“Daddy, lets build electronics!” – How a book changed my life

This is less an interesting technical blog post and more just a retrospective on my past and what it has given me today.

As long as I can remember I’ve loved electronics, since the first time I took apart a tv remote when I was 12 (much to my fathers unhappiness). Looking at the green epoxy coated circuit board, it made me think I was looking down at a green landscape, resistors and capacitors dotting the scenery like towns and villages. Then I was just an observer discovering new worlds. Eventually in highschool I began learn electronic components and design, to which I am always grateful to Mr.Langil my electronics teacher. Now I felt like a creator of landscapes, not just an observer. I was hungry for knowledge and without the easy access the internet provides us, I turned to books.

Sometime in 2000 I picked up a copy of “Engineer’s Mini Notebook: Timer, OpAmp & Optoelectronics Circuits & Projects” from Radio Shack.  This was the first I had ever seen of this book series  or its incredible author, Forrest Mims. Initially I had been interested in it because I had worked with 555 timers in the past and Op Amps were like a new magical power waiting for me. But after looking at this small book I was captivated by its hand drawn diagrams and notes. There was a romantic, real quality that I couldn’t resist. This wasn’t a text book, this was like a hand written note and treasure map directed to me. I can’t say how many hours I spent with this book or how many of these circuits I built, but this book took me from a dilettante to someone with a real passion to build.

Fast forward through highschool, two rounds through university and a decade and a half in various careers. Through the wonderfully deterministic world of digital electronics, the seductive magic of analog signals, and finally programming and embedded systems where I could finally communicate with something.  Now I spend most of my time writing code and less time building hardware but now and then will still pull out my old kits and put something together.

My 5 year old daughter spent a week this summer at a STEM camp. During that week she built a simple flasher circuit out of conductive play-dough, a battery and an LED. She loved this project and was so excited to show me, knowing her daddy is an engineer. She told me all about how it worked, how the electricity moved through the metal and the dough to make the light work. She wanted to build more and decided that we would build electronics together.

My home office is littered with containers of components, half finished projects and books. I started scrounging around for bits and pieces to put together while my daughter picked through my bookshelves. It may have been the colorful cover that drew her attention but for whatever reason she picked up this same “Engineer’s Mini Notebook” that had caught my attention so long ago. She asked if I had drawn the diagrams and pointed out to me the LED and resistor symbols she had learned.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little emotional seeing her get so excited over this same book that had started me on my journey.

I picked a simple project that would appeal to her and the next day we were down at the local electronics shop to pick up the bits I was missing. An hour of breadboarding later, my daughter learning to use a multimeter to measure capacitors, and we had our first project. She loved it and wouldn’t stop playing with it. Breadboards are temporary and this was a memory I wanted to last. So the next day while she was at school I soldered it up on a prototype board. And here it is, our first Father Daughter project.

First Project

This is the Toy Organ project from page 23 of Forrest Mims’ “Timers, OpAmps & Optoelectronics” entry from the Engineer’s Mini Notebook series. And it still sits on the window sill of my daughters room. Every now and then when she’s in her room I can hear the tones from the circuit.

I can’t express how grateful I am to Mr.Mims and his book series. It played an important role in my life and is now helping me introduce my daughter to the exciting adventure of world building. We’ve already picked the next project to build, maybe one that doesn’t make so much noise this time. I look forward to many weekends spend with this book on one side, and my daughter on the other.