Where did you buy the parts for your first electronic project? That’s a question likely to prompt a misty-eyed orgy of reminiscences from many Hackaday readers, if ever we have heard one. The chances are that if you are from North America or substantial parts of the English-speaking world, you bought them from a store that was part of the Radio Shack empire. These modestly sized stores in your local mall or shopping centre carried a unique mix of consumer electronics, CB radio, computers, and electronic components, and particularly in the days before the World Wide Web were one of very few places in which an experimenter could buy such parts over the counter.
Sadly for fans of retail electronic component shopping, the company behind the Radio Shack stores faltered in the face of its new online competition over later years of the last decade, finally reaching bankruptcy in 2015. Gone are all but a few independently owned stores, and the brand survives as an online electronics retailer.
The glory days of Radio Shack may be long gone, but its remaining parts are still capable of turning up a few surprises. As part of the company’s archives they had retained a huge trove of Radio Shack products and memorabilia, and these have been put up for sale in an online auction.
If you are interested in any of the Radio Shack lots, you have until the 3rd of July to snap up your personal piece of retail electronic history. Meanwhile if you are interested in the events that led to this moment, you can read our coverage of the retail chain’s demise.
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.
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.
[Netzener] received a Radio Shack P-Box one tube receiver as a gift. However, at the time, his construction skills were not up to the task and he never completed the project. Years later, he did complete a version of it with a few modern parts substitutions. The radio worked, but he was disappointed in its performance. Turns out, the original Radio Shack kit didn’t work so well, either. So [Netzener] did a redesign using some some old books from the 1920’s. The resulting radio–using parts you can easily buy today–works much better than the original design.
The most expensive part of the build was a 22.5V battery, which cost about $25. However, you can get away with using three 9V batteries in series if you want to save some money. The battery provides the plate voltage for the 1T4 vacuum tube. A more conventional AA battery drives the tube’s filament. Continue reading “Hollow State Receiver”→
The video in question was of [The 8-bit Guy] doing a small restoration of a 1984 Radio Shack Armatron toy. Expecting a mess of wiring we were absolutely surprised to discover that the internals of the arm were all mechanical with only a single electric motor. Perhaps the motors were more expensive back then?
The arm is driven by a Sarlacc Pit of planetary gears. These in turn are driven by a clever synchronized transmission. It’s very, very cool. We, admittedly, fell down the google rabbit hole. There are some great pictures of the internals here. Whoever designed this was very clever.
The robot arm can do full 360 rotations at every joint that supports it without slip rings. The copper shafts were also interesting. It’s a sort of history lesson on the prices of metal and components at the time.
Regardless, the single motor drive was what attracted [crabfu], ten entire years ago, to attach a steam engine to the device. A quick cut through the side of the case, a tiny chain drive, and a Jensen steam engine was all it took to get the toy converted over. Potato quality video after the break.
What do you do when you decide that running CP/M on a Commodore 128 with a 5.25″ drive “Isn’t CP/M enough”? If you are [Chris Osborn], you reach for your trusty TRS-80 Model II, with its much more CP/M-appropriate 8″ drive.
There was one small snag with the TRS-80 though, its keyboard didn’t work. It’s a capacitive device, meaning that instead of each key activating a switch, it contains a capacitive sensor activated by a piece of aluminized Mylar film on a piece of foam. Nearly four decades of decay had left the foam in [Chris]’s example sadly deflated, leaving the keys unable to perform. Not a problem, he cast around for modern alternatives and crafted replacements from a combination of foam weather strip and metalized gift wrap.
Care had to be taken to ensure that the non-metalized side of the gift wrap faced the capacitive sensor pads, and that the weather strip used had the right thickness to adequately fill the gap. But the result was a keyboard that worked, and for a lot less outlay and effort than he’d expected. We would guess that this will be a very useful technique for owners of other period machines with similar keyboards.
What is CP/M, I hear you ask? Before there was Linux, Windows, and MacOS, there was DOS, and before DOS, there was CP/M. In the 1970s this was the go-to desktop operating system, running on machines powered by Intel’s 8080 and its derivatives like the Zilog Z80 in the TRS-80. When IBM needed an OS for their new PC they initially courted CP/M creators Digital Research, but eventually they hired a small software company called Microsoft instead, and the rest is history. Digital Research continued producing CP/M and its derivatives, as well as an MS-DOS clone and the GEM GUI that may be familiar to Atari ST owners, but were eventually absorbed into Novell in the 1990s.
In February 2015, Radio Shack–an icon in American malls and towns–filed for bankruptcy. You could say a lot of critical things about Radio Shack, but in many parts of the country, it was the only place you were going to go find electronic components on short notice. A lot of people of a certain age got their exposure to electronics via Radio Shack kits and parts.
Radio Shack did close a lot of stores. In fact, from 4,000 stores they are down to about 1,700. A New York hedge fund named Standard General bought all the Radio Shack assets and formed a new company (also called, oddly enough, Radio Shack). They just named [Dene Rogers] as CEO. He’s a veteran at retail sales, having been with Target in Australia and Sears in Canada.