Education
How Your Failed Project Made You a Better Maker

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For more on microcontrollers and wearables, check out Make: Volume 43.  Don't have this issue? Get it in the Maker Shed.
For more on microcontrollers and wearables, check out Make: Volume 43.
Don’t have this issue? Get it in the Maker Shed.

Projects that fail are rarely published — but they teach valuable lessons that often lead to success. If you’ve spent much time designing and building projects, you know this well. I certainly do. Some of my failed projects made a major impact on my career in electronics and science.

During my senior year at Texas A&M University in 1966, Texas Instruments announced the development of a powerful LED that emitted several milliwatts of invisible near-infrared, about the same power output as a small flashlight. My great-grandfather had been totally blinded by a dynamite explosion when he was a young man, and the new LED gave me an idea for building a travel aid for the blind. So I hitchhiked to Dallas to meet Edward Bonin, one of TI’s LED engineers.

The new LEDs cost $356 each, about $2,671 in today’s money. Dr. Bonin said he would give me, a rank amateur, one of the LEDs if I could build a circuit that would generate the pulses needed to make the travel aid. I modified a 2-transistor Morse code practice oscillator board sold by a radio and TV repair shop for 99 cents and sent it to Bonin. He approved the circuit and sent it back, together with three of the sophisticated LEDs.

Mims_MAKE_42_Figure_A_

Mims_MAKE_42_Figure_B

I quickly built and documented a prototype and within a few days built a working travel aid that measured 2″×2″×4″. Flashes of invisible infrared emitted by the aid were reflected by objects up to 10 feet away. The reflected IR was detected by a silicon solar cell, and the resultant photocurrent was amplified by a transistor amplifier (salvaged from a hearing aid) and sent to an earphone, which emitted a tone. The closer the object, the louder the tone.

Mims_MAKE_42_Figure_C

I tested the travel aid with more than 20 blind children and adults. It worked well, but the need to hold it in one hand was a drawback. Eventually I assembled the entire device on a pair of sunglasses. All the electronics were installed inside two ⅜”-diameter brass tubes mounted on the temples, the LED transmitter in one tube and the receiver in the other. A tiny hearing aid earphone in the receiver tube was coupled to the user’s ear through a short length of plastic tubing.

The eyeglass aid worked well. It also received an Industrial Research 100 Award and a 1987 runner-up Rolex Award. But in the end, the project I had spent years developing was a failure. The hearing aid companies I approached about manufacturing the travel aid responded that the potential liability was much too risky. What would happen if a blind user wearing the travel aid fell into a hole or was otherwise injured?

Though the travel aid was never manufactured, it taught me more about solid-state electronics and optics than my friends majoring in electrical engineering were learning. They were building old-fashioned vacuum tube circuits in their lab courses, while I was working with transistors and state-of-the-art infrared-emitting diodes.

Mims_MAKE_42_Figure_D

The travel-aid circuits led to several new projects. I used the LED pulse generator circuit to flash a tracking light in night-launched model rockets I was flying to test a new kind of guidance mechanism. After George Flynn, the editor of Model Rocketry magazine, watched one of those flights, he asked me to write an article about the light flasher. It was published in September 1969.

Mims_MAKE_42_Figure_E

Ed Roberts and I were then assigned to the Laser Division of the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. We often talked about selling electronics kits through magazines like Popular Electronics and Radio-Electronics. When the light flasher article was published, we decided to form a company to build and sell light flashers and other model rocketry gear. We called it Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS).

I eventually left MITS to pursue a new career as an electronics writer. Ed stayed and introduced a string of new products. I wrote the instruction manuals for some of them. I also introduced Ed to Leslie Solomon, the technical editor of Popular Electronics.

In 1974 Ed learned about the 8080, Intel’s new 8-bit microprocessor, and soon began work on a microcomputer based on the new chip. The hobby computer era took off when Ed’s Altair 8800 appeared on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. When Paul Allen saw the magazine, he immediately bought a copy and took it to show his friend Bill Gates. They soon called Ed to say they were developing a version of BASIC for the Altair, and you know the rest of the story (see my column in Make: Volume 42, “The Kit That Launched the Tech Revolution”).

Sometimes I wonder how this story might have ended had my great-grandfather not been blinded, or if TI hadn’t invented the first infrared LED. Of course it’s impossible to know in advance what might come from a failed or abandoned project — and that’s motivation enough to press ahead.

Going Further

Have you developed a project that failed for technical or other reasons? Think about how it might have advanced your knowledge, and tell us in the comments below.

And consider beginning a new project that’s got only a marginal chance for success. My view is that every project is like a course in tech school or college, for the spinoffs from a failed project are sometimes as significant as those from the great successes.

0 thoughts on “How Your Failed Project Made You a Better Maker

  1. This reminded me of my interesting project that never went anywhere due to my own failing. In the late ’60s I obtained samples of some newly introduced high power 1 watt IR LEDs. Wanting to do something with them I put together a multi-LED IR radiator and used it to illuminate an area of my body and viewed this area in the dark with an IR sensitive silicon target vidicon video camera I had earlier built. To my amazement the image very clearly showed the complex venous system under my skin to a depth of more than a 3-4 millimeters as dark paths on white skin. I showed this to a doctor friend of mine and he thought it would be useful to localize skin and other sub-surface tumors. The IR radiation is absorbed by the blood flow and showed as clear dark paths on the image. This experiment demonstrated an early simple but much less costly form of IR imaging than traditional realtime LWIR equipment. Even with the encouragement of my friend I failed to pursue this invention due to other tasks. We were very surprised how effective this novel use of these new HP IR LEDs turned out to be.

      1. Hi Eva; nice to see you followed me here. I long since determined that with the rapidly falling cost of long wave infrared imaging the method I was using would not only be more crude, it would be much less sensitive. Back in the 60s my scheme would be considered somewhat of a breakthrough for it’s cost but with the advent of drastically improved and affordable passive LW IR imaging today it isn’t worth pursuing. Today a LWIR passive imaging system can define temp. gradients of much less than .01 deg. making it a vastly superior technique. Back in the 60s the science wasn’t what it is today for this type of imaging.

        On the subject of politics, just today I met some of my wife’s relatives at a party. They are mostly uninformed but well educated liberals with the typical knowledge gained from the MSM. Her lawyer cousin is convinced that the minimum wage must be drastically raised since these people cannot live on such low income. I asked if he thought $50/hr. would be enough. He though that was excessive but thought maybe half that would be fair. I replied that we would then just have a lifelong supply of well paid hamburger flippers. I said, do you think they would ever quit this job to try and improve themselves? He didn’t have an answer.

        1. RE: Min wage, I have tried to explain this to people, as in 1960, I was paying $3 a day plus bus fare for a full time maid, $15 a wk, later on, it became $15 a wk for two days, then a day, and next, a half day. At a half day, my maid had the job of ten people, yes, she was making more, but nine people had no job. I think training, talent, job skills, and education should mean something and of course, work ethic. Today, many just do not get it. A friend’s son was living in Sweden, I think he was teaching in a college, he told us that there pay was basically pegged to ed level, thus doctors made about the same as his son. I understand that doc’s in Canada do not make salaries like in the US, way back had a friend from Canada, doc dad retired, moved to Florida and took a state medical job there. I dislike putting fuel in a car! We are old enough to recall service station’s, where a person not only put the gas in, CKD tires, water, battery, and windshield, etc, as part of the service. That is also why we no longer have knowledgeable staff in stores, like in old Sears, a person was in a dept that knew appliances, or tools, or sewing machines or whatever, now you cannot even find a person much less someone knowledgeable. Of course, same goes for buffet and fast food restaurants, more do it yourself and do away with staff. If we pay bottom workers $25 an hr, what incentive is there to get an education? My first job, in HS was $0.65 an hr, boss paid others $0.50 because they had dropped out of school! After HS, I was tel opr for $1.12, min wage was a dollar. Years later, I went to college to be a teacher. Even then, it was difficult to get students to get interested in an ed, as dad was making more driving a truck w/o a HS diploma than his teacher was making! Again, if bottom pay is twenty five, what do those with more ed make? People making such decisions do not seem to comprehend that if paying someone to work for you, you have to be making more money than them! I had a teacher in HS, must have been good as I still recall several things from then. He said if we took all money and divided it out equally, that in X no. of years, it would he back in the same hands. People that can handle money can and those that cannot are always broke. I worked in real estate for years and observed that many people who made great money could not come up with two to five thousand dollars to buy a house. Some could not come up with earnest money. That is what caused the housing crisis, sorry, some people do not deserve a house, they cannot come up with the money for payments, insurance, taxes, utilites and related house ownership expenses. The people that could not qualify under normal rules could not pay for a house, and many lost them. I would recommend people shoot for one wk take home pay for a house pmt, they could qualify for more, but I said, the wife will get pregant, the washer will die, you need a cushion and not be maxed out. People who go to rent to own for furniture, TV’s, appliances and such can not save to buy a house. Same with buy here pay here cars, credit no problem. I noticed at a pawn your title place nearby, interest was 6.99%, per month! Arkansas used to have a cap on such loans to protect the gullible and stupid. You know, you just can’t fix stupid!! What are we gonna do!!!!!??????

  2. The sad fact is that industry’s short sighted shaving of profit margins and rush to market means we have a generation of engineers afraid to fail. The days of bodged together quick and dirty proof of concept design is long gone.
    Even the First robotics kids I work with have a hard time improvising and ‘winging it’. I stress that a noisy, ugly, barely working prototype gives you a foundation to build on for v2.0, and if it doesn’t work you haven’t wasted time on cosmetics and finishing details. A hands-on failure will teach you more than all the theory in the world.

    BTW your stepped tone generator, aka Atari Punk Console, was the circuit that finally got me into hobby electronics in my late 30s. That lead me to Maker Faire, First robotics, Bar Camp, Instructables, a whole new career path and an awesome community of makers and hackers. Thank you.

    1. “The days of bodged together quick and dirty proof of concept design is long gone.”

      I beg to differ.

      I was a teenager building Heathkits in the 80s. I saw the coming advent of surface mount technology as the death knell for the electronics hobbyist. I pivoted into software as a career, and that has served me well. I’ve always been a ham and have retained what electrical and electronics knowledge I’ve had, but didn’t think there was much use for those skills.

      Two years ago, I leased an electric car. At the time, charging stations (also known as EVSEs) were quite expensive, and I wanted to know why, so I googled around to discover The Secret. That led me to OpenEVSE and I decided, though I already had one, to try and build my own. That in turn led me to Arduino, and Eagle, and OSH Park and eventually to building my own reflow oven and mastering surface mount reflow soldering.

      I do breadboard stuff from time to time, but the quick-and-dirty proofs of concept that I make nowadays take 10 days for PCB fab turnaround and look like they came from a factory in Shenzen.

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Forrest M. Mims III

Forrest M. Mims III (forrestmims.org), an amateur scientist and Rolex Award winner, was named by Discover magazine as one of the “50 Best Brains in Science.” His books have sold more than 7 million copies.

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