Make: Electronics – Interview with Charles Platt & Gareth Branwyn

Education Technology
Make: Electronics – Interview with Charles Platt & Gareth Branwyn

I feel very fortunate to work with such a great group of people here at Maker Media. Every day it seems like there’s some new and exciting project on the horizon. A few months ago, Gareth Branwyn, a senior editor at MAKE, and an editor at Make: Books, asked me to check out a new title he was developing with author Charles Platt. The book was called Make: Electronics, and from the moment I started reading the rough draft, I was completely hooked.

Now that the book is out, I thought it’d be fun to ask Charles and Gareth some questions about the book and share their answers here on Make: Online. First, I asked Gareth a few questions about how the book came into being. Then, keep reading to find out what Charles’ first electronics project was and why all of the telephone engineers in England are happy he stopped messing around with “their” equipment!

How did Make: Electronics come about?

Gareth: When I came onboard as an editor for Make: Books, in 2007, we were sitting around brainstorming ideas for books. We started in on our new Illustrated Guide series. We’d just published The Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders and were working on The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments. We were tossing out all sorts of crazy “Illustrated Guide to…” ideas and somebody said “The Illustrated Guide to Electronics.” It hit me (and I think all of us) like an eastbound bus — how about a beginner’s guide to electronics that could appeal to the growing community of MAKE readers who really wanted to learn electronics but who are not engineering/tech-minded — true beginners — a book that had the same sort of “hey, I can do this!” look, feel, and plain-spoken writing style as MAKE magazine itself. Not part of the Illustrated Guide series, but a special, stand-alone title.

I thought about Forrest Mims’ Getting Started in Electronics and how I meet people all the time who do venerating bows whenever that book comes up. ’cause that’s how they go their start. That was MY first significant electronics book, too. We could create the Getting Started in Electronics for the early 21st century! We could create a book that, several decades from now, self-made electrical engineers and career-makers might speak in awe and hushed-tones when OUR book was mentioned.

So, this became the organizing principle for the book. We started thinking about authors. We were tossing around different ideas in the ensuing months. And then Mark Frauenfelder mentioned Charles, after I’d seen the “Home Electronics” section of MAKE, Volume 10, and the amazing job he’d done there, introducing home electronics and showing several 555 projects. He seemed like the perfect candidate. Luckily, he was up to the challenge.


Illustration from Experiment 27: Making a Coil React

What about Make: Electronics is different from other “learn electronics” books.

Gareth: There are so many differences. It’s all color, for one. I don’t think there’s ever been an all-color beginner electronics primer. And it doesn’t suck! No offense, but I’ve looked at a lot of the beginner electronics books, and Charles did a more thoughtful survey of them before starting on the project, and we both agreed that nearly all of them are, well ALL kinds of bad — too geeky for real beginners, poorly organized, poorly illustrated, horribly photographed, and not clearly written. These are all big stumbles for me, and I think Charles and O’Reilly fixed all of this.

Good, plain-spoken writing is really important, something I’m proud that we do across Maker Media. I got my start in technical book writing with Ventana Press (now defunct). They had a great editorial approach: Don’t look for technologists who are also passable writers, find real writers who also happen to be tech-savvy. Charles is a real writer, who’s also tech-savvy, and boundlessly creative and curious about things. That’s a common profile at MAKE and I think it’s a winning combo for engaging, how-to writing that can appeal to a broad audience, especially beginners.

Who was your target audience?

Gareth: As I said in the announcement for the book, I’ve had lots of people come up to me and tell me they’d love to do the projects in MAKE, build robots, or do the kits they see in the Maker Shed, but they don’t know electronics, they can’t make heads or tails of the books and web resources on the subject, and they don’t want to ask their geek friends ’cause they feel stupid. I especially hear this from women.

When I was at Steampowered, the steampunk convention, in 2008, people had these elaborate weapons and costume pieces with electronics worked into them. But they’d gone to Toys R Us, bought electrified toys with the functions they needed, then cut the circuits out and put them into their creations ’cause they didn’t know how to make a simple LED circuit, or one with some motors, some blinkenlights, power source, and an on/off switch. Really basic stuff. So I’m hoping all of these folks will welcome and benefit from this book.

Homeschoolers, too. We’ve already heard from one homeschooling parent who plans on using it. I think Maker Faires, MAKE, Instructables, Dorkbot, Arduino, and similar high-profile, high-tech DIY organizations and technologies, have created a significant public interest in hobby electronics, in demographics that wouldn’t normally be interested in such things. Hopefully, this book will be a way into this world for them.


Illustration from Experiment 33: Hardware meets Software

What were some of your favorite books when you were learning electronics?

Gareth: Mim’s Getting Started in Electronics. Hands-down, for me. I’m such a visual person that it took a book like that, which was all hand-drawn, hand-lettered, to give me those true “ah-ha” learning moments. I’d bought a book from TAB, a lessoned electronics course, and was slogging through that, but I abandoned it when I got Forrest’s book. From there, I graduated to Bebop to the Boolean Boogie, by Clive Maxfield. It’s a very fun, irreverent, unconventional exploration of logic and digital electronics. In describing it to somebody, several years later, they mentioned Kenn Amdahl’s There Are No Electrons – Electronics for Earthlings. This is a book that uses fractured fairy tales and funny stories as mnemonic devices to help the right-brained like myself grasp basic electronics. While Charles’ book isn’t perhaps as wacky as these — at least the latter two — I’d like to think our book is in that tradition. Make: Electronics is definitely geared towards the visually-minded, with hundreds of illustrations, schematics, tables, charts, even cartoons. It’s a fun book to browse through and explore (although it was definitely designed with progressive learning in mind, each section building on the previous one).

How did you come up with the ideas for the projects in the book?

Charles: Often you can get ideas just by looking at something and wondering about the electronics inside. A toaster, for instance, must contain either a timer, or a sensor that detects when the toast is done, and a solenoid that releases the toast-retaining mechanism. An intrusion alarm is much more complicated, entailing wait periods and numeric codes that enable or disable the system.

We’re surrounded by electronic devices, and we can imitate almost any of them with fairly simple components. My task was to select projects that would fit together to provide a gradual educational process. Each project had to rely on components or principles that were different from the other projects, and I wanted to avoid re-using hobby-electronics circuits that exist elsewhere. This meant that, in many cases, I had to design my own circuits. It also meant that I had to do a lot of searching online to make sure I was not unintentionally repeating other people’s work.

In some cases, my concepts were not new. For instance, there are countless circuits for electronic dice. But I tried to approach the old concepts in a different way.

Lastly, I wanted each circuit to be as simple as possible, to minimize the opportunities for wiring errors, and to enable the reader to get to the conclusion as quickly as possible.

What is “learning by discovery?”

Charles: Many books begin by defining units and stating formulas. They tell you what an ampere is, and they show you Ohm’s Law. If you’ve never attached wires to a battery and seen how actual components behave, I don’t think this approach is very instructive. In fact, I came to the conclusion that most introductory guides do things backward. I think the reader should begin by messing around with components, and then learn the theory, by making deductions from the experimental results.

For example, early in the book, I suggest that the reader can short out a small battery. This is safe so long as you follow the instructions and never, ever try it with a large battery or a rechargeable one that has low internal resistance. If you short out an AA-size 1.5 volt alkaline battery, using two thin wires, the wires will get hot. But if you touch the same two wires to your skin, your skin doesn’t get hot. Why? What’s going on, here? Well, straight away, you find yourself learning about the concept of resistance, not as a theoretical idea but as something you can experience. If we then refine the experiment by using resistors and a meter, we can deduce Ohm’s Law for ourselves.

I call this “Learning by Discovery” because it’s an accurate description of the process. You try something, you see what happens, and you discover an underlying principle. Then you use that principle to suggest another experiment, and so on. This is how science itself is done: By performing experiments, evaluating the results, and making deductions.

The experimental process means that you’ll make mistakes or mess things up from time to time. That’s a learning experience, too — and a very important one. Other books warn you not to overload an LED, because you’ll burn it out. My book tells you to go ahead and overload an LED, while measuring what you’re doing, so that you can discover what the limits are. An LED should cost less than ten cents. I think that’s a trivial price for a valuable learning process.


Illustration from Experiment 16: Emitting a Pulse

What’s you favorite project in the book? Why?

Note: It’s interesting that neither Gareth nor Charles knew what project the other chose, and they both selected the same one!

Charles: The very first thing I suggest is to touch the terminals of a 9-volt battery to your tongue (although if you have metal braces on your teeth, this may not be a great idea). When I was a kid, we used to do this to find out if the battery was still good. It’s such a simple thing to do, but I’ve never seen an electronics book that tells you to do it. Right away, you learn that electricity is a tangible force, yet low voltages are relatively safe, so long as you are using a small battery with relatively high internal resistance. It’s like jumping into a swimming pool for the first time. The water is potentially dangerous, but you can learn to use it safely and enjoy it. You can get acquainted with it, and it starts to feel like a friend.

So, this incredibly simple first experiment is my favorite, because it establishes an attitude that continues throughout the book.

As a finished project, my favorite would be one that I wasn’t able to fit into the book. I wanted to use logic chips to make an electronic version of the “Whack-a-Mole” midway game that you sometimes see at fairgrounds. In the physical version, plastic moles stick up their heads, and you have to whack them with a soft mallet. I wanted to replicate this with buttons and LEDs, because it would entail solving many problems that might not be initially obvious. For instance, how do you prevent someone from cheating by pressing several buttons simultaneously? Should the player be penalized for this, or should the circuit simply ignore it? How do you randomize the lighting sequence of the LEDs? How do you trigger the next LED as soon as a button has been pressed, but if the player doesn’t press a button quickly enough, the game eventually lights up another LED anyway? And how do you keep score? In fact, there were so many problems, the project became too big. I had already included some circuits using logic chips, so I decided to leave out “Whack-a-Mole” and devote the space to other concepts instead. But I still hope to build it one day. Maybe I’ll write about it elsewhere, or in a future book.

Gareth: I’m quite fond of the very first experiment, “Let’s Abuse a Battery,” ’cause it has you licking a 9v battery. Even though it’s the simplest, silliest experiment in the book, I think it sets the tone for the reader that this isn’t going to be a normal, dry, deep geek tome, and it drives home the idea of learning by discovery that’s applied throughout the book. I also really like Experiment 19: “Learning Logic,” because I think it’s a great example of how using color can help make things like explaining logic gates and truth tables so much easier to understand.

Tell us about the companion products that MAKE is developing for the book.

Gareth: Well, we have the Make: Electronics toolkit, which was put together by the Maker Shed as their beginner toolkit for all electronics applications. It’s not exactly the tools specified by Charles in his book, but it’ll serve you well as a companion to the book. And it’s very reasonably-priced, especially when bought as a bundle with the book. We’re also going to be releasing a series of companion parts kits, one for each of the five chapters. The kits will include all of the electronic components you need to do all of the experiments in that chapter.

Note: The Electronics toolkits from the Maker Shed was extremely popular this holiday season and we are currently sold out. They will be back in stock the first week of January.


And now for some more, non-book-specific, questions for Charles Platt, author of Make: Electronics

What was you first electronics build? How old were you?

Charles: My first real project was to make a telephone answering machine when I was around 15, using a rectifier, a relay, and a tape recorder. When I was growing up in England, in the early 1960s, telephone answering machines were completely unaffordable. They were only used by large businesses, and were supplied by the state-owned telephone company. Private manufacturers could not market a telephone answering machine to consumers. You weren’t supposed to plug any appliance into the telephone system unless it was supplied by the telephone company.

I built my answering machine, connected it while my parents were on vacation, and disconnected it when they returned. Inadvertently, I left our telephone system disabled, so that we received no phone calls for the next week. Finally a telephone engineer visited our house and was horrified to see that I had been switching house voltage (240 volts AC, in England!) using telephone ringing current and a military-surplus relay. This was quite a serious error on my part, because if there had been an internal short in the relay, house voltage could have gotten into the telephone system and electrocuted operators at the local telephone exchange. The phone engineer was so stunned, he accepted the offer of a large whiskey and soda from my father, and I promised never to mess with the phone system again.

What are you working on now?

Charles: I am designing a prototype device to lower body temperature after cardiac arrest. Since this has to be usable by relatively untrained people, I have to display prompts and error messages on a screen, and I have to have sensors which detect that the various valves and other controls are set correctly. Initially I thought of running it from a Windows tablet PC, but that was too vulnerable to liquids and other kinds of abuse. So now I’m doing it with programmable microcontrollers.

What’s the best piece of advice to anyone wanting to learn electronics?

Charles: Plug some components into a breadboard, and if the circuit doesn’t work, don’t give up. Be extremely patient and methodical when it comes to tracing faults.

A more general piece of advice is: Don’t assume that you need a person to teach you a subject. You can teach yourself almost anything, if you’re willing to sit and read a book.

What’s next?

Charles: Possible future book projects include a real-life study of modern family farming (which now relies quite a lot on electronic devices), or a novel about some unexpected consequences of acidification of the oceans.

Favorite electronics related tool?

Charles: The breadboard. A brilliant invention. If alligator clips and/or solder were our only options, the process of prototyping a circuit would be very miserable indeed.

In the Maker Shed:

Make: Electronics
Our Price: $34.99
Want to learn the fundamentals of electronics in a fun and experiential way? Start working on some excellent projects as soon as you crack open this unique, hands-on book. Build the circuits first, then learn the theory behind them! With Make: Electronics, you’ll learn all of the basic components and important principles through a series of “learn by discovery” experiments. And you don’t need to know a thing about electricity to get started.

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