by Star Simpson
I got into electronics and hardware nearly by accident. If I hadn’t found a book on electronics that I was able to teach myself from when I was about 14 years old, who knows what might have happened instead. We’ll never know. My “road less taken” was a fortunate one: I found that book. I spent the entire summer after my freshman year of high school at home, poring over the book and building the circuit projects in it on breadboards at my desk, figuring my way through to understanding. Eventually, I ended up at MIT then designing circuit boards professionally. But you never forget where you started, or the magic of the beginning.
I’m not the only one to have an experience like this. Getting Started in Electronics, the classic book by Forrest M. Mims III sold in Radio Shack and elsewhere for over 3 decades, has given on the order of millions of people their first taste for building circuits too.
Though it has been a long time since I sat down to read it, I saw that book again recently. Earlier this year I was leaving my house one morning when I saw the book on my shelf. I noticed it especially that day—I’m not sure why, but it really stood out to me. I saw it there on my shelf and thought “someone should turn those into hardware. I wonder if anyone has done this?”
Forrest M. Mims, whose books have been printed over a million times, whose books have trained legions of today’s engineers, and whose name is well-known and recognized among them—I wondered what he’d think of such an idea.
Through the serendipity of the internet, I was able to get in contact with him and find out what he thought. His words sealed my fate:
Over the years several people have approached me about making functional kits based on “Getting Started” and other books. So far nothing has materialized.
That’s all I needed to hear. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to work with my childhood hero. The responsibility of bringing their work to life was intimidating, but exhilarating.
I spent the next four months straight honing version after version of prototype circuit boards manufactured by OSH Park. Testing, understanding what I did and didn’t like, and trying experiments that didn’t work (see for example the PCB with a faux “breadboard” on it at the far left of this image, for example) then revising and polishing and honing aspects of the board design, until everything was just so.
People sometimes ask about the process of making circuit boards like these, and the basic answer is pretty simple: you sit down and iteratively edit the schematics and printed circuits until it’s done. It’s a lot like magic, but it’s also not much different than writing an essay, creating a meal, or any other creative work. Working from my home meant an environment with little obstruction to spending the long hours (frequently around fourteen a day in a streak), seated and adjusting the digital representation of copper traces mere millimeters wide on my screen, in order to ensure that everything was just so, and just right. Cursing my careless errors when I made them. Running prototypes by friends. Seeing how people responded and whether the concepts made sense.
In practice the thing that makes boards like these special are the aesthetic breakthroughs. For myself, getting back into the mindset of an early learner was the crux of my challenge, and every aesthetic breakthrough is designed to facilitate the insights that I worked so hard for at 14.
Circuit boards with graphics that aren’t directly part of the circuit are extremely unusual. Even using the most modern CAD tools available in 2016, that is somewhat difficult to do—the tools just aren’t built to accommodate this. While most computer creative tools allow you to take adding things like clipart or images for granted, I had to find extreme workarounds to add the simplest graphics, like a representation of the hand-drawn schematic from the book, which exists on the right-hand side of every board so that it can be easily referred to. This way, someone just getting started can make an innate connection between the hardware, and the way we draw documents that describe them.
Or, recalling a time when I needed to know how electronics worked and when I would hold a circuit board up in front of the nearest incandescent bulb, backlighting the spidery robot-neural connections and allowing my pupils to narrow to pinpoints just to examine the lace-like interconnecting structures of the 2-layer board, led me to figuring out how to help others have that same experience (without going temporarily snowblind!) Instead, I created graphics to draw lines in white ink over any of the robot-neuron-like copper connections to make them visually illuminated and clear to read instead.
Another major element has been figuring out the correct color palette to use. You normally only have so much leeway to choose what color a circuit board will be. For decades, the one color option was green. I want electronics to be accessible to as many people as possible, and the green color is already so encumbered with associations. By contrast, blue is rarely seen on a circuit board because the underlying fiberglass material, ordinarily a yellow color, tinges teal when coated with most blue lacquers. But blue is the color of wonder, and seemed a far more approachable and better choice for the color of a circuit board you’d want to learn from. Even if it’s not easy to accomplish, I set about to do it. I have been very fortunate to get to work with Bay Area Circuits to produce these, who have been delightfully willing to work very hard to create a new and previously unseen shade of blue solder mask for these boards, which sits near the shade of blue you find on an architectural blueprint, or the color of the sky.
I’m still working on getting these manufactured and shipped, which will be soon. I eagerly await hearing from my first backers when they receive these, and subsequent customers after them.
Until then, the best reward of all has been sending images and boards to Forrest, to hear his thoughts when he received samples in the mail:
I did two double takes: one for each side of the board
Star Simpson is an electronics designer whose greatest joy is designing objects and tools that are useful to others, and which inspire and delight. She is fascinated by the practice and study of compressing experiences and personality into physical things, to create objects with soul. Her previous work includes a card-sized electrical reference circuit board (for electronics company Octopart) now carried in the wallets of electrical engineers everywhere. She currently works at Otherlab in San Francisco.