Ask Hackaday: What Was Your First Electronics Win?

Back in high school, I joined the stage crew — because of course I did. As student theater groups go, it was pretty active, and with two shows to produce each year, there was always a lot of work to do. I gravitated to the lighting crew, which was a natural fit for me. Besides the electrical part of the job, there was also a lot of monkeying around on scaffolding and rickety ladders to hang the lights, which was great fun for the young and immortal. Plus there was the lighting console to run during performances, a job I eventually took over for my last two years.

Unfortunately, the lighting system was a bit pathetic. The console was mounted in the stage right wings, rather than out in the front of the house where a sensible person would put it. And despite being only about ten years old, the dimmers were already starting to fail. The board had about 20 channels, but you could always count on one of the channels failing, sometimes during a show, requiring some heroics to repatch the lights into one of the dimmers we always left as a spare, just for the purpose.

Danger Afoot

Having grown sick of this sorry state of affairs, and with the number of taped-over dimmer controls on the console beginning to outnumber the good ones, I decided to see what I could do. The console was, of course, just a front-end for the real dimmers, which in the pre-DMX days just operated on a 0 V to 10 V signal and controlled the lights connected to it with an SCR. The dimmer packs themselves were mounted to a rack on a wall inside a room adjacent to the stage, which we creatively called “the dimmer room.” The dimmer rack was mounted way up on a wall, so you had to stand on a table or a ladder to reach them. It was very sketchy.

Now, please bear in mind that this was the late 1970s, and times were different. We teens were far more free-range then, and the things we did would probably get someone arrested these days. That includes blithely taking the heavy steel enclosure off a rack of dimmer packs, each with exposed conductors carrying line current, while balancing atop a ladder. And doing it alone, without permission, and with only the barest glimmerings of knowing what I was doing. But again — immortal.

Like this, but deadlier. A Kliegl Bros P-73 SCR dimmer, with control board removed. This is a later version of the one I fixed, with fewer high school student killing features. Source: Kliegl Bros. Collectors Society

Having somehow survived the uncasing of the dimmers, I set about doing the really dangerous part — diagnosing the problem in a rack of live dimmer packs. Each dimmer had a big chunky toroidal transformer, a PCB mounted vertically, and a chunky heatsink with a huge stud-mount SCR, all mounted to a piece of fiberglass channel that screwed into the rack. The dimmers were packed pretty tightly into the rack, without a lot of space between them, so getting to the components on the PCB to test voltages was difficult. Not to mention dangerous — one false move and you might touch one of the heat sinks, all of which were connected to line voltage.

Chilling Out

Luckily, I didn’t need to touch anything to diagnose the problem. The dimmer I was working on had a clear heat-intermittent — it would only start acting up after it had been in use for a half-hour or so. I had already let the dimmer warm up and blink out, and armed with my trusty can of component cooler from Radio Shack, from my perch atop the ladder I started zapping components on the wonky dimmer’s PCB with lots of ozone-depleting Freon. Like I said, different times.

Ozone? That’s a problem for future Dan. Freon component cooler, from the 1978 Radio Shack Catalog. Source: RadioShackCatalogs.com

At the time, I had only ever heard of looking for heat-intermittents thanks to the Radio Shack catalog. I didn’t really have any expectation that this little trick was going to work, so imagine my surprise when I zapped one particular transistor on the PCB and heard the unmistakable sound of the light going back on — that big toroidal transformer, no doubt. I couldn’t believe that I had found the problem! I watched as the Freon-induced frost on the chilled transistor turned to water and eventually evaporated, at which point the dimmer blinked out again. Overjoyed at my discovery, I kept zapping that poor transistor back to life and watching it die, just for the sheer novelty of it. I had found the problem, all by myself.

Bursting with pride, I took the defective dimmer out of the rack — itself a perilous endeavor — unsoldered the suspect transistor, and took it to the local electronics store. No, not Radio Shack — Hatry Electronics, supplier to the local TV repair shops and the few remaining electronics manufacturers in the area. It was a real electronics shop, which racks of parts behind the counter. I gave the counterman my dying transistor, he gave me the nearest match listed in his huge dead-tree cross reference, and later that afternoon, that dimmer pack finally stopped giving us troubles.

I was thinking about this repair the other day, and it occurred to me that this was my first, unqualified “win” with electronics repair. I had only been fooling with electronics for five or so years at that point, but until that day, most of my repair attempts had ended in defeat. I had managed to fix a few cassette player that my classmates asked me to look at, but only if it was a broken drive belt or a bad solder joint on a jack. This dimmer repair was next-level stuff at the time, at least to me. I had recognized the problem, properly identified the defective component, and effected a repair. All on my own, and without killing myself.

I realize that in the large scheme of things, it was a simple repair. But it was a big deal to teenage me, and in a lot of ways, it was the beginning of everything that was to follow for me. Being able to make that repair convinced me that I could do this, and set me on the path that led to a life of fixing things. Not just electronics, of course — fixing anything now gives me a chance to get the same feeling as I had that day over 40 years ago, balancing atop a wobbly ladder and blinking a light on and off with a spray can of Freon. I never quite get the feeling back, but I keep chasing it.

Your Turn

How about you? What was your first win in electronics? Was it an epic repair like mine? Or perhaps it was more along the lines of finally getting a circuit to work — that first blinkenlight project can be a real rush, after all. Whatever it was that started you on the journey that led you to the point where you just read (and hopefully enjoyed) a story about a repair on something that was probably scrapped a few years later, let us know. We all got here somehow, and it’s interesting to find out what paths others took, and what it was that flipped their switches to the “I can do this!” position.

73 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: What Was Your First Electronics Win?

  1. My first electronics hack didn’t involve electronics. It was a battery. I was about 7-8 years old and dad’s car kept cranking slower and slower on start up. This was the age of “maintenance free” batteries. after popping the caps off the battery I discovered all the cells were low on water. A quick fill above the plates and dad was amazed when the car cranked right over! Man my ego grew about 10 sizes in 2 minutes.

  2. I was once given an old TV, and quite soon after that it stopped working. After fiddling around and reading some datasheet, I discovered it did a “beam current” measurement before it turns on the CRT, and if it is too low, then it just refused to work, As a test I added a resistor to artificially increase the beam current measurement and the TV turned on, but the picture was strongly distorted. Apparently this low beam current is just a normal result of an aging / wearing CRT.

    I “fixed” it by adding a microswitch and a piece of string to the resistor. After that you simply had to momentarily pull the string after you turned on the TV to fool this beam current measurement. That got several more years of use out of that TV.

    1. 2nd grade. Took apart a cheapo rc car to see if i could make it go faster. Dismantled the entire thing, put it back together, decided to wire up 9v batteries, higher voltage def made it faster. Lol

  3. hah hah my first real electronics engineering WIN is just about 5 years ago when i made a 5V (USB) -> single cell lithium charge controller, and it worked on the first try, and it still works today.

    before that it was about a 50/50 mix of losses and gimmes — wins so trivial that i wouldn’t count them.

  4. probibly the first time i fixed a capacitor plague monitor. i wound up with a bunch of flat panel displays fished out of dumpsters as a result. and this was at a time when a small flat panel costs north of $300. i sold a lot of those, so its the first time my hobby turned any profit.

    though ive been fiddling with electronics since i was 5. i remember taking a hammer to some toy (dont remember what it was), but i smashed it to bits and took out a motor. i remember sticking the terminals on my tongue and spinning the shaft. i realized that they could work in reverse. i told my older brother and he didn’t believe me. that’s how i figured out i was the smart one.

  5. A friend was given a 5.1 surround sound amplifier and speakers, but two of the channels weren’t working.

    Opening it up and checked obvious stuff; it seems the input and output connections were fine. Not having any diagnostic equipment on hand, I had an idea. I used the tip of an RCA lead as a probe, feeding into one of the known-working channels to trace the signal along the route on the dead channels. Spotted it didn’t pass one of the ics.

    The dead part was an opamp for volume control. Cheap replacement from the local store meant my friend got a great little speaker setup for his PC

  6. Haha love this article.
    I worked at. Radio Shack and an electronic pocket dictionary ($100) was in our trash. I asked if i could have it.

    Took it home and found the capacitor on the power-on button had a bad sid solder joint. I fixed it and showed my manager. I offered to give it back so we could sell it (throw me some SPIF bonus!). But the manager wouldn’t sell it because it was “unauthorized” repair. But he gave me all kinds of broken stuff from then on. I still have loads of RC cars with servos steering. The tires have gone “flat”.

    PS can anyone see this post? My confirmation email never gets sent anymore. Am i shadow banned?!

        1. Yes. Commenting is very flakey at the moment. I thought I was just banned, which is not unusual for me, but I could not think what I had been banned for. Somebody could do with running some tests, if only to let us all know what exactly the issues are.

    1. Since I was in the UK at the time our iteration of Radio Shack was Tandy, and during the 80s, they tended to stick all faulty stuff and returns in a bargain bin with 90% off. On one such occasion, I got a pair of powered speakers for a walkman etc to plug into. They were missing the wiring harness, and turned out to have their power on LEDs inserted backwards. After correcting that, they came to life and it was trivial to rig up a stereo to mono Y cable for them and I used them a decade or so.

      1. If you’re curious there’s an evilbay listing http://www.ebay dot com/itm/184611806823 for the set I had. Used to be a blog or youtube review type vid around, but could only dig this up this time. They were a bit annoying with that leg design, very tippy when loaded with batteries.

  7. My Dad came home with a non-working ditch-find TV for me to “play with” when I was 13. It was a monochrome valve/tube set but there was a thing that I thought might be a solid-state diode, but it was a short whichever way I measured it. So I replaced it with a modern (in the 1970s) diode, oblivious to its purpose or germanium vs. silicon differences, and the TV worked!

    I’m pretty sure my Dad was oblivious to the fact that there could be 20 kV lurking inside, but luckily I knew enough about CRTs by then to be careful.

  8. As a teen, I built an aircraft radio in the mid-80s from a kit of about 6 daughter boards and bags upon bags of through-hole components. The kit manufacturer sends you all the parts, you send them back the assembled boards, they validate them, do any calibration that’s needed, and return the fully completed radio ready to use. IIRC, they did not find any faults with my work.

    Not electronics, but around the same time as that, I taught my dad the trick to sealing the bead on a tubeless tire by spraying the inside with ether and throwing a lit match at it. I can still see the look on his face when it worked.

  9. Great article BTW – let the commenters provide the content – a commenter’s revolt? My 1st electronix experience was on a kit which I had when I was about 8. I followed a few of the tutorials including successfully building a crystal radio. Unfortunately, as with all my other metal toys, the contact springs went rusty and that was the end of it. The only thing that survived the damp in the house was lego, which had some indestructable electric motors which was very cool.

  10. Fixing an old Russian made oscilloscope in school.
    I could have it, if I fixed it. Turned out to be a fuse.
    The teacher said, it was too easy and took it..
    Bastard..

    Next, I designed and built an 8051 based RAM loader.

    Ended up designing 6 layer PCB for a motherboard

  11. Early 70’s ( ‘im ~18 )I ended up with a 3/4″ Video Tape Recorder ( Real to Real ).. A Video Camera ( Vidicon ) but no way to record Off Air Broadcast.. or see what had been recorded..

    I hunted down the ‘Sams’ for the BW TV Set I had, and figured out where the Video Detector Circuit was.. I was able to turn my TV into a Video Source as well as a Video Monitor.. I think I recorded an Apollo Space Mission..

    After that I went Digital, and never looked back..

    Cap

  12. There was a huge amount of fault finding by eyeball as I was in larval stage, bad connections, cold joints, burned components… Then there’s the thrill of getting your first transistor project running, think mine was a multivibrator. Then your first radio. (built 2 or 3 out of questionable salvage components before I made one work) … However, they felt like numerous small victories, rather than the first big win.

    I think the first big win, is when I got a dead CGA monitor, and I couldn’t SEE anything wrong, so I actually had to use the multimeter for diagnosis, rather than confirming eyeball diagnosis with the multimeter, if you catch my meaning. I am not recalling the details that clearly, but it went something like… fault traced to main logic/synch boards not getting any power, so it was LT PSU problem… futzed around with that, was linear regulated with a TIP33 or similar output transistor… which was open circuit on one side. Didn’t look blown, until I got it up off the sink and “stood it up” where it looked a bit brown around the gills on the back side (Maybe I would have got there by eyeball eventually, but probably saved me hours) Yay, known fault, known component, all I need is a replacement! So off I go to Tandy(RadioShack) and ask for a TIP33… they convince me that some archer part number is an equivalent (Remember when they used to have like 20 transistors they said could replace anything?,,, yeahhhhhhh) I take it home, solder it carefully in place and ***PHUT*** it blows out rather emphatically… several trips to the library and a phone call to my engineer Uncle later, I figure out that the circuit really needs a TIP33 and the Archer equivalent part was only rated for 5A whereas I plainly needed nearer 10. Anyhoo, I think I took a sneaky “detour” home from school with my bus pass and got off at a different town where there was a small “real” electronics parts supply and got an actual TIP33 … Installed it and yay! A “working” monitor… that turned out to have a really dim tube so I could only use it with the lights out, so that was bit of a crimp in my first real actual diagnosis victory.

    Though strangely it was relatively recently I had the first feeling like that with actual repair of a computer motherboard*. Mostly fixed junky computers by part swapping as there was plenty of cheap equivalent parts by the time they flaked out. I didn’t have a POST card for years. Then when I finally picked one up, it was a bit of a revelation, knowing what was actually going on… one board I went though it issue by issue, and finally led me to a cold joint on a PLCC i/o chip… and when the board booted up it was glorious… rawwwwr, I are computersaurus the mighty fixer.

    * back when through hole boards were around I got a few simple fixes, replaced 74 chips, by bleep and blunder kinda thing, but high density surface mount stuff on multilayer just seemed overhwhelming.

  13. My first real success was when talked the local arcade owner into letting me try to fix the “Tempest” machine when I was 17.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tempest_(video_game)

    My brother and I hauled it home and managed to get it into the basement.

    I found a bad transistor driving the CRT and replaced it. I probably spent half a day playing it once I got it working again.

    My dad talked me into following all the alignment instructions in the service manual – I returned the machine all properly adjusted and playable. The service manual (with full schematics and parts list) was in a little cupboard box built into the cabinet.

    I later fixed up a “Battlezone” machine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battlezone_(1980_video_game)) and what I think was an “Armor Attack” machine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armor_Attack).

    There was a cocktail table “Football” machine with a broken button that I fixed with a short piece of aluminum tube from an arrow.

    The “Star Wars” machine kicked my ass, though. It wasn’t hard to find the transistor that was bad, but I couldn’t figure out what kept causing it to quit. Looking back, it was in a switching power supply. There were large electrolytic capacitors close by. One (or more) was probably dry and needed to be replaced, but I didn’t have the experience to recognize it at the time.

  14. The earliest I can remember was a computer “repair”

    I think I was around 7 years old. My dad and I gathered some parts from his leftovers and a few hamfest finds to build up a desktop computer. An intel 8086 (or maybe an 8088) chip and motherboard. For those of you that don’t know/remember, motherboards back then usually didn’t have any built-in interfaces outside of the ISA slots (essentially the precursor to PCI and PCI Express) Some maybe had an ATA/IDE controller built in, but most didn’t. It was all about adding in some ISA (or similar) cards. The motherboards actually had more than 2 or 3 slots on them too. Like 5 or 8 slots. For the most part, nothing was auto-detected. The cards had physical jumpers that selected the address it would use. If it was a card that needed access at boot time, you would need to set this in the BIOS and on the card. Some cards only had some of the addresses selectable. So sometimes you simply would run out of available addresses a card could use.

    Anyways. From what I remember, this computer we were building up was sitting on my dad’s workbench. He couldn’t get it to recognize the hard drive. I provided a few suggestions he didn’t think were worth trying and I was told not to touch it while he was at work.

    Of course when he left for work, I headed to the basement workshop and tested my potential fixes. I can’t remember the exact fix, but I think it had to do with the actual cable connecting the hard drive. Back then, the hard drive cable (40 wire ribbon cable) had 3 connectors on it. 1 to connect to the controller, 1 to connect to the master drive and one to connect to the slave drive. The drives also had jumpers for master or slave. But depending on the actual interface, the cable would determine was was master and what was slave. So I took the 1 minute to try using the slave connector instead of the master and it found the drive and booted up. Most likely was a design issue with the controller that reversed the master/slave indicators.

    It was a win because I proved my dad wrong, made the thing work and didn’t break it in the process. The takeaway, is that you should never trust that something is 100% bug free. Try the most basic things first, even if they seem stupid or unlikely. Especially when you are using something designed by someone else.

  15. I’ve always been into repairing my “Stuff”, but mostly automotive (DC) electrical.
    Back in the early 1960s, I was gripped by the photography bug. I took some JC classes including darkroom, and decided i needed an exposure meter for my enlarger.
    I discovered an article in an electronics magazine with diagram. A trip the the Radio Shack and my new solder iron allowed me to build my own darkroom exposure meter.
    I still have it somewhere. :-)

  16. Anyone else remember Nintendo Satellite adapters that let you connect four controllers at once? They chewed through D cells like candy. Until I soldered a jack to accept external power from the supply I used to charge a Radio Shack Concord Buggy so I could just plug it in. I was around 12 at the time.

  17. in the early days of the SIMM, [Single Inline Memory Module], SIMM clips were cheap, flimsy plastic. The retention mechanism was terrible. Upgrade more thab once, and they broke. So I invented the GLIMM [ Glued In Memory Module ].

    A dab of hot glue held in the SIMM nicely, and upgrading was as easy as slightly re-heating the GLIMM slot.

    This was in the early 80386 / 80486 era.

  18. My father was a genius of an electrical engineer. When I was just 3 years old I swiped a light bulb, a piece of wire, and a battery out of his junk bin. I hooked the bulb to the battery with the piece of wire, and—- it didn’t work. I cried. Dad looked at it, and 1) the battery was 1.5V D cell, and it was dead. The bulb was 12V and had a broken filament. The one piece of wire did not make a complete circuit. My dad spent the afternoon explaining all this to me, why it didn’t work, and how to make one that would. He gave me a few good 1.5V bulbs, a fresh battery, and even some switches. So at 3 years I was hooking up light bulbs and making them blink with the switches.
    Shortly after that, he taught me to solder. My mom had a conniption fit: “He’ll burn himself!” she cried. “Yep!” replied my dad, “And he’ll learn not to do it again!” I was careful, I didn’t seriously burn myself until I was 7 or 8.

  19. An EPROM programmer in the late 90s.

    Hacked the ISA connector off some otherwise obsolete ISA card, soldered the data lines to a chip holder (maybe some more passives, can’t remember), wrote a bit of DOS software and surprisingly it worked. Bear in mind these were EPROMs not EEPROMs and the only UV source I had was the sun so the erase wasn’t a quick job in northern England :)

    A few years later at uni I repurposed the circuit to ‘hack’ our house alarm. We came home one night and mysteriously the alarm code no longer worked (yes the code we tried had been correct :). Rather than call the landlord who lived opposite, one of us pulled the panel off the alarm control box to see it was a simple circuit board and small lead-acid battery, so disconnecting the battery shut up the alarm. Next problem was the code… So I hooked up the ISA card to the keypad and made a little program to run through numbers 0000 to 9999. It progressed quickly, but speed was also helped by the dumbness of the logic board, as long as you entered the right sequence it didn’t care what preceeded it, so if the code was 1000 then you tested 0000 0001 0002 then you’d have found the code already. So I’d set it running in my bedroom and barely got to the stairs before it signalled it had found it!

  20. My first really expensive graphics card stopped working. A Geforce4. Not just 4, but a 4 Ti. With a whole 128MB of RAM. It could run Quake2 at about 500fps… around double what today’s cards can do. I noticed that some of the caps were loose… I managed to solder new legs on them. There was hot glue involved too… this card still works today. I couldn’t believe it worked. Too bad I only have one AGP motherboard that still works. Still beats the crap out of most SBCs. Ray tracing really sucked though. I remember waiting 2 days for a one frame to render.

  21. I love this article so very much. My first win was in high school, 2010 I believe. We were tasked with making a musical instrument for physics class. I decided I wanted to make an electronic instrument. With buttons and a battery and such. I pitched the idea to my teacher. She said if I could explain how it actually made the sound, I could do it. I explained that the speaker diaphragm was what moved the air, which is what made the sound. A few people in my class heard about my idea and wanted in on the team. I ended up building a working 555 based synthesizer with 3 of the most gorgeous girls in the school and presenting probably the weirdest instrument anyone had seen. It was a 555 astable oscillator with momentary buttons hooked up to different resistor banks to get the tones. I even had a switch that either added in or bypassed another resistor that changed the pitch of the entire thing. It was crammed into an Atari 1200xl Basic cartridge that had stopped working.

    That was my first working circuit and first electronics win. I have fond memories of it and maybe even some pictures left somewhere. I was always a very hyper and odd guy, so it was quite amusing to have a bunch of pretty girls going through the circuit and physics with me, tuning it with resistors, and then presenting it to the awestruck class. I still get a good laugh from that story to this day. I admit I had forgotten about it until I read this article.

    1. Totally different thing so not trying to minimise your project, relating for amusement… The only group of hot girls engineering challenge I got thrown into,involved “keeping them alive” notionally, so was highly stressful at the time.

      It was an adventure camp thing, build a raft challenge, with some set up about being stranded with only some convenient barrels, poles and ropes. We had lifejackets and there was a safety boat etc, so wasn’t for real, for real, life and death, but there was honor to uphold dammit. Anyhoo, managed to keep structure mostly sound, and had an ally with one of them being a closet science geek, so was able to avoid too many Cleopatra’s barge flights of fancy… however they were inflexible on it being a “cool shape” not some plain rectangle, so it was tapered one end… now this didn’t seem tooo much of a problem at the time as allowed some triangles for strength… The rules were, to prove it was navigable, you had to paddle out to a buoy and back again, not all that far, but the way out was against river current… and our tapered nose wanted to weathercock around, we practically zig zagged the damn thing up to the buoy, and took wayyy too long to get to it, then managed to round it and basically coast back to the finish.. which was just as well as our front floatation barrels, not that super securely wedged into to trapezoidal holes, with all the side to side had worked somewhat loose, and we were in danger of losing them…. and as we drew up to the bank one let go and slid us all in.. heh… yeah we came second.. first place just had a boring rectangular raft of course, barrels in two straight lines. 3rd and fourth were rather spectacular free form failures, not getting very far from bank. Might have done better in still water, really underestimated that current strength and how it would try to spin us around.

  22. I picked up throwaways, a tube/transistor car radio was my first decent AM radio at home. I ran it off my Lionel train transformer. We still had a B/W TV in the living room all thru the 60’s. I bought a color TV for $25 that had resistor problems in the video jungle and I fixed it. It went from the garage to the basement rec room and on cable. We now had color, it was on old roundie but it was color. Now mom and dad had to get an up to date color set. I ended selling it at our garage sale for $100.

    1. This is spooky deja vu! The first radio that I had for my very own came from an auto junkyard just up the street from where we lived. And I powered it with the transformer from my HO model train set! (The radio did hum a bit – it was only much later in life that I realized the importance of reservoir capacitors, and that train transformer didn’t contain any ). At night I would often pick up AM radio stations from 500 miles away – ‘skip’ is a wonderful thing…

      1. Ha! train transformer was the reason for a “lose” in early electronics, I made a ‘SNAP’ detector, it lit up whoever pressed their button first (settles arguments playing snap with cards). The circuit was two SCR’s and bulbs. But I powered it off my train transformer, being too poor to buy batteries too, and I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t ‘latch’ on. Only years later did I suddenly twig, the DC was going to zero at 100Hz and resetting the circuit!

  23. My local makerspace had gotten a kit from Red Bull for a build competition they were sponsoring; the kit was a decorative Arduino and LED strip shield, shaped like two bulls. After some discussion of what to do, we settled on an old-fashioned arcade shooting gallery, using light guns. The guns used an infrared receiver in the far end of a long tube, and the active parts of the targets were made from TV remotes modified electrically so one button was continuously pressed — once the gun’s sensor spotted, say, a “Channel Up” signal, it’d send a message to the main board, which would record the hit, ring a bell, change the color of a WS2811 below the target, use a servo to flip a wooden cartoon alien around so it was now a robot (and thus a target for the other player), and send a serial message to a Raspberry Pi that played voice recordings to report the score and so on. It was a pretty complex system — and I ended up responsible for wiring the electromechanical parts and the lights, and writing the code to handle them all, including the game logic.

    I’d been playing with Arduinos for a couple of years — I started with a Diecimila — but I’d only just learned how to solder, and this was a big task. I think I ended up swapping the Red Bull Arduino out for a Mega in order to have the extra GPIOs and hardware serial ports (each gun and the talking robot barker needed one). I also ended up getting my first PCB made (an order from then-new OSHPark) to simplify the wiring harness. The servos took a long time to debug, and the bells needed to be driven by short 24VDC pulses. We did get everything working, and I think the video is still up on YouTube, though I don’t think it made any splash in the competition. But it was a great feeling of triumph to see the multiple interlocking systems working as they were supposed to, and to draw a bead on the little targets and see them flip around and know that I did that.

  24. I was 7 years old, I had gotten my first LCD game about 6 months earlier (it was the 80s) and it had stopped working. I’d seen my dad do some work on other electronics before so I got some tools from his toolbox and took it apart, gave the board and battery contacts a clean with some IPA and put it back together and just like magic it was working again.

  25. Not actually my first win, but more my first *significant* win. At least so significant that it was memorable.

    I was at a yard sale and spotted an Amiga 1000. The seller claimed it was complete and working. Well, it was missing the floppy drive button, but I could see the floppy drive was there. I didn’t trust the seller, as he didn’t look like he ever touched a computer before, so I haggled for about half the day to get a lower price, leaving and returning a few times. And at some point we got to an agreement.

    Came home, and of course it was not working, black screen. Started poking around with an oscilloscope: address lines were hanging at 2.3V, clock signal was there. Checked Reset, and nope, no Reset, just sat there asserted at 0V. So traced the traces back tot the reset circuit, and lo and behold there was a Reset signal there. Traced the Reset trace, and somewhere halfway the Reset signal was lost: so a broken trace.

    Fixed the trace with a bodge wire, switched on the computer, and it worked straight away! And it turned out work perfectly, doing everything it should. And having had a close look at the innards, I’m sure that the computer basically had never worked, it was untouched inside, completely clean. It must have been a manufacturing defect.

    It has been the most pleasurable computer of my life. Sadly I couldn’t expand it with turbo cards, so one day the fun was over. It was too slow for any real use and I had to have a better computer for University work.

    That led to my second significant memorable win: I bought a 6MHz IBM 286 motherboard which was non-working. Turned out that it was simply the battery backed-up ram/clock chip that was defective. Bought a new chip, repaired the motherboard, bought an 8MHz crystal, and was playing Prince of Persia^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hwriting my thesis a few days later. :P

  26. I was 12 at the time and I worked on computers a lot. I had a 386 Computer and the Keyboard stopped working. The Keyboard worked fine on another computer so I knew something was up on the motherboard. Pulled out the motherboard and saw a 4.7k resistor was burnt up. I replaced it and that fixed it.

  27. Maybe not my first win, but the one I can remember off-hand? I’m still very much an amateur with microcontrollers, and decided to try building an RP2040 development board for fun. The PCB arrived and I soldered all of the parts on, but the board wouldn’t boot properly. I probed everything I could with a multimeter and all of the voltages seemed perfectly fine after correcting one or two oversights, so I guessed this was a part problem and not a PCB error. Out of thoroughness I tried checking to see if a Picoprobe SWD debugger could talk to the chip, and lo-and-behold, that worked absolutely perfectly. There’s a comment in the RP2040 documentation about certain clocks not mattering when using a SWD debugger because SWD provides its own clock, and that made me wonder about the crystal oscillator on the PCB which I’d not used before. Sure enough, when I desoldered and replaced the crystal with a different model the board booted perfectly.

    I’m still not sure *why* that crystal didn’t work, but I can’t think of any reason why that particular crystal might have been a dud, so I’ve probably overlooked something about its specification or pinout. The datasheet was a bit crap honestly (things not matching/being contradictory/vague), so maybe that’s a lesson in looking at datasheets more closely before buying something.

  28. Aged 8 moving into a new house around the same time as plug in circuit breakers were a thing I got left at the DIY store to run around whilst my folks were buying wallpaper.
    Managed to convince my dad that they needed this circuit breaker to protect from electrical failure and stuff.
    OK he didn’t believe me right then but after asking at work he bought it – it was expensive…

    So the first time out with it and I make him use it with the lawn mower and he promptly cuts through the cable. First win.
    Then I go around the house testing every electrical point to find that the entire 2nd floor (loft conversion) is wired transposing the neutral and earth.

    So point made. I have a clue.
    Thus when the dishwasher broke I was allowed to fix it using some left over wiring from my modified radio control car.

    Of course what they dont know about is my first electronic fail. Or TBH many of the fails which has been disguised as plausible accidents over the years.
    So I had a Cplus4 and wanted to input a hack which meant connecting to the reset line to get into the place where you could peek and poke.
    Only my piece of wire with croc clips and a door bell button was highly effective, except for that one time when I slipped and it wasn’t and I fried the computer. Which was under warranty luckily. “It just broke mum”.

  29. The one I got the biggest buzz out of, because it was high-stakes, was soldering an extra SRAM chip onto the PCB of my almost-new Psion 3A and successfully doubling the memory. I think it was the first time I had taken something apart that wasn’t actually broken.
    I have done more extreme things to other devices since (such as moving the large components on the power supply board of a Mac G4 Cube to the other side of the board to fit a better graphics card) but the Psion remains the item that was the highest proportion of my net worth at the time.

  30. I think I was in Grade 5, and was spending the day at a school friend’s house. I had my cassette tape recorder with me, and that revived my friend’s older brother’s interest in his little reel-to-reel machine that wasn’t working. It turned out that the piezo lavaliere microphone’s diaphragm was badly damaged. I used aluminum foil to replace it, and LePage’s white glue to secure it to the pointed bit in the middle that connected to the piezo element. And it worked!

    That was probably my first win when it came to repair work, but I already had lots of experience making or trying to make various things. I’d built a motor and a crystal radio from kits. I’d made my own switches with bits of wood, thumb tacks, and aluminum strips cut from disposable pie pans. I wound many of my own electromagnets, usually powered by No. 6 ignition cells or by those old square lantern batteries whose contacts were springs on top. The wood-burning kit I received as a gift in Grade 4 didn’t hold my interest for long, but the tool itself became my first soldering iron. (IIRC, at some point later on I turned one of the ‘pictures’ that came with the kit upside down, screwed Fahnestock clips to it, and made another crystal radio).

    Sometime shortly after that microphone repair, my uncle gave me one of those Radio Shack 100-in-1 electronic kits – spring terminals on a board connected to various components, with pre-tinned wires to connect the springs according to the manual. I had a blast with that and learned a lot. I bought duplicates of some of the parts in the kit from the local TV Supply store, and replicated the “Photo-Electric Burglar Alarm” on perf-board in a cigar box as my Grade 6 science project. Fun times…

  31. My first “victory” was a full 4×4 DTMF encoder for use with my first donated VHF radio(which did not have one) so I could access my local 2m repeater’s functions. I used an ARRL design from the Handbook.

  32. Not the first win, but a significant win nevertheless. I rode a 10-speed pretty significant distances and was very paranoid about seeing and being seen in traffic. I bought a on-the-tread generator that mounted on the kickstand and the brightest krypton headlight I could find. The generator was intended to wire directly to the light. I planned to wire in a battery so I wouldn’t lose the headlight when I stopped. Shortly after I started wiring the circuit I realized that the generator was AC so the battery was out without a redesign.

    The first (and final) design used a bridge rectifier, a large capacitor and a relay. The system was wired so when the relay was de-energized the light ran on the battery. As I intended, as the generator output went up the capacitor charged and turned on the relay and the light would run on rectified AC. Slowing down would put the system back on battery power. I carefully spec’ed out the components and ensured that the packaging fit and was vibration and waterproof.

    I hadn’t counted on hysteresis, though. After each stop, as I sped up the relay would pull in which would discharge the capacitor and the relay would drop out periodically. The result was that the light would be alternate between bright (battery) and dim (generator) until the generator output was high enough to keep the relay engaged. The end result was a blinking light highly visible to other drivers at intersections when I needed it and a bright light that didn’t kill the battery going down the road. It was a fail in that I hadn’t anticipated the hysteresis. If I had I never would have built the circuit I used. It was a win in that I ended up with a valuable feature I hadn’t intended.

    1. Serendipity is sometimes both the best win and the best teacher. And I don’t think I’d label not anticipating the hysteresis a “fail”, unless you had more experience or training than your story suggests. Conceiving and building what you did strikes me as an undiluted win!

  33. Some things spring to mind…

    First one, was at a practical on my degree course, electronics lab. The heads of the Electronics Department was chatting with a fellow student, pondering a schematic of a new-fangled MOSFET class B amplifier. They we looking at the diodes connecting gate to source and couldn’t figure out how they didn’t short out the drive signal. So I helpfully pointed out that the output was following the input and the diodes would never go above the 0.6V needed to start conducting (as I had read about it months before in an electronics mag).

    Of course, this made the head of department look rather dim, and I didn’t do very well in my degree, for some reason, despite knowing more electronics that most of them, oh well.

    Second one was an electronic organ keyboard I saw my neighbour throwing out. Well I had had my fill of fixing things for free by now, so I just asked him if it was broken, could I have it, he said yeah no problems.
    It turned out that someone had been mashing the voice selector board rather vigorously and the PCB had various cracks in it. About 10 minutes soldering stout copper wire over the tracks and it was back up and running. Now I lived in a semi detached with said neighbour on the other side, so I set up the keyboard on my PA in the lounge with the speakers facing his side, and let rip with chopsticks etc…!!! That was quite pleasing… I still have that keyboard.

  34. When I was in elementary school for a project I made a board game in a box with 6 wired up buttons on each side made from paper clips and fasteners. These were wired through a lantern battery and light bulbs on the other side. The idea was you and your opponent would both select a button and whoever got the “highest” lightbulbs won the move. I was excited I gwas able to get all the wiring to work but disappointed that people quickly realized which butto to push to get the highest value and couldn’t think of a way to make them random.

    More recently my biggest repair win was fixing the 100v supply for the VFD of a Funhouse (1990) pinball machine all by myself!

  35. A long time ago, I tried knapping a solid-state operational amplifier from obsidian. (It was the purest form of silicon I could get at the time.) It was difficult getting a perfect triangle amplifier shape — I had made a number without success.
    A saber-tooth tiger moved into the area and my long-tailed pairs became popular as spear heads. Og killed the tiger — winning him Chief’s elder daughter. But I won youngest daughter, who is prettier anyway.

        1. Thag was a couple of generations before me, and at that time we were still experimenting with written communication (“stupid pointed reed!”).
          Something may have been lost over the passage of time.

  36. I had Timex-Sinclair 1000 computer which stored data on audio cassette. One of our tape recorders broke. I took it apart and fixed it, but I can’t recall at all what I did to fix it. I was probably 11 years old or so, and knew nothing about electronics. Maybe taking it apart just made some part click into position?

  37. Wow, you’re taking me back about 70 years. My first win was actually a fail, but I consider it a win because the idea was correct and it started me on a quite pleasant lifelong journey. When I was about 12 I became interested in electricity and figured out how a flashlight worked, or so I thought. For reasons now lost in the mists of time I decided to recreate the circuit in a breadboard fashion. So I drove some nails into a 2×4 to crudely hold two D cells roughly in place in series. Then more smaller nails to hold the bulb with its center contact hopefully touching the positive terminal of one battery. Finally a length of bare wire that I likely found somewhere to connect the negative end of the other battery to the threaded shell of the bulb.

    In theory it should have worked, but never did. There are several possible reasons why: 1) the batteries may have been dead, 2) the bulb may have been burned out, and 3) my jury rigged battery and bulb holders may have never actually had the two batteries and the bulb connected all at the same time. Or quite possibly all three!

  38. In high school, I built a sound system for my locker that would turn on when I opened the door and could be disabled without opening the locker door.

    It wasn’t a repair, but I had been hankering for an upgrade to my locker when I was a sophomore in high school (the very end of the 1990’s). I had a walkman and some walkman speakers that clipped together, so I looked in the most current copy of the American Science and Surplus catalog and found a surplus magnetic reed switch for doors and small slider switch.
    I taught myself to solder with scraps of wire and then opened up the back of the walkman. I had learned about basic circuits from a book i had bought at Radioshack and found the power wire inside. I snipped it in the middle and attached longer jumpers and used my dad’s dremel tool to cut a small hole in the case of the walkman. I planned out a wiring routing, wired up the magnetic switch and slider, and soldered everything up. I also cut down the slider switch so that it was extremely thin. I put the speakers and walkman in a coffee can and taped a roll of magnets to the outside of the can.

    At school, I clipped the can (magnetically) to the top of the locker, taped the magnetic reed switch to the door and taped the slider switch to the inside of the door so that the nub stuck out through the vent. the wires ran across the inside of the door so that they didn’t get in the way when I put my backpack away. I put a “ZZ Top’s Greatest Hits” in the walkman and pressed the play button.

    It worked perfectly for weeks, playing texas blues everytime I opened the locker door. It was loud enough to hear from 4 or 5 feet away, but passing periods were always so loud that you couldn’t hear it from any further. My buddies thought it was pretty cool, especially that I could disable it without opening the door. It worked great until i forgot to turn it off as I walked up and the Assistant Principal was walking by. He was impressed with my engineering, but told me to take it home. A rousing, if short-lived, success.

  39. My first win was in the mid 70’s (I was about 11-12 at the time) fixing an old black and white TV (it only had VHF channels 2-13) that had been sitting in my grandparents basement for years. The tubes would glow, but no other activity. After asking around, it was suggested there was no B+ (plate) voltage. I traced it down to a blown ‘fusistor’; a sand-coated ceramic resistor that would burn out if there was a problem in the B+ supply. Looking around, I found a bad capacitor that had shot its guts out one end. Curious type; it was essentially a paper cap in a ceramic tube with glued ends. (Maybe someone out there can tell me more about these!) I used to dumpster dive at the local thrift shop and cut out parts from the various tube radios and TVs I found, and thus had a suitable replacement. That, plus a new fusistor I paid 50 cents for got the set working. I even used it as a video monitor in later years to write software on a TI 99/4 for the US Dept of Education! ($50/program was good spending money back then.)

    1. I think I have some of those caps! Though I’ve never had one explode. I bought them as an assortment (at a sale price I’m sure) probably from a Burstein-Appleby catalog likely sometime in the 1950’s or 60’s. Could have been Allied Radio, but I would think more likely BA. The ceramic tubes and nice printing on the tubes give them an appearance of quality, at least to me. I’ve wondered recently if things have migrated in past the glue and made them leaky like all of the old plastic or waxed paper ones. I should rig up something to test that…

  40. My better half got an Arduino starter kit for me as a holiday gift several years ago. After having fun with the included builds and learning the Arduino IDE, my first microcontroller project was in response to an annoying client (I know – that’s redundant) that monitored my prior-to-Covid remote presence by tracking how long my status was “active” on the chat app we were using. If it looked like I was “Away” for more than 15 minutes, they would bitch to my manager. So, I attached a small servo to a hard-wired mouse and set it up to bump the mouse every five minutes and went and got myself a latte.

  41. 5 y.o. using scrap wood my father was trashing i built a little house hammering and nailing everything together. After understanding how a bulb could be powered directly on a 4.5V battery i dissected a torch lamp and managed to fit the gut inside the little house with some wiring, the electric bulb hanging from the ceiling.

    9 y.o. , coming from a family of bookworms, I could have books but my parents did not see the point of me experimenting with electric stuff. Still, i was scavenging things without knowing how it worked, just out of fascination. I was having fun with some parts and put in series the low voltage of a transformer, a DC motor, and a 9V battery. When the motor started spinning, i was amazed to see that the leads on the high-side of the transformer were generating sparks of almost one inch. I immediately put it to use on the knob of my door room, happily shocking my family members.

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