For many of us, the joy of making things is why we got into fields like engineering in the first place. You take inert bits and pieces, combine them in the right way, and voilà! Something new comes to life.
But as careers progress, the chance to work on bigger and more sophisticated projects often requires either focusing on one small part of the whole, or dealing with higher and higher levels of design. Typically, you move further and further away from the workbench.
IEEE Spectrum’s Hands On section is intended to put the whiff of solder back in your nostrils. Generally requiring no more than US $300 worth of parts—and often much less than that—they can usually be built in a weekend or two without recourse to specialized equipment.
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However, Hands On articles differ from others intended for makers and hobbyists in that Spectrum focuses much more on the why than the details of the how of a project. We assume you know how to, say, read a resistor value—or how to Google it if you don’t. We’re more interested in the value a project can bring over and above the actual thing itself. What can a kit teach us about the history of technology, or a homebrew design about adapting technology in surprising ways?
We think there’s deep value in experimenting and exploring with small projects, and this is a collection of some of our most popular examples from recent years, written by both experts and Spectrum staff. Even if you don’t actually build any, we hope they spark some ideas, either for weekend projects of your own, or perhaps even for that big, sophisticated project at work.
On to the projects themselves. We don’t know why, but engineers really love a funky timepiece, so we’ve included two—a kit that turns an obsolete oscilloscope cathode ray tube into a really neat clock, and a homebrew design that combines vintage space-age NASA surplus parts with a modern GPS receiver to show the hour, minute, and second via the stately sweep of old school needles.
We stay in the past for the next pair of articles. The first is a kit that lets you recreate the original PC, the Altair 8800. Building this machine disabused me of the notion that the Altair was little more than a toy with blinking lights, which is often the impression you get from commentators who have only seen pictures in history books. It’s followed by another kit, this one replicating the scientific calculator that helped put inventor Clive Sinclair on the map. As with the Altair 8800, just reading the calculator’s specs would make you think it’s a barely functional kludge of a device, but building and operating it made me appreciate both the cleverness of the design and how it fit in with how engineers worked in the 1970s.
Next we jump to the present with two projects that explore the rapidly developing trend of employing AI outside the datacenter on relatively low-powered devices. We use Nvidia’s Raspberry Pi-like Jetson Nano to make an automated tracking camera, and the even more resource-constrained Arduino-compatible SAMD51 processor for some handheld voice recognition.
Another perennially popular subject for engineers is amateur radio. Though ham radio can sometimes feel a little stale, these two projects show how there’s room for active digital experimentation, featuring a new modem for long distance data links and an Arduino shield that makes integrating a UHF/VHF transceiver with other electronics easy.
Finally, the last pair of articles takes us into the realm of citizen science. Electronics can let us see the world beyond the limitations of our senses, and these two Hands On entries take us from the scale of the galactic to the miniature, by building a radio telescope and digital microscope (from Lego!) respectively.
Working on the Hands On section is honestly one of the most fun things I’ve gotten to do as a technology editor in my career, and if you know of a project that might fit into Spectrum, drop me a line!
—Stephen Cass, senior editor