Hobby electronics has been around since the 1950s, with its roots probably tracing back to amateur radio. In those days, communication was a luxury, especially in rural areas. I think the kids of today have no idea about how much has changed in the last 80 years.
Without TV or internet, what were aspiring scientists and engineers to do with their time?
The early half of the 20th century was a time of great optimism about technologies that were believed to be just around the corner. Anyone who wanted to be part of the future wanted to know what was coming next.
So why are people attracted to electronics as a hobby? The fundamental desire is to build something cool and useful. Of course, building awesome things entails a challenge, and how much of a challenge is always a factor. Some people need help and guidance while other magically power through without much help at all. Popular today are basic products like Lego Mindstorms that introduce a younger generation to building, programming and playing with robotics.
The history of hobby electronics
From the advent of short-wave radios, people were able to communicate with other of like mind who could live a hundred miles away. Traveling the same distance today is of no concern when comparing roads and vehicles from that time, as it could take a full day to travel round trip.
Ham Radio operators as they were called, were hobby enthusiasts that would get a radio, setup a tall antennae and start communicating with others who share their interest, tens or even hundreds of miles away. These Ham operators were committed to the hobby. It required an FCC license which of course was cool in itself. Now this group could work with each other to build better radios, chit-chat and feel like a real pro.
The first magazine for enthusiasts was probably Popular Electronics magazine which started in 1954. This was really the only source of information for the hobby. People waited by the mailbox anxious to get a glance of the latest project they could build with resistors, capacitors and vacuum tubes. Engineers of the future wanted to play with TVs, radios and pretty much anything that used electricity.
Alongside Popular Electronics magazine was Heathkit, a company that sold electronic kits for people to build themselves. The first being an oscilloscope kit called the OS1 for $50. Now Ham operators could get something to test and repair their radios at a very low cost.
Heathkit greatly lowered the barrier to entry for the hobby because kits contained all the parts and detailed instructions needed to get started.
Over the years, many kits came out including a color TV and an electronic organ. Many schools and even Bell Labs used these kits for training and coursework. Anyone could build it and an industry was born.
This early fostering of ingenuity helped drive America’s dominance in electronics and the emerging computer industry. No longer designated to military and government research, computers were destined to become an everyday part of our lives.
Perhaps the greatest advancement that brought computers to the home was the invention of the integrated circuit. What once required dozens of transistors the size of a dime could be replaced by a simple one-inch chip with legs to solder to a board. Soon thereafter came the microprocessor. This allowed relatively simple computers to be assembled where we could actually write programs to read and write data. Simple as it was then, today we pretty much do the same except for the scale. To compare, if we look at the Apple computer from 1976, it was a 1MHz 8-bit 6502 microprocessor with 4kB of memory. Today’s computers are hundreds of thousands of times faster.
In the early 70s, there were a number of groups playing with these new ICs and microprocessors to see what cool things they could built. Enthusiasts got together in clubs to share information and ideas and show off their latest creations. The most prominent group is probably the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, near Stanford University. The legendary Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs took the quantum leap from hobby products to consumer products with the Apple II. The rest is now history.
So here we are from that humble beginning and we ask, what’s changed? Well, first let’s discuss the disappointing side. The number of enthusiasts in the electronics hobby market has certainly decreased over time. A lot of this can be attributed to the transition to an information society where it is easier to consume information, rather than create. Sad but true and there is little relief in sight.
History shows the amount of learning, creativity and technological advancement that came from wanting to make cool stuff with electronics. We are now at a great place to begin the revival by providing opportunity to young people who seem to have lost their creativity and ambition, overwhelmed by media consumption that enables bad habits, leaving very few or no practical skills.
On the positive side, there are two factors that support the hobby. First, with advancements in electronic components in general, there’s no limit to the number of electronic devices available online to build almost anything. The amount of information on the Internet available is astounding. Thousands of videos on YouTube show how to build almost any project yourself. All the influence Heathkit had in the old days has increased a thousand-fold with credit given to the Internet.
The availability of products like Arduino and Raspberry Pi has been the greatest contributor the hobby market has seen in many years.
These simple and cheap SoCs or “System on a Chip” have made it practically trivial to connect an electronic component to the board and write a simple program to make it do something. This has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for newcomers and can be confirmed by simply searching for ‘Arduino projects’ on YouTube. Hundreds of videos are available to unique projects that have been built.
The activity of ‘making’ is an offshoot of electronic enthusiasts, where people try to integrate technology into everyday things, art and crafts. There’s always something interesting at makezine.com
Electronic hobbyists, where once dominant in the US, has spread worldwide. The impact of the Internet in countries like China, India and Eastern Europe is even more pronounced as components and information were much more limited in past decades. This is evident by the large number of content producers for the hobby coming out of these countries.
Why is this hobby so important? Well, history has shown that much of the technology innovation comes from young people with curiosity, inspiration and a dedication demonstrated even before they get into the job market. For America, and even the world to continue to advance technology, we need to give individuals a place to start where they can explore the possibilities, use their ingenuity and create new things we never thought of before.
Now that we have some historical background and understand the present situation of the hobby, how do we move forward? To increase adoption, we need to have low barrier to entry along with the ability to scale complexity to where someone has the ability to create something new and different. We need to recognize that this hobby is not restricted to the US. In fact, it looks like the US makes up only half of the market.
Today, many simple projects can be built with just a little effort. As we get into more complicated applications like home automation, it becomes an engineering challenge that is a bit daunting for anyone except a software or hardware engineer.
We can see that we need both a low barrier to entry and an ability to scale complexity without overwhelming and/or losing the user.
Home automation is a popular activity and topic these days. Everything from lights to litter boxes can have some sort of automation. Why can’t people build their own custom home automation projects using hobby electronics? Well, home automation requires some sort of wireless connectivity. Currently, Arduino devices are certainly capable of connecting to a Bluetooth transceiver to send and receive data, but users will need a pretty good understanding of the protocol, which is in itself, a pretty deep subject.
To do this effectively, we need a platform or operating system that allows easy communication between any wireless device regardless of its function. This is a new idea and although some have tried, there is a long way to go. Over the next two years or so, we will see an advancement in general purpose home automation where hobbyists can easily build a custom device and effortlessly have it talk to other devices. As we now know from history, the path from hobby to retail products is a short one. Stay tuned!