Sunday, May 31, 2020

How Did I Get Here? - Playing with Wires

Radio Shack Crystal Radio

Last week I chatted about how I developed my interest in creating a large amount of sawdust,

But if you have taken a look at my projects, you would also see a good number of items that either lit up or did some sort of display.  Often these electrical projects were located in close proximately of materials that suspiciously looked like wood. 

My interest in electronics was somewhat related to my chosen career in IT.

However, my career has been focused on building the software that are run on computers, which typically doesn't really require much in-depth knowledge of the innards of a computer. 

But of course, wanting to know how random bits of electrons can make the software that I've developed come to life has always intrigued me. 

I suppose my first exposure to the mysteries of electronics came one Christmas morning when I was around 9 years old. That year I got a "Science Fair" Crystal Radio from Radio Shack as a gift. 
The radio was a pretty simple affair. It was basically a board that had a few holes in it where you plugged in some coil springs. You then patched together a few components into the springs by following the diagram that was printed on the board.

All in all, a simple-looking contraption, and I initially thought it was a bit of a dud gift until I hooked up the earphone to the output terminals and gave it a listen. 

Coming through the earpiece was a slew of voices and music, seemingly coming through from nowhere. 

At the time I probably found it an interesting toy, buy looking back, I now see that as the genesis of a trip that included a computer science degree, an amateur radio license, and active dabbling with wires and silicon chips. 

As I got older, I became more of a nerd and developed a passion for those new-fangled (at least for the 1980s) things called computers. This passion eventually landed me on a university campus as a computer science major. 

The computer science program I enrolled in was primarily focussed on the development of software with special attention paid towards developing computer applications that are geared towards making technology as user friendly as possible (I distinctly remember a class assignment where we were tasked to make the controls for a clock radio as simple as possible. Thirty years later I still grit my teeth whenever I look at a clock radio). 

One of the university courses I had to take was to learn a basic understanding of how computer hardware worked. This course had a lab that allowed you to use circuit boards that plugged into a breadboard to create complex circuits like binary counters or multiplexers.  

Oddly enough, during my high school and university years, I was also exposed to teachers and professors that were avid amateur radio operators and often used amateur radio as teaching aids.

Electronic building blocks

Little did I know was that seeds were being planted, just needing the right conditions to germinate. 

Those conditions were met one winter day a few years later on a highway roughly at the halfway mark of a 2-hour drive home. 

After passing an off-ramp, I was immediately stuck in a traffic jam that was caused by an accident a few miles up the road. I was stuck there for over an hour, fuming that if I had known about this a little earlier I would have taken that exit that was now taunting me in my rearview mirror. 

As I sat there, my mind ran over how I could avoid this next time, one of those seeds germinated. 

What if I had a radio that scanned the police or highway maintenance frequencies?  I would know if something was up ahead of time, and avoid getting caught in a traffic jam.

The next weekend I ran down to Radio Shack and picked up a simple radio scanner that was on sale. 

Radio Shack Scanner

The idea was to have the scanner in the car in order to listen for trouble ahead, but once I got it home and started playing with it, I was amazed at all the activity that was going around me. 

This started a journey into radio. The local radio action on my scanner soon turned into an interest in what was happening in the world through listening to what was on shortwave radio. 

Shortwave radio is an interesting world since it is basically a place with no real restrictions, where anyone could broadcast their message, whether they be countries, religious broadcasters, or illegal pirates. 

Shortwave Radio

It was during those listening forays that I also noticed people having conversations with each other over the shortwave frequencies. 

Sometimes the conversations were about mundane things like the weather or how their families were doing, sometimes the conversations were very quick and seem to be speaking in some sort of code. 

The other thing that I noticed was that these people were having conversations that were literally thousands of miles away from each other.  

Listening in on the conversations, I remembered my former teachers, and I remembered the excitement that they had when describing contacting people all over the globe.

 I had started to notice that I was starting to feel that same sort of excitement. 

In 2006, I finally gathered up the courage to take a 10-week course and wrote the exam for an amateur radio license. 

As part of the course, I was given a crash course on electronics, which included details on such things as transistors and capacitors and how one would use them. The amateur radio community is very much actively involved in the building and maintaining of their radios and other electronic equipment. 

As a newly minted ham radio operator, I was very keen to get on the air, but I was missing one key item - a radio, and more importantly, money to buy a radio.  

There was however a lot of plans and kits out there that allowed you to build something that would get you on the air very cheaply. By building some kits, I slowly learned how to solder, learned how to read circuit diagrams, and slowly figure out which was the collector and which was the emitter on a transistor. 

It was pretty much a self-learning process, and there was a good number of innocent electronic components that lost their lives whenever I connected the wrong wire to the wrong part, but slowly I began to understand the mysteries of electronics.  

One thing that I noticed after a while is that with the current state of electronics, I could very easily build complex circuits by combining specialized modules together to create any function that I needed. (Which I have referred to as Electronic LEGO). In some ways, electronics mimic a lot of what happens in software development where applications are built by combining pre-built blocks of code to create something new. 

Looking back at the electronic projects that I've posted, I can actually see there are two common themes with them - radio and LEGO.

At this point, I'm still very much a work in progress, I still consider myself still a beginner in the electronic arts, and my craftsmanship with circuits proves that. However, I can very easily hide the ugly mess of wires in a very attractive wooden cocoon - making woodworking and electronics a perfect combination for me. 


  1. Very interesting! My career is more on the conceptual side too - control systems etc. But I have been fascinated by how my control logic is turned into magic by electronics. As you say, the electronic lego kind of system is making hobby electronics accessible to newbies like me - bit by bit. Maybe I should look at the ham radio thing.

    I find the combination of woodworking and electronics fascinating. I am a newbie at both, but essentially, both use the mind and body in different proportions to create something that didn't exist before.

    1. I did find that the ham radio training gave you a crash course on electronic theory since you needed to learn about the purpose of capacitors, transistors, etc. for the exam - It certainly helped me understand the principles a bit better, even with the "Lego" :)

      But I agree, it certainly allows you to use your mind in a different way to create something.