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Louis E. Frenzel of ED online asks… Whatever happened to the electronics hobbyist? When I first read this I was about to leave for a week long trip and didn’t have time to comment on the article but when I checked in the comments were filled with a lot of similar (and not-so-similar responses)…

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?

Whatever happened to the electronics hobbyist? – Link.

Some makers have told me there are groups of folks that did a lot of electronics, but it was primarily in the ham radio community/projects and now most of the DIY/hacking/projects/etc doesn’t orbit ham radio as it once did, so it might be that a lot of what is going on now isn’t what the previous generation(s) of electronic hobbyists are familiar with, while it might appear that things aren’t what they used to be there are many many flourishing communities of hobbyists doing electronics, robotics, art, hacking, modding… Some in the comments blame the leadership of the ham orgs for not getting youth involved over the years and others blame our disposable / outsourced world, while some say there is more going on than ever before…

What do you think makers? Post in the comments here or over there – there are a lot of interesting views on this.

(Pictured here, some electronics hobbyists @ Maker Faire 2006 by James Duncan Davidson).

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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Comments

  1. chadvavra says:

    Well, in 1992 I built a small alarm based on a 555 timer that was mistaken for an explosive device, had to ‘turn myself in’ (no charges were filed), and haven’t done much with the hobby since.

    I’m scared to imagine what would have happened to me in today’s political climate…

  2. philliptorrone says:

    chadvavra – want to publish the how-to here?

  3. chadvavra says:

    Phil, I’ll have to dig up the original diagram tonight and see what I can put together from memory.

    I will tell you that it’s a simple locking trigger based on a circuit in Mims Getting Started in Electronics.

    http://www.forrestmims.com/

  4. philliptorrone says:

    heya send me an email with all the details and schematic when you’re done and i’ll do a post, ideally mention your past comment about the scare factor keeping you away from learning more, etc.

  5. Dji says:

    The electronics hobbyist community is very much alive in the form of stombox builders. Check out Aron’s Stompbox Forum. Thanks in part to these folks, I’ve developed a nasty stompbox-building habit over the past year.

  6. serriere says:

    Didn’t the electronic hobbyists become founders and then CEO’s of all the big tech companies? Woz and Apple come to mind. Now, instead of building projects themselves, they just buy the finished stuff, or have their company develop it.

    Alternatively, I think software development has stolen a lot of the hardware developers because it is so cheap (basically free once you have a computer). Look at the enormous number of open-source projects and open-source developers, certainly some of those people were once or are the current equivalent of electronic hobbyists.

  7. uglywage says:

    This complaint comes up all the time, especially from old hams. I think hobby electronics are as strong as ever – maybe stronger – but it just doesn’t have the common thread of ham radio any longer.

    Ham radio itself is it’s own worst enemy as far as attracting new blood. There are actually a lot of cool new things in ham radio like APRS that can have applications to other hobby projects, but hardly anyone outside of the ham community knows about it.

  8. chadvavra says:

    software development has stolen a lot of the hardware developers

    This is what happened to me. College broke my spirit, not the threat of treason.

  9. jeff_duntemann says:

    Hobby electronics is as big or bigger than it ever was; the problem is that it has split into an immense number of fairly focused subdisciplines, none of which is as widespread as ham radio was in the 1950s. Ham radio itself is being squeezed between the pincers of anti-antenna deed restrictions and the available of very cheap but very sophisticated gear. Some retro guys like me still build radios (with tubes, even) but the real energy in hobby electronics has split a hundred ways and gone elsewhere. Hobby robotics, tube audio, BASIC stamp gadgetry, Wi-Fi antennas, casemodding, overclocking, LEGO/Mindstorms–the list is long, the possibilities endless. There has never been a better time to be a Maker!

  10. dleber says:

    I started playing with electronics in our basement as a kid (probably around 1974 – 75), stealing parts left over from my older brother’s high school courses and cannibalizing junked tvs and radios.

    Electronics wasn’t my only hobby though. Lego, bicycle hacking, go carts, blowing stuff up, electronic music, robots, blowing up robots, bicycles, and go carts, etc. all played a role in my development. So if there was the Maker label then, I’d have probably used it. As it was I just thought of myself as a “hobbiest”.

    I ended up using electronics as an entry into the work force but I think that was just because it was easily marketable as a skill set.

    I have a feeling that many of the things I got from electronics as a hobby are here today in relabeled forms (PC modding, software hacking, video games). It’s all the same thing, a desire to discover or create something new or cool, something to dedicate that amazing single minded focus of youth, and maybe the idea that something from nothing *is* possible.

    ;david

  11. rodak says:

    I think there are still plenty of us out here, but we’re definitely split up into different camps, many of which have little in common with others. My own passion is repairing and restoring portable combo organs (like the venerable Vox Continental) – there are a whole community of us. My brother builds analog synthesizer modules (like the old Moog synths). He’s also used modern digital electronics to create a sequencer, which was unobtainable as a kit. I’ve also been in touch with another old guy (I’m 50, he’s 69, my brother is 47) who repairs and restores old Geiger counters, of all things. He has about 25 of them in his collection (my own collection of organs numbers approximately 22).

  12. michaeljedelman says:

    One big change was that things we used to hack became so cheap that there wasn’t a lot of point in hacking them anymore. Why build an amateur radio when you can buy one for a tenth of what they cost (in real dollars) twenty years ago? Same goes for computers- in the 80s, a friend and I built an 8008 computer that cost about $350 in parts- that’s about $650 in 2007 dollars, and that will buy you a complete system today.

    You don’t see mn ay electronic kits like the Heathkits of long ago as it’s a lot cheper to sell a Chinese assembled unit than to sell a well-engineered kit.

    A lot of the interest in electronics was spurred on by the space race, but there was a move away from science and technology in the 70s and 80s. The country was very wealthy, and a technical career was less inviting that other paths. And a lot of kids who would have hacked hardware in the past hack software today, of course.
    There’s still some hacking- and I think it’s growing.

  13. uglywage says:

    Heathkit may be gone, but right now I see more kits out there than ever. Thanks to the internet there are a lot of small companies that can have a global storefront. (i.e. Elecraft, Solarbotics, etc.) There are even some really cool one-man operations like the guy selling the Altair 8800 replicas. My biggest problem lately is not having enough time or money to build all the kits I am interested in!

  14. afaust says:

    Maybe someone knowledgable can address the complaint I’ve heard from some old-timers about the overblown fear of electricity that is more prevalent these days. I think that might have been one of the nails in Heathkit’s coffin, in addition to the availability of cheap asian products. Most people who would buy a Heathkit in the past, I would guess, were not interested so much in saving money, but in learning and making. Somehow that market changed.
    Was fear of litigation a factor? Would a mainstream company be able to market successfully a kit with high voltage components these days?

  15. cmpalmer says:

    Here is my perspective. I’m 40 years old, for the record…

    I’ve written about this on my blog as well. Somehow I managed to grow up tinkering with electronic kits without being involved in ham radio. My supplier was the local Radio Shack, since I grew up in a fairly rural environment. I had Heathkit catalogs and stuff, but I don’t think I ever purchased any of them. My favorites were the RS kits that came in the plastic boxes where the bottom of the box was a gridded breadboard that you inserted the components through and soldered them on the backside. I loved the one that flashed the little orange neon bulbs like a Cylon scanner. I also remember building several PC board based radios, a strobe light, and a three channel color organ from RS that I hooked up to Christmas light strands and turned my room into an ersatz disco, not the mention the 50-in-1, 100-in-1, and so on kits with the spring connectors for the hookup wires. I went through probably a dozen of those.

    I had to admit that I lost interest a bit as soon as I got my first computer (a Model 1 TRS-80 – Radio Shack strikes again) and started hacking software instead, although some of the first things I did was hack stuff that connected to the addressable ports of the computer to control things, like using relays to switch line current devices. The fact is that once you were past your initial investment, you could do a lot more cool stuff in 20 lines of code than you could with 20 discrete components. Now, I think, things are coming full circle with cheap microcontrollers, a resurgence in the hobby market thanks to Make, and a growing hobby market for robotics and mechanical devices. I have bought two electronic kits recently – the Make sponsored POV kit and the ornament kit from EvilMadScientist that I read about on Make and I’ve introduced my son to them. I’ve got some project ideas that I’ve been thinking about and I am going to try to interest him in helping me and, hopefully, learning a bit of both sides – programming and “big” computers as well as electronics and microcontrollers.

    Considering that kids today, with little effort, can create web pages; write software; create and edit videos; compose and mix music; chat with each other all over the world; take, post, and edit pictures; and, yes, play incredibly cool and immersive video games, it’s not too surprising that it’s hard to interest them in learning how to make an LED flash or how to build a tinny radio.

  16. cmpalmer says:

    @afaust:

    I’ve heard that liability was an issue. Looking back over what I just posted, the neon light flasher was built on a plastic breadboard with exposed wiring underneath and ran off line current. So did the strobe light kit (and, as an added bonus, the strobe light taught me that you can get the crap shocked out of you by a 200V capacitor even with the unit unplugged). I built both of those when I was around 12 years old. Not to mention the fact that I was using a very dangerously hot soldering iron (and yes, I burned myself a few times). Then again, I also cut myself with an X-Acto knife while building model rockets and owned a chemistry set with chemicals more dangerous than rubbing alcohol.

  17. svofski says:

    30 y.o., Russia here.. no relation to U.S. retailer networks decline ;)

    My doorway into electronics was teh microcontroller. I used to study circuits loong time ago, but never really had much practice until my first PIC circuit. PIC’s are best forgotten though — just let go, they’re circa 1970 tech. AVR’s are very much alive, simple, shiny and sweet and very much recommended.

    I know in person a few people who are into electronics as well, some are older than me, some younger. I don’t really think the hobby is dying. We adopt new technology, we’re not scared of FPGA’s and surface mount devices anymore. We have free or cheap EDA software, we can make fairly complicated PCB’s entirely at home these days and, most important, LED’s are now dirt cheap :D

    It’s all great. Keep sniffing the fumes.

  18. paulbeard@gmail.com says:

    Well, speaking as someone who is struggling to complete the (nowhere near) $5 amplifier in the current issue, finding parts is a sometimes a challenge, local expertise even more so. I have the patience to deal with the cell-phone salesmen masquerading as electronics store employees but does a kid?

    I am learning some stuff, more to pass along to my young MAKErs than for my own benefit, but it’s not as easy as it once was. I can remember being able to buy vacuum tubes, as well as use the tube testing machines in stores. Now, trying to find the simple components for a very simple project is pretty complicated.

    Tell you what, I think MAKE could publish a BoM for these projects and let Mouser/Digikey offer them as kits (you can build a kit by submitting a BoM at their sites) for people like me.

  19. Technofumble says:

    I was going to post that I know quite a few people whom I work with who are electronics hobbiests, but then it struck me – every single one of those people interested in electronics is *NOT* from North America originally. Those from NA who have tinkered with electronics had only done it as part of university courses and had no desire to pursue it as a hobby. At least from my small case-study of my immediate network of friends and coworkers, it does seem to be a very much cultural thing.

    I’m 26 and grew up in Australia, was introduced to the world of electronics and programming by my dad at around 6-7, and have never looked back since. My dad, brother and myself assembled a ton of kits from Dick Smith Electronics’ (very similar to what I assume RadioShack used to be like) “Fun Way Into Electronics” series of books/kits. When it came to choose a career path, I went down the software route as having a fun job is very important to me (game development), but have kept electronics as one of my many other hobbies.

    If it wasn’t for those Fun Way Into Electronics books, I’m sure that my life would’ve gone down a very different path. So Dick Smith, thank you.

    Can any other aussies comment on if DSE still sells their Fun Way books and kits? Have they updated those at all in the last 10-20 years?

  20. Technofumble says:

    err… and I should mention that I now live in Canada, not Australia. So my North American case study isn’t completely out of context. ;)

  21. outerspace says:

    I never cared about electronics until in highschool I got a job assembling these little devices. The boss said he wished he had an engineer good at microcontrollers so I decided to become an engineer good at microcontrollers. I went from basic stamp to actual pic and now deal mostly with avr, arm7, and fpgas. I was never even aware of or cared about electronic things until I got that job. All the electronic toys such as whatever pre-mindstorm lego robot thing that existed in the early 90s were terrible and useless and expensive. I think the mindstorm that is out now is great and I’d buy it for my kid if I had one. I think we are going to see a generation of electronic hobbyists that were turned on by the mindstorm.

  22. tofarley says:

    paulbeard,

    I would highly recommend leaving the “cell phone salesmen” behind. I can only assume you’re talking about Radio Shack. I worked there around 10 years ago and I remember how competitive the full-time employees were for commission. I was just a high school kid at the time, so I worked part-time and rarely earned commission anyhow.

    I do recommend finding an electronics surplus store. They are around, you just have to do some digging. When I lived in Ohio we had two unbelievable surplus stores in the Dayton area. “Mendelsons” was a three-story warehouse; the entire third floor was nothing but rows upon rows of boxes, each overflowing with components. It was truly an amazing sight. There was another little store outside the military base that specialized in military surplus electronics.

    Now I live in Okinawa Japan. Talk about difficult to find parts! There is a great little electronics store near my house, but I don’t speak Japanese so I’ve got no salesman to assist me. I wanted to know which kits were available, so I had to write down the part number for each kit and run them through the manufacturer’s website using Google translate just to determine what the kit was for! I’m not complaining though, I think it adds to the fun! Every trip to the electronics store feels like a scavenger hunt!

    I’ve had an interest in electronics for years now (I’ve been a software guy my whole life…) but it wasn’t until I discovered Makezine that I finally decided to setup a work bench in my house and try to create some of the things that I’ve dreamed about for all these years.

  23. Vermin says:

    “Can any other aussies comment on if DSE still sells their Fun Way books and kits? Have they updated those at all in the last 10-20 years?”

    Yep, they still sell them but don’t expect any help unless you are there to buy cheap Chinese gadgets. There’s no way they could be called a hobby store any more. That market has been taken up by Jaycar electronics.

    The Funway kits and Tandy (Radio Shack) 50-in-1 or 100-in-1 type kits got me started too, and I’ve made a career out of hardware design. That’s sort of killed my hobby though. The last thing I want to do after a day of electronic design is more… so I go into amateur astronomy instead. I still get inspired by a Make article now and then though.

    As for the state of the hobby here, I think it’s still fairly strong but competition for free time by game consoles and PCs has made an impact.

  24. Chesterella says:

    Technofumble,
    I found your post when doing a google on Dick Smith’s kits (which incidentally are available via their website). I want to get one for my brother as a nostalgia gift. He grew up in NZ, and he and Dad had hours of fun with them. Like you, he’s now a game developer in Canada.

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