Saying Goodbye To Don Lancaster

The electronics world has lost a guru. On June 7th this year, Don Lancaster passed away. [Brad] from Tech Time Traveller paid tribute to Don in a recent video. Don Lancaster was perhaps best known as the designer of the TV Typewriter.  The Typewriter drew characters on a TV screen when the user typed on a keyboard. It was the fundamental part of a simple terminal. This was quite an accomplishment in 1973 when the article was first published.

Don embodied the hacker spirit by figuring out low-cost (cheap) ways to overcome obstacles. His genius was his ability to communicate his methods in a way even non-technical people could understand. Keyboards are a great example. Back in the 1970’s a simple keyboard cost hundreds of dollars. Don figured out how to build one from scratch and published an article explaining how to do it.

Like many people we cover here on Hackaday, Don was quite a character. His website layout hasn’t changed much since the 1990’s, but the content has grown. To say he was a prolific writer would be an understatement. PostScript, Magic Sinewaves, and patents are just a few of his favorite topics. Don’s recent work involved the research of prehistoric canals in the American Southwest.

Everyone here at Hackaday sends our deepest condolences to Don’s family.

Featured image from [Brad’s] Tech Time Traveller video thumbnail. Thanks to [Brad] for his help with this article.

63 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye To Don Lancaster

    1. Yep, I used to read those at night in bed before going to sleep, like most people read novels or something. I loved reading his stuff, from Popular Elecgromics onward.

    2. I’m sorry to hear that Don is gone. I can only hope that all of you can someday write similarly nice things about me….

      Seriously, even thought I am remembered most by my association with BYTE, it was Don Lancaster that lit the fuse on my career. Back then I read all the hobby electronics magazines at night while being a big company electronics engineer during the day. I built Don’s TV typewriter and actually got it working. The joke back then was how much “analog” function was incorporated in this “digital” design.

      Don and I communicated a few times and I learned to appreciate his seat of the pants electronics knowledge even more as I started designing projects myself for publication. Don certainly was a prolific writer and I always wondered how he accomplished so much. The good news is that we will always remember him and the inspiration he provided for our own career direction.

      1. Hi Steve. I have to tell you I will write nice things about you now. I used to read your column in Byte and think, “Man, what a cool job. Get a new part in the lab and build something with it.” The fish finder chip really stuck with me for some reason. Next thing you know, I’m writing for PC Techniques (later Visual Developer) and Dr. Dobb’s. Then the books. And here I am at Hackaday. So you and Don were both big influences on my career. Thanks!

    3. I graduated from tech school in 1980 and one of my biggest idols was Don Lancaster. His articles and projects in Radio Electronics were memorable and inspiring. He was a sensationalist claiming his projects were the best thing since sliced bread. Whether his projects were or not (they were mostly not), it did motivate me to actually build a few of them.
      I was reading an older thread on EEVLOG about Don. The writer was questioning Don’s past achievements and stated that his claims were self-serving and embellished. Obviously, this writer was young and didn’t realize how revolutionary Don’s early contributions were. People today take for granted the complexity of active components. We have libraries of pre-written applications making development painless and almost thoughtless. As Steve Jobs once said, ” Electronics hardware is only the ante.” Yet, back in the early 1970’s digital electronics was a black magic that most of us were afraid of using. Don was able to reduce our apprehensions by creating these wonderful projects that taught us how they worked.
      Thank you, Don, for giving me the passion for electronics.

  1. OMG I thought it was the dude who wrote Art of Electronics. We won’t get 4th version unlikely but I still hope there will be some kind of Definitive Edition once all the kinks are ironed out.

  2. Don Lancaster’s books and writings were important in my education in electronics and hacking.

    The CMOS Cookbook is still in my library. And several old magazine articles (or photocopies thereof).

    Thank you, Don.

  3. In the 60’s, I was experimenting with RTL logic circuits. At the time, there was a site where you could buy unmarked bipolar transistors by the pound. I built a Don Lancaster NGW Transistor Tester from the December 1967 Popular Electronics, and that allowed me to sort the unmarked transistor by type and gain. I still have the tester.

    My TTL Cookbook is very worn from use back in the day, and I fondly remember his book The Incredible Secret Money Machine.

    1. That green “Getting Started In Electronics” book of his from radio shack is what taught me electronics and the examples in it served as a starting point for countless projects. I’ll always treasure that book….

  4. Back in the mid 80s I designed an industrial machine vision system for Allen-Bradley that used a pile of knowledge I gained by reading about Don’s TV Typewriter. Basically it just operated in reverse using a camera as input rather than a TV as output. I’d have never figured out how to do it on my own. Thanks Don.

  5. I’m very saddened to hear this. I think I first ran into his writing in the early ’90s in Computer Shopper; back when every issue of that ad-stuffed magazine was the size of a phone book, one of his columns detailed how you could build a postscript laser printer by Frankensteining together some HP parts and an Apple logic board. I only later discovered the vast amount of writing and building he’d done. A lot of my copies of his books I got secondhand — nobody was selling the TV Typewriter Cookbook new when I picked it up — but my copy of the Active Filter Cookbook is autographed because I’d bought it directly from him, and I used to occasionally pick up surplus parts from him and his wife on ebay (I think I still have a bunch of XR2209 oscillator chips).
    He did a lot of work with synthesizers back in the day, and another one of his long-term pet topics, going back to the ’80s, was what he’d called “flutterwhumpers”, defined as machines that move and then either chomp or spit: an umbrella term for all the 3d printers, vinyl cutters, CNC machines, plotters, and laser cutters we have now. I was thinking about that just the other day while my vinyl cutter carved out a heat-transfer label to be ironed onto the pouch I keep patch cables in for my modular synth — just the array of miracles we have and the folks who made them possible.
    I have a project in progress based partly on his PsychTone random synth; I definitely need to dig it out and finish it in the man’s honor.

    1. I remember him calling early 3d printers “Santa Claus machines”. Learning about the concept from him, then seeing an SLA printer at NASA JSC in the late ’90s got me interested in additive manufacturing.

  6. Res in peace Don. You inspired me from childhood and your articles made me the engineer I am today. Magic sine waves.. the dream / pursuit of the $25 “navicube” (GPS receivers were around $500 when he published that article, and the constellation was not yet complete) Don was the one who taught me to use EPROMS and flip flops to make state machines, (In a time where engineers used hard wired circuits).. I can go on for a very long time, but Don, thanks for the inspiration you were and still continue to be to me. Rest in peace.

  7. Oh no, very sorry to hear that. Condolences to those closest to him.

    I “found” him in a personal sense first in the late 90s and wished I had been aware of his works sooner. Though I must have seen at least one article before that, but not really triggered a neural register store of the author. Also keep coming back to his stuff by different paths, “Oh wow, that was Don, no way!” prolific output for one guy. Here’s hoping he’s in the halcyon happy hacking fields now.

    Hackaday, I am solemnly swearing you on your journalistic honor to keep tabs on tinaja dot com and whether anything needs to be done, funds donated etc, to keep it alive in his memory.

    1. All these comments are just a little too close to tear-jerking for me also. I recall fondly reading the popular electronics, and as a teen. TTL and CMOS Cookbook inspired everything digital ee afterward.

    1. The apple part was the keyboard layout he developed. It was used on the apple II I believe. He also had lots of fixes and patches that he sold to help the apple computers to run better.

  8. Did he ever find a Volkswagen Synchro 4×4 van without the Westfalia camper package? He felt the “westy” was too top heavy for running around in the desert.

    1. I used to have a few copies of this book. He warned not to loan it out because you would never get it back. I didn’t follow his advice and only have one copy left.

  9. Don’s articles in Popular Electronics magazine helped me learn how to use digital ICs. Back then–1971–the chips we had used diode-transistor logic (DTL). The world of digital electronics has lost on of its finest.

  10. In 1982 I built the Dice project from TTL Cookbook. I still have it, on blue protoboard. It’s original TTL of course (none of that “LS” low-power schottky) and uses some of those old red LEDs and it pulls quite a bit of current.
    Probably 4 years ago, I decided to build the bookend Dice project from the CMOS cookbook. Also on perf board. I think it’ll run weeks on a 9V battery.

    He was one of those guys who found no boundary to discovery. He got an archeology degree after he’d begun to be interested in the old native civilizations in Arizona.

    Seems we’re losing a lot of the great communicators and big minds with no limitations.
    We should try to emulate that more.

  11. The last ‘daily post’ on his website:
    “A situation has limited our ability to post daily news and reduced our ability to provide new content. We hope to continue as best we can and have added three sysops. We are also working on providing new phone shortcuts.

    Meanwhile, please upload as many of our files to the widest possible range of historical archive preservation sites. as you can. ”

    Just a few days before he passed. So sad.

  12. I built a TVT II way back in the 70’s when I was in high school, and it didn’t work. I sent it in for repair. Don HIMSELF repaired it and the tag attached was signed and stated that I should learn to solder. Too bad I don’t have either the tag or the board anymore :(. I learned a lot from that setup. It was real rocket surgery at the time.

    Still can’t solder but I AM trying….

  13. I have 4 or 5 of his books. I my 20’s (in the 70’s) I found TTL and CMOS cookbooks, plus phase locked loops. He made digital easy. Directory of chip numbers, what and how they work. Very cool.

  14. How many times have I opened the CMOS Cookbook to get great ideas?

    Shared ideas radiate outward and forward like ripples in a pond. Don probably didn’t know it, but he’s certainly partially responsible for the entire abusing-ICs-for-musical-purposes scene.

    1. CMOS cookbook is one of the clearest, cleanest, most information dense yet effortlessly understandable, books ever written for electronics.
      It was a remarkably complete daily toolbox for actual digital design, while weighing in at about 5% of Horowitz and Hill.

      1. Unfortunately, The Hackaday Style Guide is only made available to Staff and Contributors who are sworn to secrecy about its content.
        Upon leaving Hackaday their entire household and computers are searched with a fine toothed comb to ensure all copies of the Guide have been deleted or destroyed.

  15. I bought the cheap video cookbook in the late 70’s. I was gobsmacked when I understood how he was using machine code to perform the video scanning. As, of course, were the guys at Sinclair, since the ZX80 used this technique. But the engineers at Sinclair were so desperate to claw back the machine cycles being used, that thi lead to the first use of custom silicon in a home computer (a Ferranti ULA)

  16. I finished The Incredible Secret Money Machine only last year, and mostly based the concepts in my 6502 “VGA cards” on the Cheap Video Cookbook. And of course we will never forget the Bit Boffer and his influence on the Kansas City Standard.
    I sorely regret I didn’t reach out to Don, even if just to say thank you for being such a huge inspiration to so many people we know about and probably even more we don’t.
    Don Lancaster’s writing really is the most inspirational technical non-fiction I have ever come across. It not only teaches the concepts – it makes the ideas linger and grow as you can’t stop thinking about them before you fall asleep.
    We all stand on the shoulders of giants – Don will always be one of them.
    Rest in peace.

  17. I learned a lot from Don. I started leaning with Don on Radio Electronics…about postscript and hp/canon laser recharging. And later, more and more topics. I am deeply saddned bout his passimg, and I have the utmost respect by him. Glad he left a whole lot of knowledge registered and it won’t be lost in time. Thanks for the fishes, Don!

  18. Don was my hero. We would exchange emails from time to time as I was attempting to resurrect some SWTPC test gear. I guess I’m in the dwindling pool of Universal Digital Test Instrument experts now.

  19. I have five of Don’s cookbooks, including the TTL Cookbook and the CMOS Cookbook. They helped me and a couple of co-workers build a 6502-based communications device that put a pretty face on an ugly
    Univac machine.

    You can find Don’s Electronics World articles at and is the Don Lancaster article archive.

    Thank you, Don, for your strong and prolific writing.

  20. Don Lancaster, farewell! May your spirit float with the butterflies over the Arizona desert.
    Out in the garage I have many of your books and quite a collection of CMOS integrated circuits and wire wrap sockets dating from 1972 through 1984.
    I remember Don’s opposition to patents. American society has made a big mistake in it’s patent system.
    I remember Don talking about putting checks in his bicycle rack and peddling down to the bank or the mailbox.
    I admire Don for moving out to the desert.
    I admire his website, a very elegant implementation of information, sharing of information and selling of personal services.

  21. I was sitting around one night thinking about the many articles he had published in Popular Electronics and other magazines. There were so many construction articles that caught my attention in the 60’s and 70’s. Anyway, I did a little search, found his phone number and called him. He was very willing to talk to me about anything. I am proud I got to talk to him.

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