Hobby Electronics

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan 2014

Many older engineers first became interested in electronics through hobbies in their youth -- experimenting with electronics, assembling kits, or participating in amateur radio.  But now I wonder whether or not students entering engineering today have had the benefit or enticement of any similar experience.

The 1970s and 1980s were great times for electronic hobbyists.  Heathkits were hot items, featuring the latest HiFi stereo equipment, which were often newer and of better quality than commercial equivalents.  I remember how I would pour over the latest Heathkit catalog, and rationalize why I had to buy the newest widget.  There were two memorable moments associated with each Heathkit -- first opening the packaged kit, and then finally turning on the finished product.  In between was kind of messy, but there was always a sense of achievement with the step-by-step progress.  I thought at the time that the world would always be like that, soldering individual components and connecting wires onto circuit boards.

Alas, it wasn't to be.  Electronics was in a state of rapid transition.  Integrated circuits were beginning to displace all those individual components, and surface-mount assembly was moving beyond hobbyist capability.  Moreover, commercial products could be manufactured with automated assembly at less cost than packaging an equivalent kit.  Heathkit began to struggle; the company was sold, and finally went out of business in the mid-1980s.
Just at this time, though, Intel was bringing out the first microprocessors, and a new era of hobby electronics began.  The Altair computer captured the fascination of hobbyists, who now could design and build their own computers, with an enthusiasm best exemplified by the sudden popularity of Byte Magazine.  Soon, though, commercial home computers hit the market, standardized specifications, and lessened the incentives for building your own.  For some years thereafter hobbyists contented themselves mostly with buying board-level components.  Nonetheless, it was still a heady time, and computer fairs blossomed and were packed with enthusiasts.
This era faded within about a decade.  Commercial PCs came down in price, and were bundled with hardware and software (particularly the operating system) at a price that couldn't be matched with a build-your-own approach.  Before long we became users, rather than makers.  Where, now, was the hobby market to go?

There have been hopeful reports that Heathkit is planning a comeback.  There is a webpage for the company, but it only has the familiar Mark Twain quote about reports of his death being greatly exaggerated.  Hidden in the HTML source code is a link to a survey asking what kits respondents might want, though it's hard to believe this survey is serious, given the deliberate obscurity.
But whenever it seems that there is nothing left for the hobbyist, a new theme arises.  Eben Upton, teaching computer science at Cambridge University, lamented that in recent years his students have had very little hands-on experience with electronics.  To encourage interest in electronics he started a project that has led to the Raspberry Pi computer.  This little board is about the size of a smart phone, on which technology it is based.  It is bare, inexpensive, and with all its input/output connections exposed is just begging for experimentation.  Operating systems can be freely downloaded and installed on a standard SD memory card.  If you mess something up, just unplug the card and put a new one in.

It is refreshing and invigorating to see the Raspberry Pi come up with a Linux command line interface and a Python programming environment.  You can turn it into a Windows-like graphical browser or make it a media server, but that feels like cheating.  Instead of duplicating what we already have, this beautiful little board seems destined for more uniquely personal endeavors.
The Raspberry Pi has become a best seller, as has a similar experimental board, the Arduino microcontroller.  A great number of sensors, actuators, cameras, and the like have quickly become available for both of these boards, which moreover can be mated for greater flexibility and power.  Innovative applications abound in such domains as home automation and robotics.  Moreover, we could add to the mix the emergence of 3D printers, which are still rather a hobby item, though on the cusp of commercialization.

So it seems that now there is much greater capacity for creativity in hobby electronics then there ever was when we were just following the step-by-step soldering involved in building a Heathkit.  But I don't want to demean Heathkit, because maybe they will come back after all.  I'm just not betting on it.