Books You Should Read: Basic Electronics

I learned some basic electronics in high school physics class: resistors, capacitors, Kirchoff’s law and such, and added only what was required for projects as I did them. Then around 15 years ago I decided to read some books to flesh out what I knew and add to my body of knowledge. It turned out to be hard to find good ones.

The electronics section of my bookcase has a number of what I’d consider duds, but also some gems. Here are the gems. They may not be the electronics-Rosetta-Stone for every hacker, but they are the rock on which I built my church and well worth a spot in your own reading list.

Grob’s Basic Electronics

Grob's Basic Electronics 12th Edition
Grob’s Basic Electronics 12th Edition

Grob’s Basic Electronics by Mitchel E Schultz and Bernard Grob is a textbook, one that is easy to read yet very thorough. I bought mine from a used books store. The 1st Edition was published in 1959 and it’s currently on the 12th edition, published in 2015. Clearly this one has staying power.

I refer back to it frequently, most often to the chapters on resonance, induction and capacitance when working on LC circuits, like the ones in my crystal radios. There are also things in here that I couldn’t find anywhere else, including thoroughly exhaustive online searches. One such example is the correct definitions and formulas for the various magnetic units: ampere turns, field intensity, flux density…

I’d recommend it to a high school student or any adult who’s serious about knowing electronics well. I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants to reduce frustration when designing or debugging circuits.

You can find the table of contents here but briefly it has all the necessary introductory material on Ohm’s and Kirchoff’s laws, parallel and series circuits, and so on but to give you an idea of how deep it goes it also has chapters on network theorems and complex numbers for AC circuits. Interestingly my 1977 4th edition has a chapter on vacuum tubes that’s gone in the current version and in its place is a plethora of new ones devoted to diodes, BJTs, FETs, thyristors and op-amps.

You can also do the practice problems and self-examination, just to make sure you understood it correctly. (I sometimes do them!) But also, being a textbook, the newest edition is expensive. However, a search for older but still recent editions on Amazon turns up some affordable used copies. Most of basic electronics hasn’t changed and my ancient edition is one of my more frequent go-to books. But it’s not the only gem I’ve found. Below are a few more.

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Books You Should Read: Instruments Of Amplification

Psst… Wanna make a canning jar diode? A tennis ball triode? How about a semiconductor transistor? Or do you just enjoy sitting back and following along an interesting narrative of something being made, while picking up a wealth of background, tips and sparking all sorts of ideas? In my case I wanted to make a cuprous oxide semiconductor diode and that lead me to H.P. Friedrichs’ wonderful book Instruments of Amplification. It includes such a huge collection of amplifier knowledge and is a delight to read thanks to a narrative style and frequent hands-on experiments.

Friedrichs first authored another very popular book, The Voice of the Crystal, about making crystal radios, and wanted to write a second one. For those not familiar with crystal radios, they’re fun to make radios that are powered solely by the incoming radio waves; there are no batteries. But that also means the volume is low.

Readers of that book suggested a good follow-up would be one about amplifier circuits, to amplify the crystal radio’s volume. However, there were already an abundance of such books. Friedrichs realized the best follow-up would be one on how to make the amplifying components from scratch, the “instruments of amplification”.  It would be unique and in the made-from-scratch spirit of crystal radios. The book, Instruments of Amplification was born.

The Experiments

Microphonic relays
Microphonic relays, via H.P. Friedrichs Homepage

The book includes just the right amount of a history, giving background on what an amplifier is and how they first came in the electrical world. Telegraph operators wanted to send signals over greater and greater distances and the solution was to use the mix of electronics and mechanics found in the telegraph relay. This is the springboard for his first project and narrative: the microphonic relay.

The microphonic relay example shown on the right places a speaker facing a microphone; the speaker is the input with the microphone amplifying the output. He uses a carbon microphone salvaged from an old telephone headset, housing everything in an enclosure of copper pipe caps, steel bar stock, nuts and bolts mounted on an elegant looking wood base. All the projects are made with simple parts, with care, and they end up looking great.

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Books You Should Read: The Car Hacker’s Handbook

I just had my car in for an inspection and an oil change. The garage I take my car to is generally okay, they’re more honest than a stealership, but they don’t cross all their t’s and dot all their lowercase j’s. A few days after I picked up my car, low and behold, I noticed the garage didn’t do a complete oil change. The oil life indicator wasn’t reset, which means every time I turn my car on, I’ll have to press a button to clear an ominous glowing warning on my dash.

For my car, resetting the oil life indicator is a simple fix – I just need to push the button on the dash until the oil life indicator starts to blink, release, then hold it again for ten seconds. I’m at least partially competent when it comes to tech and embedded systems, but even for me, resetting the oil life sensor in my car is a bit obtuse. For the majority of the population, I can easily see this being a reason to take a car back to the shop; the mechanic either didn’t know how to do it, or didn’t know how to use Google.

The two most technically complex things I own are my car and my computer, and there is much more information available on how to fix or modify any part of my computer. If I had a desire to modify my car so I could read the value of the tire pressure monitors, instead of only being notified when one of them is too low, there’s nowhere for me to turn.

2015 was the year of car hacks, ranging from hacking ECUs to pass California emissions control standards, Google and Tesla’s self-driving cars, to hacking infotainment systems to drive reporters off the road. The lessons learned from these hacks are a hodge-podge of forum threads, conference talks, and articles scattered around the web. While you’ll never find a single volume filled with how to exploit the computers in every make and model of automobile, there is space for a reference guide on how to go about this sort of car hacking.

I was given the opportunity to review The Car Hacker’s Handbook by Craig Smith (259p, No Starch Press). Is it a guide on how to plug a dongle into my car and clear the oil life monitor the hard way? No, but you wouldn’t want that anyway. Instead, it’s a much more informative tome on penetration testing and reverse engineering, using cars as the backdrop, not the focus.

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Automatic Book Scanner To Bring Knowledge To Ethiopian Students

In 2013 the dean of an Ethiopian university addressed Maker Faire Hannover and outlined one of his concerns; that the high price of developed-world textbooks was holding back the cause of education for universities such as his own in developing countries. He was there to ask for help from the maker community to solve his problem, and a group of his audience took up the challenge to create an affordable and accessible automatic book scanner.

Their scanner builds on the work of Google engineer [Dany Qumsiyeh], whose open source linear book scanner turns pages by traversing the opened book over a triangular prismic former such that pages are turned by vacuum as they pass over carefully designed slots in its surface. Their modification replaces the vacuum with the Coandă effect, to more gently tease open each page and it is hoped reduce the chance of damaging the volumes being scanned.

The whole machine is controlled by a Raspberry Pi, and the scanning is performed by linear scanning optics, sensors, and electronics taken from flatbed scanners.

An important design goal of the project was to ensure that the scanner could be built without special tools or expertise that might be difficult to find in a developing country, as well as that it should be as inexpensive as possible. The frame of the machine is off-the-shelf extruded aluminium, and the body is acrylic sheet which can be cut to shape with a hand saw if necessary. It is estimated that the device will cost in the region of 500 Euros (about $568) to build.

More information can be found at the project’s web site (German language, Google translate link), including a selection of videos such as the one below the break showing the device in operation.

Writing from the perspective of having been peripherally involved in a professional book scanning operation at a large publisher the benefits of this machine are immediately apparent. Removing the binding and automatically scanning each page as an individual sheet produces a very fast and high quality result, but by its very nature damages the volume being scanned. This machine promises to deliver a solution to the problem of book scanning that is considerably less intrusive.

It is also worth noting that the project does not address any copyright issues that might arise from scanning commercially published textbooks, though this is more of a concern for the end user in terms of what they scan with it than it is for the maker.

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Directional Booklight Invisible to Everyone But You

Consistent contributor [Ken] has cooked up another contraption with his directional booklight. Combining an LED strip and privacy screen filter inside a wooden enclosure, this handy tool is made for someone who wants to read in bed without disturbing anyone else. The booklight sits on top of the page, the LEDs light up just the given area, and because the privacy screen only allows light to come straight off the page, only the reader can see any light and any other viewing angle is obscured.

[Ken] thought of everything. Rather than have the light stay on while the booklight is lifted to turn the page and possibly flash an unsuspecting slumberer, a tactile switch on the underside turns the light on only when it is pressed against the page, allowing very little light to escape.

Future upgrades include another switch on top to detect when the book is closed, and an accelerometer to detect when the reader may have fallen asleep.

We’ve reported a few of [Ken]’s projects before, like his 3D popup cardsunique weather display, and semi-real-life Mario Kart

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The Art of Electronics, Third Edition

For any technical domain, there is usually one book held up above all others as the definitive guide. For anyone learning compilers, it’s the dragon book. For general computer science, it’s the first half of [Knuth]’s The Art of Computer Programming. For anyone beginning their studies of electrons and silicon, it’s [Horowitz & Hill]’s The Art of Electronics. This heady tome has graced workbenches and labs the world over and is the definitive resource for anything electronica. The first edition was published in 1980, and the second edition was published in 1989. Now, finally, the third edition is on its way.

The new edition will be released on April 30, 2015 through Cambridge University Press, Amazon, and Adafruit. In fact, [PT] over at Adafruit first announced the new edition on last night’s Ask An Engineer show. [Ladyada] was actually asked to provide a quote for the cover of the new edition, an incredible honor that she is far too humble about.

The latest edition is about 300 pages longer than the second edition. It is thoroughly revised and updated, but still retains the casual charm of the original. Real copies do not exist yet, and the only critical review we have so far is from [Ladyada]. There will be few surprises or disappointments.

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Fail of the Week: Secret Agent-Style Book Hideaway

Ah, the movies are an inspiration for so many projects. How many times have you seen a spy movie where a cutout in the pages of a book are hiding something? This was the inspiration which led [Paul] and his crew to try using a laser cutter to remove a handgun-shaped cutout from the pages. The fail began before the project even got started. The sacrificial book they had chosen was too thick to cut directly so they tore it in thirds for the cutting process.

The hijinks are portrayed well in the clip after the break. The infectious giggling as this first trace of the laser cuts the outline makes the video worth watching. As they try to go deeper, the success falls off rapidly. This makes for a great Fail of the Week discussion: Why can’t you cut through multiple layers of a book with a laser cutter? Is this merely a focal length issue that would be solved with a higher-end cutter or is there something else at play here. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.


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