I recently had the opportunity to interview Forrest Mims for a book I’m writing about the DIY movement. Forrest is a well-know amateur scientist and the author of more than 30 electronics hobbyist books. He’s also the Country Scientist columnist for MAKE.
Here’s the excerpt from my interview where he discusses the origins of his famous book, Getting Started in Electronics.
That book was a sequel to the original Engineer’s Notebooks. My editor at RadioShack was Dave Gunzel. By that time I’d already written 16 or 17 radio shack books. We were sitting there talking one day and Dave witnessed my laboratory notebooks. He said, “Wow! Your books oughta look like this!” because I printed everything in the notebooks with the little drawings. He said “Your next book has got to be done like your notebooks.”
So the Engineer’s Notebook was done that way. It begins with a typewriter. Then it begins with typewritten pages with hand written symbols and then by the time you get to each of the integrated circuits that is discussed it’s totally hand done. It’s done with india ink on mylar. It was so hard to letter this book that my fingers were bleeding — the middle finger, where you press the india ink pen. And I had really severe writer’s cramp. And also, you can’t make mistakes with india ink. If you make a mistake, you have to start over the whole mylar page.
We extended that to a yellow notebook called Engineer’s Notebook 2, which added some new parts. Those two books together sold well over a couple of million copies. And then they wanted a book on understanding digital computers. I didn’t know how computers worked so I had to figure out how they work. I ended up building a processor on our kitchen table that actually had a four-bit language of micro-instructions that were like six micro-instructions. It had a little card reader I built. Everything was home made and it worked. After I built that I could write that book.
And then the idea of Getting Started in Electronics came up, so I met with Dave Gunzel. Of course it was gonna be hand-lettered. He even suggested using a crayon. I said “You can’t do a book with a crayon. It has to be a pen or a pencil! But I don’t want to use ink again, because it’s too painful.” So we agreed to use a #7 pencil — well, he didn’t agree to it — I just showed him what it would look like. I drew the book. I think the entire book was done in 54 days. I was doing two pages a day.” Getting Started in Electronics sold in the neighborhood of 1.3 million books or more. The first printing of 100,000 copies (cover price $2.49) was gone in the flash of an eye.