The Amateur Amateur: Electrify Me!

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
January 2017

New elecronics experiment kit

My new electronics experiment kit. Um, where is the breadboard?

I just ran the final St. Louis Metro ARES net of the year. As the net control operator, I followed a script. But, as I'm also the net manager, I also had a certain amount of latitude in the format. It being our last net for 2016, I decided to ask the participants what interesting Amateur Radio-related things happened to them over the last twelve months.

I received a lot of interesting replies. Some folks had put up new antennas. Some had begun to explore different aspects of the hobby. A few had won prizes at hamfests. One had been out of the game for a while and had just returned, while another had just gotten his ticket last January and the whole year had been one amazing event after another for him.

And then it was my turn. Suddenly I was embarrassed. While I had spent quite a bit of time working with ARES, much of what I had done was administrative. I also cranked out this column once a month, but writing it isn't exactly a ham radio activity. So, I cleared my throat, admitted that I hadn't done much, and vowed to try something new during the coming year.

I was serious. Really. It wasn't like the shame-faced promises you made your mom about not raiding the cookie jar again. Nor the heartfelt assurances you gave the highway patrolman that it was a momentary lapse of judgment and you'd never speed again. I honestly meant it.

You see, I have always wanted to understand electronics. I do understand the basics, but I've never quite graduated to the level where I can actually do anything practical. I'll read a book on electronics and seem to understand it. Somewhere between reading about it and trying to use it, however, everything gets scrambled. Clearly, learning isn't part of the equation.

I guess that I must have subconsciously anticipated my on-air promise try again, though, because I had asked my wife, Nancy (N0NJ), to get me a simple electronic experiments kit, along with an accompanying book. As she is a kind and generous woman, she came through, and I found both items under the tree on Christmas morning. (Thanks, honey.)

Okay, I had no excuses not to delve into the electrifying world of electronics. I started reading the book.

I ran into trouble right away.

Old elecronics experiment kit

Aha! The older kit has a breadboard in it!

The book was readable, but the material was, for lack of a better word, "thick". By that I mean each sentence, each word, each syllable had significant meaning. There was no way for me to quickly scan the pages and get a sense of what they were saying. Understanding would come only if I read veeeeery slooooowly, paused to let my brain absorb the information, and then read it all over again.

It took me about half an hour to read the first two pages.

All right, maybe the "thickness" was with me rather than the book, but we're still talking about a very slow data rate transfer. A 300 baud tortoise would easily beat me.

That was all right, though, because I did begin to understand, and started seeing cracks in the wall that had always stopped me before: circuit diagrams.

Circuit diagrams were the barrier to all of my previous attempts to develop a comprehensive understanding of electronics. Oh sure, battery -> switch -> light bulb and then back to battery I could understand. It was when the circuit started resembling one of those English estate garden mazes that I got lost.

Uh, which way is the current flowing?

This new book, despite its "thickness" (or mine), explained the flow through the example circuits in a manner that I could grasp. Wow. That actually was progress. Could it be that I was actually getting somewhere?

There was one way to find out. Try the accompanying experiment.

I opened the kit...

...and found a bag full of components.

Before I could do anything else, I would need to sort out and identify all of the various components. I thought I knew what most of them were, but being color blind, I was going to have to put a meter on each and every resistor and label it. That would take time. I decided to defer that task until later.

Oh, and also, there was no circuit board or breadboard included in the kit. There was a note that told me where I could purchase one, but it still seemed like a rather glaring omission. Could I fabricate one of my own?

Screen shot of basic electronics course

Screen shot of basic electronics course. Yes, it explains how to use the breadboard.

No. Absolutely not. Let's not get into my efforts to try to fabricate stuff. That's a reality TV show of its own.

But wait.

This was not the first time that I'd attempted to pump life into the cadaver of my electronics experience. I'd bought kits before. For the most part they had languished in the basement in a pile of other things that I would sort out Real Soon Now. Could it be that one of them contained a breadboard?

I went down to the basement and blew the dust off of an old, but unopened electronics experiment kit. Thirty minutes later, after I had stopped sneezing and had taken a shower, I opened the box.

Yes! There was a breadboard inside! Hooray!

The next problem was that I didn't know how to use a breadboard.

Really. I'd never worked with one before. (Stop snickering, only a very few of you were born with that knowledge already wired into your brain.) Were there instructions somewhere in this old kit? Ummmm, I didn't see any....

...but there was a CD.

I inserted the CD into the nearest computer (there are many in my house) and up popped the message:

BASIC ELECTRONICS COURSE

Good heavens. This had been in my basement for years and, unless it had snuck down there on its own, I'd completely forgotten about it .

And yes! It explained how to use the breadboard!

So, I immediately went to work and built my own high speed mesh network complete with satellite uplink.

Ha-hah! Of course not. What I did was sit down, stupefied, trying to figure out what I should do next.

And that is essentially where I am now. Do I sort the components first? If so, from which kit? Should I watch the CD course first?

All I know for sure is that I will have to make a decision soon. Nancy is standing over me, glowering, waiting for me to move my pile of books and electronic components out of the living room.


© 2017 Gary Ross Hoffman
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