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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Citizen Scientist Radio Astronomy (and More): No Hardware Required

We sometimes look back fondly on the old days where you could–it seems–pretty easily invent or discover something new. It probably didn’t seem so easy then, but there was a time when working out how to make a voltage divider or a capacitor was a big deal. Today–with a few notable exceptions–big discoveries require big science and big equipment and, of course, big budgets. This probably isn’t unique to our field, either. After all, [Clyde Tombaugh] discovered Pluto with a 13-inch telescope. But that was in 1930. Today, it would be fairly hard to find something new with a telescope of that size.

However, there are ways you can contribute to large-scale research. It is old news that projects let you share your computers with SETI and protein folding experiments. But that isn’t as satisfying as doing something personally. That’s where Zooniverse comes in. They host a variety of scientific projects that collect lots of data and they need the best computers in the world to crunch the data. In case you haven’t noticed, the best computers in the world are still human brains (at least, for the moment).

Their latest project is Radio Meteor Zoo. The data source for this project is BRAMS (Belgian Radio Meteor Stations). The network produces a huge amount of readings every day showing meteor echoes. Detecting shapes and trends in the data is a difficult task for computers, especially during peak activity such as during meteor showers. However, it is easy enough for humans.

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Hackaday Prize: 20 Projects that Make Us All Citizen Scientists

We live in a time of unparalleled access to technology and this has the power to make life better for everyone. Today we are excited to announce twenty spectacular builds that use access to technology to move scientific exploration within the reach of all. These are the winners of the Citizen Scientist challenge of the 2016 Hackaday Prize. Themes tackled in this round include blood glucose monitoring, insole sensing for analyzing your footfalls, lab equipment like automated microscopy, sensors to measure the world around us, and more.

The winners for the Citizen Scientist portion of the Hackaday Prize are, in no particular order:


The Hackaday Prize is the greatest hardware competition on earth. We want to see the next great Open Hardware project benefit everyone. We’re working toward that by recognizing people who build, make, and design the coolest and most useful devices around.

These twenty projects just won $1000 and will now move on to the final phase of The Hackaday Prize, to be judged by our fourteen celebrity judges. Awesome! Now get to work: there’s a lot the hackers behind these projects need to do before the final judging in October where they’ll compete for the grand prize of $150,000 and four other top prizes.

AutomationIf your project didn’t make the cut, there’s still an opportunity for you to build the next great piece of hardware for The Hackaday Prize. The Automation Challenge is currently under way. It encourages everyone to build devices that make your life easier.

Automate your life; build a device that makes your breakfast, a robot to mow your lawn, or software that does your taxes. Build a device that automatically tracks laundry detergent, automates washing the dishes, or a robot that obeys every command.

Like the Design Your Concept, Anything Goes, and Citizen Science rounds of The Hackaday Prize, the top twenty projects will each win $1000, and move on to the Hackaday Prize finals for a chance to win $150,000 and a residency at the Supplyframe DesignLab in Pasadena.

If you don’t have a project up on, you can start one right now and submit it to The Hackaday Prize. If you’re already working on the next great piece of hardware design, add it to the Automation challenge using the dropdown menu on the sidebar of your project page.

Last Chance to Get In on the Citizen Scientist Challenge

The last week of the Citizen Scientist challenge round is drawing a close. Here’s what you need to know to enter your project, and to give it the best chance at making the top twenty. You need to do this by Monday morning, July 11th, to be in the running.

What is Citizen Scientist?

Sitizen ScientistCitizen Scientist is part of the Hackaday Prize. This round challenges you to make meaningful scientific study more approachable for everyone. Examples include projects that let people build their own lab equipment, sensor modules that can be distributed (or bootstrapped) for widespread data collection like weather stations and pollution monitors, or a new way of studying the world around us. The important thing is your explanation of the project. Show off your idea for making us all Citizen Scientists.

Right now we have a few hundred entries in this challenge round. Twenty of them will be selected to win $1000 and move on to the final round for consideration in the top five prizes: $150,000, $25,000, $10,000, $10,000, and $5,000.

This round ends on Monday morning, so make sure to enter your project now. Starting a new entry is easy but you may also enter a project that you have already document, or one that was submitted to an earlier round of the Hackaday Prize. In all cases, use the “Submit Project to” menu on the left sidebar of your project.

What Your Project Needs to Succeed

four-project-logsAn entry boils down to an idea, a picture, documentation, and four project logs.

You want to show that you are progressing toward a fully working prototype. We suggest that you start with a quick overview of the topic you chose for your entry. How does your project move Citizen Science forward? What led you to the idea, and what kind of impact do you hope it will have.

Don’t forget the build logs! One requirement of your entry is to have at least four build logs. At the minimum, pull out four different aspects of your design process and make them logs. To the right you can see a screenshot from the top of a project page. The log count is there and it needs to be at least 4.

A picture is worth a thousand words. You need at least one image, and we suggest that you put it in the image gallery — use the “Edit Project” button on the top right of your project page for this. It’s best to include some kind of system diagram that shows all parts of the overall project. If you have pictures of an actual prototype make sure to include those, as well as any other schematics, renders, CAD drawings, etc.

Upcoming Challenge Rounds

Don’t have something the fits with Citizen Scientist? Don’t worry, there are still two more rounds coming. On Monday July 11th we will begin the Automation challenge round. The name says it all; any and all automation projects will make great entries. The final challenge round, Assistive Technologies, begins August 22nd and seeks great ideas to make people’s lives better though technology that overcomes difficulties of body and mind.

No need to wait until those dates. Start your project now and you will be able to enter it into those challenges once they officially begin.

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Become a Peer Reviewer for Citizen Scientist

One of the keys to our scientific community is the concept of Peer Review. When important discoveries are made, the work is reviewed by others accomplished in the same field to test the findings. This can verify the work, but it can also open up new questions and lead to new discoveries.

We’re adding Peer Review to the Hackaday Prize. It’s a new way to apply your skills for the benefit of all. The current challenge is Citizen Scientist; calling for projects that help make scientific research more widely available. A set of independent eyes giving constructive feedback to these entries can be a huge end run to success. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. Having help recognizing stumbling points, or just receiving a second opinion that you’re on the right track makes a big difference when treading in unknown territory.

Becoming a Peer Reviewer is simple. Pick a project you are interested in, review it thoroughly while making notes in a respectful, positive, and constructive way. When you’re ready, submit your Peer Review using this form. We will privately share your review with the project creator. is the most vibrant hardware collaboration platform in the world. Peer Review is yet another interesting way to get more brilliant minds in our community involved in building something that matters.

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These 20 Projects Just Won $1000 In The Hackaday Prize

For this year’s Hackaday Prize, we’re doing something spectacular. We’re funding the next great piece of Open Hardware by giving away thousands of dollars for the best hardware projects. Just a few days ago, we wrapped up the Anything Goes portion of The Hackaday Prize, an electronic free for all to build the coolest gizmos imaginable. Now, it’s time to announce the twenty winners of the Anything Goes portion of The Hackaday Prize.

The winners of the Anything Goes challenge, in no particular order, are:

These twenty project just won $1000 and will now move on to the last phase of The Hackaday Prize, to be judged by our fourteen celebrity judges. Congrats! There’s a lot of work for these project to do before the final judging in October. Better get to work!

citizenScienceIf your project didn’t make the cut, there’s still ample opportunity for you to build the next great hardware gizmo. For the next few weeks, we’re running the Citizen Scientist portion of The Hackaday Prize. We’re looking for projects that expand the frontiers of knowledge, and give the common man the tools to discover the world.

Citizen Scientist is this month’s Hackaday Prize challenge to create something new, study something undiscovered, or replicate scientific studies. We’re opening up the gates for everyone to build their own apparatus and do their own research.

Like the Design Your Concept and Anything Goes rounds of The Hackaday Prize, the top twenty projects will win $1000, and go on to the Hackaday Prize finals for a chance to win the Hackaday Prize – $150,000 and a residency at the Supplyframe Design Lab in Pasadena.

If you don’t have a project up on, you can start one right now and submit it to The Hackaday Prize. If you already have a project up, add it to the Citizen Scientist challenge using the dropdown menu on the left sidebar of your project page.

The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by: