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The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Electronics Kits

Engineering will never outgrow hobbyists

3 min read
The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Electronics Kits
Photo: Terry Perdue

Many older engineers first became interested in electronics through hobbies in their youth—assembling kits, participating in amateur radio, or engaging in other experiments. But I have wondered whether or not students entering engineering today had the benefit of similar experience.

The 1970s and 1980s were great times for electronics hobbyists. Heathkits were hot items, often newer and of better quality than commercial equivalents, featuring the latest hi-fi stereo equipment, for example. I remember poring over the catalog and rationalizing why I had to buy the newest widget. There were two memorable moments associated with each Heathkit—opening the packaged kit, and finally turning on the finished product. In between was kind of messy, but I thought that the world would always be like that: soldering individual components and connecting wires onto circuit boards.

It wasn’t to be. Electronics was in a state of rapid transition. Integrated circuits were displacing many individual components, and surface-mount assembly was moving beyond hobbyist capability. Moreover, automated assembly meant commercial products could be manufactured for less than packaging an equivalent kit. By the early 1990s, Heathkit was out of business.

But integrated circuits begat microprocessors, and a new era of hobby electronics began. The Altair computer captured the fascination of many, who now could design and build their own computers. Soon, though, commercial home computers hit the market and lessened the incentives for building your own from scratch. For some years thereafter hobbyists contented themselves mostly with buying board-level components to customize their machines. Nonetheless, it was a heady time, and computer fairs blossomed.

This era faded within about a decade. Commercial PCs came down in price and were bundled with hardware and software at a price that couldn’t be beat. Before long we became users, rather than makers. Where, now, was the hobby market to go?

But whenever it seems that there’s nothing left for the hobbyist, a new motif arises. In 2006 Eben Upton, at the University of Cambridge, lamented that in recent years new students had very little hands-on experience with electronics. So he started the project that led to the Raspberry Pi computer. This little board is about the size of a smartphone (on which technology it is based). It is bare, inexpensive, and, with all its input/output connections exposed, just begs for experimentation. You can download free operating systems and install them on a standard SD memory card. If you mess something up, just put a new card in.

It is invigorating to see the Raspberry Pi boot 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. Innovative applications abound in such domains as home automation and robotics, and the boards have already formed the basis of several of IEEE Spectrum’s Hands On articles. Moreover, we could add to the amateur mix the emergence of 3-D 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 it will come back after all: In the source code of the company’s now minimally revived website is a hidden survey about what kits customers might like. I’m just not betting on it.

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