Forrest Mims, Radio Shack, and the Notebooks that Launched a Thousand Careers

There was a time when Radio Shack offered an incredible variety of supplies for the electronics hobbyist. In the back of each store, past the displays of Realistic 8-track players, Minimus-7 speakers, Patrolman scanners, and just beyond the battery bin where you could cash in your “Battery of the Month Club” card for a fresh, free 9-volt battery, lay the holy of holies — the parts. Perfboard panels on hinges held pegs with cards of resistors for 49 cents, blister packs of 2N2222 transistors and electrolytic capacitors, and everything else you needed to get your project going. It was a treasure trove to a budding hardware hobbyist.

But over on the side, invariably near the parts, was a rack of books for sale, mostly under the Archer brand. 12-year old me only had Christmas and birthday money to spend, and what I could beg from my parents, so I tended to buy books — I figured I needed to learn before I started blowing money on parts. And like many of that vintage, one of the first books I picked up was the Engineer’s Notebook by Forrest M. Mims III.

Wish I could find my original copy from 1979. This one is on Amazon.
Wish I could find my original copy from 1979. I just bought this one from Amazon.

Many years rolled by, and my trusty and shop-worn first edition of Mims’ book, with my marginal notes and more than one soldering iron burn scarring its pulp pages, has long since gone missing. I learned so much from that book, and as I used it to plan my Next Big Project I’d often wonder how the book came about. Those of you that have seen the book and any of its sequels, like the Mini-notebook Series, will no doubt remember the style of the book. Printed on subdued graph paper with simple line drawings and schematics, the accompanying text did not appear to be typeset, but rather hand lettered. Each page was a work of technical beauty that served as an inspiration as I filled my own graph-paper notebooks with page after page of circuits I would find neither the time nor money to build.

I always wondered about those books and how they came about. It was a pretty astute marketing decision by Radio Shack to publish them and feature them so prominently near the parts — sort of makes the string of poor business decisions that led to the greatly diminished “RadioShack” stores of today all the more puzzling. Luckily, Forrest Mims recently did an AMA on reddit, and he answered a lot of questions regarding how these books came about. The full AMA is worth a read, but here’s the short story of those classics of pulp non-fiction.

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Review: Hammer-Installed Solderless Raspberry Pi Pin Headers

A few days ago we reported on a new product for owners of the Raspberry Pi Zero, a set of solderless header pins that had a novel installation method involving a hammer. We were skeptical that they would provide a good contact, and preferred to stick with the tried-and-trusted soldered pins. It seems a lot of you agreed, and the comments section of the post became a little boisterous. Pimoroni, the originator of the product, came in for a lot of flak, with which to give them their due they engaged with good humor.

It’s obvious this was a controversial product, and maybe the Hackaday verdict had been a little summary based on the hammer aspect of the story. So to get further into what all the fuss had been about I ordered a Pi Zero and the solderless pin kit to try for ourselves.

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Hands On With The First Open Source Microcontroller

2016 was a great year for Open Hardware. The Open Source Hardware Association released their certification program, and late in the year, a few silicon wizards met in Mountain View to show off the latest happenings in the RISC-V instruction set architecture.

The RISC-V ISA is completely unlike any other computer architecture. Nearly every other chip you’ll find out there, from the 8051s in embedded controllers, 6502s found in millions of toys, to AVR, PIC, and whatever Intel is working on are closed-source designs. You cannot study these chips, you cannot manufacture these chips, and if you want to use one of these chips, your list of suppliers is dependent on who has a licensing agreement with who.

We’ve seen a lot of RISC-V stuff in recent months, from OnChip’s Open-V, and now the HiFive 1 from SiFive. The folks at SiFive offered to give me a look at the HiFive 1, so here it is, the first hands-on with the first Open Hardware microcontroller.

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Review: Digilent Analog Discovery 2

I recently opened the mailbox to find a little device about the size of White Castle burger. It was an “Analog Discovery 2” from Digilent. It is hard to categorize exactly what it is. On the face of it, it is a USB scope and logic analyzer. But it is also a waveform generator, a DC power supply, a pattern generator, and a network analyzer.

I’ve looked at devices like this before. Some are better than others, but usually all the pieces don’t work well at the same time. That is, you can use the scope or you can use the signal generator. The ones based on microcontrollers often get worse as you add channels even. The Analog Discovery 2 is built around an FPGA which, if done right, should get around many of the problems associated with other small instrumentation devices.

I’d read good things about the Discovery 2, so I was anxious to put it through its paces. I will say it is an impressive piece of gear. There are a few things that I was less happy with, though, and I’ll try to give you a fair read on what I found both good and bad.

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Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker

There’s no one quite like Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang. His unofficial resume begins with an EE degree from MIT, the author of Hacking the Xbox, creator of the Chumby, developer of the Novena, the first Open Source laptop, and has mentored thousands of people with dozens of essays from his blog.

Above all, Bunnie is a bridge across worlds. He has spent the last decade plying the markets of Shenzhen, working with Chinese manufacturers, and writing about his experiences of taking an idea and turning it into a product with the help of Chinese partners. In short, there is no person better suited to tell the story of how Shenzhen works, what can be done, and how to do it.

Bunnie’s The Hardware Hacker ($29.95, No Starch Press) is the dead tree expression of years of living and working in Shenzhen, taking multiple products to market, and exploring the philosophy that turned a fishing village into a city that produces the world’s electronic baubles.

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ESP32 Hands-On: Awesome Promise

The ESP32 is looking like an amazing chip, not the least for its price point. It combines WiFi and Bluetooth wireless capabilities with two CPU cores and a decent hardware peripheral set. There were modules in the wild for just under seven US dollars before they sold out, and they’re not going to get more expensive over time. Given the crazy success that Espressif had with the ESP8266, expectations are high.

And although they were just formally released ten days ago, we’ve had a couple in our hands for just about that long. It’s good to know hackers in high places — Hackaday Superfriend [Sprite_tm] works at Espressif and managed to get us a few modules, and has been great about answering our questions.

We’ve read all of the public documentation that’s out there, and spent a week writing our own “hello world” examples to confirm that things are working as they should, and root out the bugs wherever things aren’t. There’s a lot to love about these chips, but there are also many unknowns on the firmware front which is changing day-to-day. Read on for the full review.

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Wanhao Duplicator i3 Should Put an End to “Cheapest Printer” Kickstarters

Is the Wanhao Duplicator the best printer on the market? Not at all. Is it a contender for best low-price printer?Definitely. If you consider it a low priced kit printer instead of a finished product then it’s possible that, in its price class, it is hands down the best out there.

For somewhere between 300 and 500 dollars, the Duplicator is a hell of a printer. Also selling under the name Cocoon and Maker Select, the printer is a thin folded sheet steel frame clone of the Prusa i3. I opened the box expecting the most flagrant cost cutting I could imagine. I figured the steel would be paper thin. The holes wouldn’t line up. I expected the connections to be improperly terminated. I expected a fire.

The Duplicator six screws away from being fully assembled. When the manual says find a 1m x 1m flat area to work in it's not kidding. This table was too small.
The Duplicator six screws away from being fully assembled. When the manual says find a 1m x 1m flat area to work in it’s not kidding. This table was too small.

What I got was up and printing in under an hour. What I got was something designed by someone who cares, but with an obvious cost goal. As a bonus, it even printed pretty well. As mentioned, the basic shape of the frame is that of a Prusa i3. A horizontal bit holds the bed and y movement. A vertical bit is attached to the middle of that, making a T. It holds the X, Z, and nozzle.

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