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Electronics as a hobby in 2021

15 April 2021

When I was a kid, it was really easy to get into electronics as a hobby.

I think I started with one of the many "many-in-one electronic kits that were on the market at the time. These were packages which included a bunch of components, a board on which to wire stuff up and a collection of "projects" that were well documented and explained.

The joy that came from building my own two-transistor radio or simply making a light flash off and on was immense and further fueled my passion to learn about the world of electrons and their behaviour.

I was soon scavenging old radios, amplifiers and just about any gear I could get my hands on, so as to provide a ready supply of bits that could be repurposed into even more interesting and challenging projects of my own design.

These were great days for electronic hobbyists. Not only was it easy to get into the hobby but there was a wonderful bounty of parts hidden inside every discarded item of e-waste (although the term "e-waste" was unknown at the time.

Back then there was no internet to scour for ideas, information, knowledge and cheap parts from China. Instead I would spend many long hours reading books (from the local library) and magazines. It was great fun.

Although I was born into the era of the transistor, much of my early tinkering and learning was done using valves, simply because they were more readily available as e-waste than the far more valuable solid-state equipment that was new and very expensive. Of course there were downsides to working with valves and the risk of electrocution was always there -- but hey, an 8-year-old doesn't care about such things as mortality.

A few hours with soldering iron, screwdriver and pliers meant that an old public-address amplifier could be stripped down into a lovely pile of 6SN7s, 807s resistors, capacitors, transformers and switches, all of which would be filed away for future (re)use.

Whilst thinking back about those formative years of my life I wondered if things were as simple today -- for a young person wanting to get into electronics as a hobby.

Well if you look hard enough (mainly online), there are still some multi-project electronic kits to be had although much of the stuff being pushed is now focused on digital tech using Arduino boards or similar. I guess some folk think it's far more exciting to make a light blink using a CPU and software than by using a two-transistor astable multivibrator or even a 555 timer chip. However, I believe it's important to grasp the basic fundamentals associated with component-level design before "black boxing" the hardware too much.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing young people who want to get heavily into electronics as a hobby these days is that, unlike when I was young, much of the e-waste available today is pretty useless as a source of components.

Virtually all of the semiconductors are contained in integrated circuits that are custom-designed for a specific job. The capacitors and resistors are invariably surface-mount (SMD) types that are pretty useless for prototyping without a printed circuit board. You can't "birdnest" a prototype with SMD components in the way you could with the wired components of yester-year and few people have the time or skills needed to make their own PCBs these days -- that's a job best left to the Chinese.

On the flip-side of this equation, there are some incredible component deals to be had online thanks to China. I recall paying 2 cents per resistor "back in the day" but now you can buy these sort of components for just a tiny fraction of a cent each. This is great for kids who have parents that are willing to break out their credit cards and go online but if you're from a poorer household or mum/dad are unwilling to play ball, sourcing suitable components can be a real roadblock.

As I get older I really feel a burning desire to spend time helping young people get the best deal out of life. One way to do this is to give them options -- such as the option to pursue an interest and turn it into a career. To quite a degree, the maker-space concept has done a great job here but it only serves those who live in larger communities where such spaces exist. I'd still like to see options for those who live in smaller centres or who are geographically remote from places where they can get their hands on the necessary components, help, advice and learning.

Sure, most high-schools now run technology classes in which they cover the basics of electronics but for many kids, the spark of interest starts long before secondary school and needs to be kept alight and fed during that nascent period.

I wonder if there's some way we can turn the mountains of e-waste that get discarded or shipped of to distant shores into useful raw material for those kids who would most benefit from it? Me thinks this deserves more thought and consideration. Maybe we could (ever so slighty) reduce our e-waste footprint whilst also giving the next generation of electronic engineers a worthwhile hand-up into a satisfying and lucrative career.

Thoughts?

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