Theremin in Detail

[Keystone Science] recently posted a video about building a theremin — you know, the instrument that makes those strange whistles when you move your hands around it. The circuit is pretty simple (and borrowed) but we liked the way the video explains the theory and even dives into some of the math behind resonant frequencies.

The circuit uses two FETs for the oscillators. An LM386 amplifier (a Hackaday favorite) drives a speaker so you can use the instrument without external equipment. The initial build is on a breadboard, but the final build is on a PCB and has a case.

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Hacked Sea Scooter Lives Another Day

The Seadoo GTI Sea Scooter is a simple conveyance, consisting of a DC motor and a big prop in a waterproof casing. By grabbing on and firing the motor, it can be used to propel oneself underwater. However, [ReSearchITEng] had problems with their unit, and did what hackers do best – cracked it open to solve the problem.

Investigation seemed to suggest there were issues with the logic of the motor controller. The original circuit had a single FET, potentially controlled through PWM.  The user interfaced with the controller through a reed switch, which operates magnetically. Using reed switches is very common in these applications as it is a cheap, effective way to make a waterproof switch.

It was decided to simplify things – the original FET was replaced with a higher-rated replacement, and it was switched hard on and off directly by the original reed switch. The logic circuitry was bypassed by cutting traces on the original board. [ReSearchITEng] also goes to the trouble of highlighting potential pitfalls of the repair – if the proper care isn’t taken during the reassembly, the water seals may leak and damage the electronics inside.

Overall it’s a solid repair that could be tackled by any experienced wielder of a soldering iron, and it keeps good hardware out of the landfill. For another take on a modified DC motor controller, check out the scooter project of yours truly.


Carbon Nanotube Transistors Are On The Passing Lane

There are many obstacles in the way to turning carbon nanotubes into something useful. Materials engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have now brought carbon nanotubes (CNTs) one step closer to becoming practically applicable for semiconductor electronics. In particular, the team managed to assemble arrays of carbon nanotube transistors that outperform their silicon-based predecessors.

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Books You Should Read: Basic Electronics

I learned some basic electronics in high school physics class: resistors, capacitors, Kirchhoff’s law and such, and added only what was required for projects as I did them. Then around 15 years ago I decided to read some books to flesh out what I knew and add to my body of knowledge. It turned out to be hard to find good ones.

The electronics section of my bookcase has a number of what I’d consider duds, but also some gems. Here are the gems. They may not be the electronics-Rosetta-Stone for every hacker, but they are the rock on which I built my church and well worth a spot in your own reading list.

Grob’s Basic Electronics

Grob's Basic Electronics 12th Edition
Grob’s Basic Electronics 12th Edition

Grob’s Basic Electronics by Mitchel E Schultz and Bernard Grob is a textbook, one that is easy to read yet very thorough. I bought mine from a used books store. The 1st Edition was published in 1959 and it’s currently on the 12th edition, published in 2015. Clearly this one has staying power.

I refer back to it frequently, most often to the chapters on resonance, induction and capacitance when working on LC circuits, like the ones in my crystal radios. There are also things in here that I couldn’t find anywhere else, including thoroughly exhaustive online searches. One such example is the correct definitions and formulas for the various magnetic units: ampere turns, field intensity, flux density…

I’d recommend it to a high school student or any adult who’s serious about knowing electronics well. I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants to reduce frustration when designing or debugging circuits.

You can find the table of contents here but briefly it has all the necessary introductory material on Ohm’s and Kirchhoff’s laws, parallel and series circuits, and so on but to give you an idea of how deep it goes it also has chapters on network theorems and complex numbers for AC circuits. Interestingly my 1977 4th edition has a chapter on vacuum tubes that’s gone in the current version and in its place is a plethora of new ones devoted to diodes, BJTs, FETs, thyristors and op-amps.

You can also do the practice problems and self-examination, just to make sure you understood it correctly. (I sometimes do them!) But also, being a textbook, the newest edition is expensive. However, a search for older but still recent editions on Amazon turns up some affordable used copies. Most of basic electronics hasn’t changed and my ancient edition is one of my more frequent go-to books. But it’s not the only gem I’ve found. Below are a few more.

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Retrotechtacular: Old Transistors

Regency TR-1

Transistors have come a long way. Like everything else electronic, they’ve become both better and cheaper. According to a recent IEEE article, a transistor cost about $8 in today’s money back in the 1960’s. Consider the Regency TR-1, the first transistor radio from TI and IDEA. In late 1954, the four-transistor device went on sale for $49.95. That doesn’t sound like much until you realize that in 1954, this was equivalent to about $441 (a new car cost about $1,700 and a copy of life magazine cost 20 cents). Even at that price, they sold about 150,000 radios.

Part of the reason the transistors cost so much was that production costs were high. But another reason is that yields were poor. In some cases, 4 out of 5 of the devices were not usable. The transistors were not that good even when they did work. The first transistors were germanium which has high leakage and worse thermal properties than silicon.

socketEarly transistors were subject to damage from soldering, so it was common to use an alligator clip or a specific heat sink clip to prevent heat from reaching the transistor during construction. Some gear even used sockets which also allowed the quick substitution of devices, just like the tubes they replaced.

When the economics of transistors changed, it made a lot of things practical. For example, a common piece of gear used to be a transistor tester, like the Heathkit IT-121 in the video below. If you pulled an $8 part out of a socket, you’d want to test it before you spent more money on a replacement. Of course, if you had a curve tracer, that was even better because you could measure the device parameters which were probably more subject to change than a modern device.

Of course, germanium to silicon is only one improvement made over the years. The FET is a fundamentally different kind of transistor that has many desirable properties and, of course, integrating hundreds or even thousands of transistors on one integrated circuit revolutionized electronics of all types. Transistors got better. Parameters become less variable and yields increased. Maximum frequency rises and power handling capacity increases. Devices just keep getting better. And cheaper.

A Brief History of Transistors

The path from vacuum tube to the Regency TR-1 was a twisted one. Everyone knew the disadvantages of tubes: fragile, power hungry, and physically large, although smaller and lower-power tubes would start to appear towards the end of their reign. In 1925 a Canadian physicist patented a FET but failed to publicize it. Beyond that, mass production of semiconductor material was unknown at the time. A German inventor patented a similar device in 1934 that didn’t take off, either.

Replica of the First Transistor

Bell labs researchers worked with germanium and actually understood how to make “point contact” transistors and FETs in 1947. However, Bell’s lawyers found the earlier patents and elected to pursue the conventional transistor patent that would lead to the inventors (John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley) winning the Nobel prize in 1956.

Two Germans working for a Westinghouse subsidiary in Paris independently developed a point contact transistor in 1948. It would be 1954 before silicon transistors became practical. The MOSFET didn’t appear until 1959.

Of course, even these major milestones are subject to incremental improvements. The V channel for MOSFETs, for example, opened the door for FETs to be true power devices, able to switch currents required for motors and other high current devices.

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Fail of the Week: Frying FETs with 500mA


When [Simon] fried his 3A rated FET with just 500mA of current he wrote it off to an inability of the SOT23 package to dissipate the heat without a heatsink. For the next iteration of the project he upgraded to a 12A rated part. Luckily he decided to test the circuit one more time before sending his board off for fab. He threw together this constant current load test which led him to discover his failure.

The switching circuit, which was for his home security system project that we’ve seen at least twice, worked just fine up to 500mA. But when he drove it above that threshold the package quickly warmed up. It got so hot that it actually reflowed its solder joints! The problem has to do with oscillation, but even with further testing he couldn’t get the FET to reliably shut off all the way. Take a look at his fail write-up linked at the top and then let us know some possible remedies for the situation.

2013-09-05-Hackaday-Fail-tips-tileFail of the Week is a Hackaday column which runs every Wednesday. Help keep the fun rolling by writing about your past failures and sending us a link to the story — or sending in links to fail write ups you find in your Internet travels.

USBPIC controls just about anything

Over the last few years, [Michael] has been developing a PIC microcontroller board. He calls his project USBPIC, and with the addition of a few FET drivers, H-bridges, and LED drivers his homemade dev board can handle just about anything thrown at it.

[Michael]’s board is build around a PIC18F2455 microcontroller with both an In Circuit Serial Programming header and support for a USB port included. Instead of going for a modular format where the board can expanded through shields or expansion cards, [Michael] decided to make three different versions of the USBPIC.

The TRANS USBPIC includes eight FETs for switching off high current devices totaling 32 Amps. The MATRIX board has twice as many outputs as the TRANS board, but uses ULN2803 or UDN2982 chips for driving smallish-current devices. Finally, the HBSW board takes a TRANS board and replaces four FETs with a an L298 H-bridge chip for driving two DC motors.

For what [Michael] lost in modularity, we think he gained a very tidy microcontroller board capable of driving everything from robots to LED matrix displays.