’d still probably increase your understanding of electronics. The book is simply that well written and easy to follow. But I also know that I learn best by doing, so having wired up these experiments, soldered the circuits, and built the various devices, that knowledge is sure to stick with me longer than if I’d simply read the book and not performed the hands-on activities.

The Monster-B-Gone!

So… back to the Monster-B-Gone. I purchased the components to make it — a momentary pushbutton (so the LEDs only light up when he presses the button, saving the battery), a small plastic case, handful of resistors, capacitors, and such, a PICAXE chip that required very little programming (also taught in the book) but allowed me to play with the lighting effects, and a sticker I designed and printed for the top. Total price was about $15.00. (My original writeup for the Monster-B-Gone didn’t include the PICAXE — it was a later upgrade.)

It took me less than an hour to wire up, drill the holes for the LEDs, and get everything put in the project box — my son watched part of the assembly and I’m sure that all those complicated looking components were giving him a warm fuzzy feeling as he imagined the monsters fleeing from the device. I presented it to my son at bed time with an explanation of its amazing abilities. His smile was totally worth the time and the small cost in parts. I’d occasionally walk by the room and see a moving green glow before it disappeared…

I’ve since wired up much more advanced projects, including some robots. My soldering skills have increased, and I actually try to comprehend the occasional crazy schematic I see in a book or magazine… usually with success. I’ve learned to read data sheets so I can properly select the best components for my projects, and I’m better able to ask the right questions when hunting down an unusual component or examining a complex circuit diagram.

I’ve only scratched the surface with Make: Electronics, but this is the book I needed to jump start my skills and get me comfortable working with electronics. I cannot recommend the book highly enough, and I’m hoping that my fellow geek dads out there who might be struggling the way I was will seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.

By the way — if you’re looking to build your electronics reference library, I’d also like to recommend Practical Electronics for Inventors. This book used to be a bit difficult to find, but apparently it’s received a new printing because you can easily find copies online. This is the book I’m currently using as a reference guide because, quite honestly, it’s not meant for straight reading. But it does have some of the best circuit examples and explanations around, and after completing the Make: Electronics book, I’m finding it much easier to get through this book’s examples. I’ll tell you to steer clear of Teach Yourself Electricity and Electronics — I never could get too deep into this book before losing steam. It’s got some good explanations but it’s just not written in a style that makes it engaging or interesting IMO. It’s a big book, too, and a bit overwhelming to carry around and read easily, so if you do grab it, consider a digital copy. And finally, I’ve been enjoying skimming over Forrest M. Mims III’s Getting Started in Electronics — the thin book provides additional content for electronics hobbyists, but I just like it because of the hand-drawn sketches and the fact that the writing is supposedly Mims’ own handwriting and it’s just fun to read in a geeky way.

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