Stray Signals

Electronics Still Thrives as a Hobby – Electronic Design

Electronics has been a hobby for as long as electronics has existed. It started with radio in the early 1900s, and has continued to this day. Audio was a big focus in the 50s and 60s, but hobbyists turned to micros, computer kits, and PCs in the 70s and 80s. That interest in micros continues to this day.

There have always been publications covering the hobby aspects of electronics, and today multiple websites serve this community. It’s hard to pin point the number of participants, but in general, the hobbyist population appears to be growing. Many working engineers are also hobbyists. Are you one?

I definitely “are” one, as they say. I started out in my early teens with radios, taking them apart and learning about shortwave listening and ham radio with my Dad’s Hallicrafters S38B radio. I got my ham license soon after, and have been involved with that hobby up to the present. I’m a ham extra class, W5LEF. In the 1970s, I worked for Heathkit and was involved in developing the Heath computer kits. I still play around with electronics and have my own workbench with multiple radios, scope, power supplies, breadboards, etc., to try out circuits and equipment. It’s still fun for me. I suppose that makes me somewhat of a geek. Whatever.

Maker Faire Austin

Recently, I attended the Maker Faire here in Austin to see what that was all about. This is one of many events associated with Maker Media, the publisher of Make magazine. Maker is the latest term for hobbyists and any do-it-yourselfer (DIYer). That includes not only electronics, but a wide range of hobbies and crafts. Some of those on display at the show were woodworking, metal working (such as welding), 3D printing, rocketry, robots, quilting, and sewing.

The Maker Faire brings together all those makers who want to show off their projects and to see what others are doing. It’s a mixed bag of displays and demos. I was particularly awed by the drones and the Legos art. And cardboard. Yes, cardboard. Impressive what you can build with cardboard boxes. It’s truly amazing what people are building and experimenting with. A major portion of makers are kids, but I saw more than a few gray-hairs, too.

Electronics seems to be involved in many maker projects. I did see some miniature Battle Bots, not full-sized ones, though. And there were multiple robots roaming around and doing tricks. Some other electronic-related exhibits included an 8-bit all-relay computer, antique electrical and electronic measuring devices, plenty of creative LED displays, and a ham radio exhibit.

The emphasis today in electronics making is embedded controllers. The Arduino was ubiquitous at the show, but the Raspberry Pi isn’t far behind. And there were several Internet of Things (IoT) demonstration projects. It’s clearly a digital world.

If you have not been to a Maker Faire, take a look next time one shows up near you. The diversity and ambition of it all is impressive. Hopefully some of these makers will become engineers.

As for ham radio, it’s booming these days. According to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), a supportive amateur radio organization, during 2017, 30,000 new ham licenses were issued. That brings the U.S. ham population to just over 748,000. It just so happens that hams are also major makers. Antennas are a continuous focus, and low-power (QRP) transmitters are a favorite exploration. Some of the new narrow bandwidth digital modes (PSK31, JT65, JT9, and others) of operation are increasingly popular, as is experimentation with the ham satellites, moonbounce, and some of the gigahertz bands.

Who are the Hobbyists?

A recent study of electronic hobbyists revealed some interesting facts.

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