One of the first things you learn in electronics is how to identify a resistor’s value. Through-hole resistors have color codes, and that’s generally where beginners begin. But why are they marked like this? Like red stop signs and yellow lines down the middle of the road, it just seems like it has always been that way when, in fact, it hasn’t.
Before the 1920s, components were marked any old way the manufacturer felt like marking them. Then in 1924, 50 radio manufacturers in Chicago formed a trade group. The idea was to share patents among the members. Almost immediately the name changed from “Associated Radio Manufacturers” to the “Radio Manufacturer’s Association” or RMA. There would be several more name changes over the years until finally, it became the EIA or the Electronic Industries Alliance. The EIA doesn’t actually exist anymore. It exploded into several specific divisions, but that’s another story.
This is the tale of how color bands made their way onto every through-hole resistor from every manufacturer in the world.
Radioactivity stirs up a lot of anxiety, partially because ionizing radiation is undetectable by any of the senses we were born with. Anytime radiation makes the news, there is a surge of people worried about their exposure levels and a lack of quick and accurate answers. Doctors are flooded with calls, detection devices become scarce, and fraudsters swoop in to make a quick buck. Recognizing the need for a better way, researchers are devising methods to measure cumulative exposure experienced by commodity surface mount resistors.
Cumulative exposure is typically tracked by wearing a dosimeter a.k.a. “radiation badge”. It is standard operating procedure for people working with nuclear material to wear them. But in the aftermath of what researchers euphemistically call “a nuclear event” there will be an urgent need to determine exposure for a large number of people who were not wearing dosimeters. Fortunately, many people today do wear personal electronics full of components made with high purity ingredients to tightly controlled tolerances. The resistor is the simplest and most common part, and we can hack a dosimeter with them.
Lab experiments established that SMD resistors will reveal their history of radiation exposure under high heat. Not to the accuracy of established dosimetry techniques, but more than good enough to differentiate people who need immediate medical attention from those who need to be monitored and, hopefully, reassure people in neither of those categories. Today’s technique is a destructive test as it requires removing resistors from the device and heating them well above their maximum temperature, but research is still ongoing in this field of knowledge we hope we’ll never need.
Resistors are an odd bunch. Why would you have 1.0 Ω resistors, then a 1.1 Ω resistor, but there’s no resistors in between 4.7 Ω and 5.6 Ω? This is a question that has been asked for decades, but the answer is actually quite simple. Resistors are manufactured according to their tolerance, not their value. By putting twenty four steps on a logarithmic scale, you get values that, when you take into account the tolerance of each resistor, covers all possible values. Need a 5.0 Ω resistor? Take a meter to some 4.7 Ω and 5.6 Ω resistors. You’ll find one eventually.
As with all resistor collections, the real problem is storage. With SMD resistors you can stack your reels in stolen milk crates, but for through hole resistors, you’ll need some bins. [FerriteGiant] over on Thingiverse did just that. It’s a 3D printable enclosure that takes all of your E24 series resistors.
The design of this resistor storage solution is a bit like those old wooden cases full of index cards at that building where you can rent books for free. Or, if you like, a handy plastic small parts bin from Horror Fraught. The difference here is that these small cases are designed for the standard length of through-hole resistors, and each of the bins will hold a small 3D printed plaque telling you the value in each bin.
While this is a print that will take a lot of time — [FerriteGiant] spent 100 hours printing everything and used two kilograms of filament — it’s not like through-hole resistors are going away anytime soon. This is a project that you can build and have for the rest of your life, safely securing all your resistors in a fantastic box for all time.
There is a looming spectre of doom hovering over the world of electronics manufacturing. It’s getting hard to find parts, and the parts you can find are expensive. No, it doesn’t have anything to with the tariffs enacted by the United States against Chinese goods this last summer. This is a problem that doesn’t have an easy scapegoat. This is a problem that strikes at the heart of any economic system. This is the capacitor and resistor shortage.
When we first reported on the possibility of a global shortage of chip capacitors and resistors, things were for the time being, okay. Yes, major manufacturers were saying they were spinning down production lines until it was profitable to start them up again, but there was relief: parts were in stock, and they didn’t cost that much more.
One of the first things anyone with an interest in electronics learns is the resistor colour code. The colour of the first band reveals the first figure, the second the subsequent figure, and the third a power-of-ten multiplier. At first you learn these colours, but eventually you just recognise the values through familiarity. You don’t have to think about multipliers when you see orange-orange-red, you just know that it’s a 3K3 resistor.
[Plusea] has come up with an entertaining interface for an ohmmeter, which instead of displaying the resistance on an LCD or a meter shows it as the colours of the code, via a set of addressable LEDs. The work is done by an ATtiny85 microcontroller, and the whole thing is mounted on a flexible PCB (fabrication of which is itself interesting, placing cut copper traces on a sheet of kapton and covering with a second kapton layer cut to be the solder mask). There is even a clever integration of a CR2032 battery holder from the PCB itself, though they admit that it could be made more compact with the use of SMD components instead of through-hole.
The write-up and associated photo album tells us a lot about the project, but is missing a crucial detail: a shot of it working. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on that front though, because we like the idea and its execution.
Strangely, this isn’t the first ohmmeter to use the resistor colour code in this way, we’ve previously brought you one featuring a light-up giant resistor.
The build is actually cribbed from earlier work by a gang called [oomlout]. Parts for these cutters are made with either lasercut or CNC milled sheet stock. A stepper motor is used to transport the resistor tape, and the cutting blades are moved by standard hobby servos. The use of servos for the blades allows the action to be controlled precisely without having to go to the effort of implementing extra limit switches and circuitry.
Control is by an Arduino Uno, with an A4988 driver controlling the stepper. Servo control is achieved with the Uno’s onboard peripherals. There’s a video below of the machine in operation, which shows it to be a simple and efficient tool for the job.
Current. Too little of it, and you can’t get where you’re going, too much and your hardware’s on fire. In many projects, it’s desirable to know just how much current is being drawn, and even more desirable to limit it to avoid catastrophic destruction. The humble current shunt is an excellent way to do just that.
To understand current, it’s important to understand Ohm’s Law, which defines the relationship between current, voltage, and resistance. If we know two out of the three, we can calculate the unknown. This is the underlying principle behind the current shunt. A current flows through a resistor, and the voltage drop across the resistor is measured. If the resistance also is known, the current can be calculated with the equation I=V/R.
This simple fact can be used to great effect. As an example, consider a microcontroller used to control a DC motor with a transistor controlled by a PWM output. A known resistance is placed inline with the motor and, the voltage drop across it measured with the onboard analog-to-digital converter. With a few lines of code, it’s simple for the microcontroller to calculate the current flowing to the motor. Armed with this knowledge, code can be crafted to limit the motor current draw for such purposes as avoiding overheating the motor, or to protect the drive transistors from failure.
In fact, such strategies can be used in a wide variety of applications. In microcontroller projects you can measure as many currents as you have spare ADC channels and time. Whether you’re driving high power LEDs or trying to build protection into a power supply, current shunts are key to doing this.