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.

Continue reading “Forrest Mims, Radio Shack, and the Notebooks that Launched a Thousand Careers”

Hollow State Receiver

[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”

1980s Toy Robot Arm Converted To Steam And Other Explorations

We were doing our daily harvest of YouTube for fresh hacks when we stumbled on a video that eventually led us to this conversion of a 1980s Armatron robot to steam power.

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 resemblance is uncanny.
The resemblance is uncanny.

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.

Continue reading “1980s Toy Robot Arm Converted To Steam And Other Explorations”

Metalized Gift Wrap Saves A Classic Keyboard

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.

We’ve featured a few capacitive keyboards here at Hackaday before, including this similar repair to a Compaq from the 1980s, and this look at a classic IBM terminal keyboard.

Radio Shack Returns

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.

Continue reading “Radio Shack Returns”

Hackaday Links: February 8, 2015

[CNLohr] is famous for his extremely strange projects, including something that does something with Minecraft that even he can’t describe. Over the years, he’s built up a vast collection of projects that have been both incredible fails and successes. Here’s a video tour of all those projects.

For this week’s edition “Kickstarter is going insane”, you only need to look at the title of the campaign: Tesla Coils for North Korea.

Last week, a few slow scan TV signals were received from the International Space Station. Here’s the reddit thread.

The worst thing about using an Arduino in a semi-professional environment is the IDE. Here’s cuwire, a better IDE.

Wanna see something insane? How about an SSH library written in x64 assembly?

Radio Shack is in its death throes, and since you haven’t gone in the last few years, you might as well head out one last time and pick up some items on clearance. Here’s the list of store closings (PDF) and all 1,784 stores slated to be closed plotted on Google Maps.

I’ve come to bury Radio Shack, Not praise it.

This is a post that has been a long time coming. Today, Radio Shack, the store that has been everything from an excellent introduction to electronics and computers to a store that sells cell phones, cell phone accessories, and cell phone plans has declared bankruptcy.

To anyone, this should not be news. For the last decade, the public perception of Radio Shack was one of a shell of its former self. In 2007, The Onion famously published Even CEO Can’t Figure Out How RadioShack Still In Business, an article that like most of The Onion’s work, is a sand dune of grains of truth.

In recent years, Radio Shack has made attempts to appeal to the demographic that holds the ‘shack in such high regard. Just four short years ago, Radio Shack made an appeal to this community and asked for suggestions for what people would actually buy at Radio Shack. The answers ranged from Arduinos and larger component selections to Parallax Propellers. Even with this renewed focus on DIY, repair, electronic tinkering, and even in-house cellphone repair shops in some select locations, this was not enough.

This was a make or break year for Radio Shack. Last fall, Standard General, a hedge fund with an amazing name, attempted to refinance Radio Shack’s debt with specific revenue benchmarks set for the holiday season. These benchmarks were not met, and now Radio Shack has filed for bankruptcy protection after reaching a deal to sell nearly 2,500 stores. Radio Shack now has about 5,000 stores in the U.S.. Half of them will close, and as many as 1,700 will be operated by Sprint. The future of Radio Shack was a cell phone store, it seems.

Right now, there are rumors of Radio Shack employees ‘released from service’, with mass closings of stores very, very soon.

There has always been a love-hate relationship with Radio Shack with the DIY and tinkerer community. It was everything from many programmer’s first introduction to computers, the only place in town you could buy [Forrest Mims]’ excellent books, to a horrible place to work, and an odd store where you need a phone number to buy batteries.

This is not a eulogy; Radio Shack isn’t quite dead just yet, and eulogies are reserved for the loved ones in our lives. Radio Shack is neither. We all have a rich history with Radio Shack, and next time you’re buying some resistors on Mouser or Digikey, just remember we’re living in a different world now.