Memories Of A Mis-Spent Youth: Learnabout Simple Electronics

Heaven, for tech-inclined late-1970s British kids.
Heaven, for tech-inclined late-1970s British kids.

Early last spring, we featured a book review, as part of our occasional Books You Should Read series. Usually these are seminal tomes, those really useful books that stay with you for life and become well-thumbed, but in this case it was a children’s book. Making a Transistor Radio, by [George Dobbs, G3RJV], was a part of the long-running series of Ladybird books that educated, entertained, and enthralled mid-20th-century British kids, and its subject was the construction of a 3-transistor regenerative AM receiver. If you talk to a British electronic engineer of A Certain Age there is a good chance that this was the volume that first introduced them to their art, and they may even still have their prized radio somewhere.

Making a Transistor Radio was a success story, but what’s not so well-known is that there was a companion volume published a few years later in 1979. Simple Electronics was part of the imprint’s Learnabout series, and it took the basic premise of its predecessor away from the realm of radio into other transistor circuits. Transistor timers and multivibrators were covered, Morse code, and finally quite an ambitious project, an electronic organ.

Opening the book it is evident that there has been a slight cultural shift since the first volume was published. The typography is much more modern in feel, and the picture of the child experimenter on the inside of the cover is a photograph of a late-70s young girl in place of the 1950s-style boy wearing a tie building the radio. The practical nature of the writing hasn’t changed though, while it states that some of the background information is not being repeated from Making a Transistor Radio we are taken straight into the deep end with a section on the tools required to work with the series’ signature screw cup on wooden baseboard construction technique.

Construction was so much easier when transistors came with long leads.
Construction was so much easier when transistors came with long leads.

The original book used germanium transistors from the Mullard OC series, OC71s and an OC44. These were some of the earliest British transistors, and as I can attest from building my radio in that period, difficult to obtain by the late 1970s. This book has therefore moved on to a later design, the AC128. Still a germanium PNP device, but this time in a metal can and crucially still available at the time due to having been a part used in more than one mid-70s colour TV set. We’re given a no-nonsense introduction to the device, told about its package, pinout, and schematic diagram. It’s refreshing to see a children’s book in which the child is introduced to such an adult subject as this without being constantly reminded that they are a child.

We then spend a couple of pages looking at a transistor as a switch. A 10K base resistor is used to bias an AC128 with a flashlight bulb as its collector load, and with a flying lead to the negative supply (remember this is a PNP transistor!) the bulb can be turned on and off. In typical form, we’re shown how to make a bulb holder from a paper clip should we not be able to source a dedicated component. The basic switch is then extended with an electrolytic capacitor to make a simple time delay switch, and finally we’re shown how two such circuits combine to make an astable multivibrator and flash a pair of bulbs.

The astable multivibrator, explained for kids.
The astable multivibrator, explained for kids.

For me, circa 1979 or 1980, this was something of an earth-shattering moment. For the first time, I understood how an oscillator worked. That transistor turned on, triggering the other transistor after a delay, which in turn triggered the first transistor after a further delay, and so on and so on. It’s a simple enough circuit, but to a kid who had only recently been introduced to electronics, it was an amazing moment of revelation to have an insight into how it worked. It probably gave me a lifetime bad habit in that the two-transistor astable has become my go-to circuit when I need a quick and dirty square wave. They can be assembled from commonly desolderable scrap components on a bit of PCB or tinplate in a matter of minutes, and I have used them for nasty logic clocks, harmonic-rich signal sources, PWM oscillators, switching power supplies, and many more applications all because of this book.

Enough reminiscences, and time to turn the page. For a bit of fun we’re shown the light flasher as a robot with flashing eyes, before substituting some of the components and adding a crystal earpiece for an audio oscillator. This is the first part of the serious business of the book, because it forms the basis of all the following projects. It’s also the furthest I got with the book as a child, because of a lack of enough AC128s for the complete organ project, and a lack of aptitude for music. I was shown how to use a soldering iron, discovered that scrap TV sets in dumpsters contained a goldmine of parts, and never looked back.

[George Dobbs] is a radio amateur, so of course once he has a legion of British kids with audio oscillators he then leads them into making a Morse Code practice oscillator with a filter and a key made from tinplate. In typical no-nonsense style we’re introduced to amateur radio, code, and basic operating procedure. There are even instructions for making a two-station setup using three-core mains flex, how many kids who built that went on to have callsigns of their own?

The organ project awaits, but before then we have time for a couple more circuits to get used to varying the pitch of the oscillator. A “violin” using a potentiometer, and a photoelectric cell each get their own page, after which you have to wonder: how many kids managed to get their parents to shell out for that ORP12 CdS cell?

Never lose the fascination you gain from your first project!
Never lose the fascination you gain from your first project!

The organ is of the “Stylophone” variety, with notes picked out using a stylus over conductive pads on the keyboard. Skeleton preset potentiometers are used for tuning, with the alternative of filing notches in carbon resistors. This would not have been a cheap project at all on a pocket-money budget in 1979, did any readers build it? If they went for the final two pages, the same 1-transistor loudspeaker amplifier as that used in the transistor radio, and a vibrato circuit using a low-frequency version of the multivibrator, then pocket money would have been in very short supply indeed.

But to look at it this way probably misses the point of the book. Where the previous book was all about presenting a single project in stages, this one is more about teaching some basic transistor circuits in stages. When I was given a copy I had a basic idea about transistors from those OC71s in the radio, but when I’d read this one and built some of the circuits I had a much more varied grasp of solid-state electronics. I knew about RC circuits and oscillators, and the effect of changing the values of an RC circuit on frequency. Some of the things I learned from this book I still use today, and nearly a decade after reading it when I was a 1st year electronic engineering undergraduate I hit the ground running in our course on transistor circuits because of it.

Learnabout Simple Electronics has been out of print for well over three decades now, but if you want a copy you should be able to find it in second-hand book stores online. There’s also at least one PDF version available too, if all you want is a quick look.

19 thoughts on “Memories Of A Mis-Spent Youth: Learnabout Simple Electronics

  1. My first foray into transistors after being introduced to electricity by my father while I was in the first grade, was in the early 60’s, due to a book in the public library that had about 20 different circuits using a 2N107 [pnp] and a 2N170 [npn] transistor. I still remember the day my sister grabbed the 2N170 and broke off one of the leads. A year or so later I was given a Heathkit 2 transistor breadboard [with the curly springs to hold the wires in place].. After that, I bought the super breadboard with three transistors, and then built a monster one, combining both kits on a large piece of Masonite..

  2. “we’re shown how to make a bulb holder from a paper clip should we not be able to source a dedicated component.”

    Wow! I wish I had thought of that back then, but even paper clips and flashlight bulbs were scarce* at times.

    *scarce, either by living in a remote ranch, or just being a po’ boy.

  3. ” how many kids managed to get their parents to shell out for that ORP12 CdS cell?”

    Well, by the late ’70’s, a lot of color TVs (in the US at least) had a CDS to adjust the picture brightness in ambient light.
    I know I have a few from TVs I scavenged.

  4. I think my earliest electronics book was a Usborne introduction to electronics book, went over basic theory with some basic circuits like a battery, switch, and light bulb, I think it had a crystal radio, and later combined that with a transistor and speaker to make a normal AM radio. Being a Yank I couldn’t find Veroboard at the local Radio Shack, just normal predrilled project boards that didn’t have the rows of traces linking the holes, so I had to add some jumper wiring to build a few of the circuits… How I managed to jump from EE to networking/security is beyond me :-P I still harvest stuff out of random broken things and build weird projects out of salvaged parts. I think I still have that AM radio I built out of the Usborne book somewhere.

  5. Most of us 30+ Y.O learned electronics/DIY from magazines at some point in our early days; I wonder how kids these days will show and tell how they learned things when they grow up (say 30 years from now), since websites come and go all the time, and (almost) no memory of them can be traced back after the fact. ..

    1. That is a I believe a big issue..

      There is so little that is tangible at the moment. Blink and it’s gone. Though all is not lost a new Electronics mag popped up about a year ago called DIYODE https://diyodemag.com and it has been realy good for getting started on electronics – yess all the information and projects could be sourced on line but haveing something coordinated and well presented makes a big difference.

  6. I hate to say it but when I was a boy all I had to work with where “valves’ ( tubes) I didn’t see a transistor till my last year of High school. They the teacher told us they worked kind of like tubes.

  7. The book that got me into electronics which then led to a career was Adventures in Electronics by Ton Duncan. Still have it and Adventures in Digital electronics. A Tandy 200 in 1 electronics set helped too!

  8. Just browsed through the PDF, that was fun!

    I remember borrowing this book from the local library (multiple times). And the oscillator was build many times and I even used a small variation on that design to hack my C64’s joystick to have autofire. Which I quickly expanded to auto left/right (or up/down using an additional switch) so I could cheat when playing joystick killer games like “declathon” and “combat school”. It was fun to surprise friends with. During a competition in 2 player mode… they never expected it. Beaten by this unknown and advanced kind of technology. I was the hero for about 10 seconds… then nobody wanted to play these kind of games with me.

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