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Friday
Feb242012

Interview Part 1: the control freak

I’m sometimes asked how I got involved with electronics and writing for magazines. I had to dig back more than forty years in order to unearth the inspirations for my interest in technology and electronics!

Like many career paths, something often sparks an interest during one’s early years, and in my case the spark was Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds and Joe90. These British-born and bred TV series in the 1960s were futuristic adventure series filmed in Supermarionation, featuring the puppet creations and special effects of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson who created the stringed gallant heroes of International Rescue.

As a 9 or 10-year old, in between being fascinated by my Denys Fisher Spirograph, I created pretend control panels like the ones I'd seen Brains using in Thunderbirds. I remember vividly how I would draw instrumentation on an upside-down cardboard box (the weekly groceries were delivered in one) and my imagination ran amok as I pencilled out all manner of knobs, switches, speaker grilles, dials, gauges, warning lights and monitor screens. I had a grand time re-enacting the latest episodes of Thunderbirds on my cardboard box, fantasising that the flower-bed outside could slide open allowing Thunderbird 3 to launch at the press of a button on my cardboard box.  My TV 21 comic was also delivered weekly, and I lapped up more inspiration and colourful adventures of Thunderbirds, Zero-X and more.

I’d re-design my control box periodically when more groceries arrived. Sometimes I’d be disappointed with my latest control console, other times everything just fitted together perfectly and I’d play with it for hours. Most of all, this imaginative play-acting was completely free of charge. There was no Sony Playstation, PSP or computer video game involved, just a black and white TV set showing Thunderbirds on a Sunday afternoon, and pretend control instrumentation designed on an upturned cardboard box. If I’d cleaned my shoes ready for school, I was allowed to watch the next episode on TV.

Most of all, this imaginative play-acting was completely free of charge. There was no Sony Playstation, PSP or computer video game involved, just a black and white TV set showing Thunderbirds on a Sunday afternoon, and pretend control instrumentation designed on an upturned cardboard box.

I also recall how at primary and junior school I enjoyed writing and using the English language, and in fact I excelled at it but I found Mental Arithmetic and Multiplication tables bewildering. However the seeds of my interest in technology were already sown thanks to Thunderbirds, though as a young boy I obviously had no idea what lay ahead or how profound an impact those early TV shows would have on my future direction.

At roughly the same time my Mum gave me my first transistor radio, which of course I opened up to look inside. (The same fate befell my first Ingersoll watch and a train set.) I marvelled at the radio’s myriad of glittering components inside, a collection of intriguing and colourful jewels embedded beneath globules of a yellowy, waxy substance. The RF transformers immediately appealed because they had inviting-looking ferrite screws that I eventually found could be twizzled round, accompanied sometimes by a slight crunching sound from within.

A more practical introduction to electronic components was probably made via my older brother, who started in RAF radio school a year or two later. Barely into my ‘teens, words like “resistor” and “transistor” were bandied about though I didn't know what they meant. I was also intrigued by the stereo separate system that my brother built up piecemeal at home. I saw audio attenuators being soldered together on tag strips, with all manner of phono plugs being made up into audio leads. I heard about “impedance matching” and saw resistors in the flesh. I also learned about different pinouts for stereo DIN plugs which hooked everything to a Grundig TK141 reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I heard about “continuity testing”.

It was all fascinating stuff in the early 1970s. At the time, there were few ways in which electronics could itself be explored by youngsters, apart from playing with Philips electronic kits, or maybe the 200-in-1 electronics kits from the newly-arrived Tandy (Radio Shack) stores. They had springy contacts to hook up the connecting wires.

Rummaging around

Mid 70’s, a teenage schoolfriend lived not too far from a rubbish dump where it was perfectly alright to scrounge anything of interest and take it away. Shocking amounts of hazardous materials went to landfill at that time. So every few weeks I cycled over there and between us we scavenged bits of old radios, TVs or other discarded motors and parts. I brought them home on my bike, with its carrier overflowing with more electronic goodies.  I would sometimes try to salvage parts in my dad’s garage using a huge electric soldering iron, and for a while I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was fun and I just collected bits for the sake of it. I amassed quite a heap of parts included ancient resistors, BA cheesehead machine screws and giant air-space variable capacitors but I hadn't the faintest idea what they were or what they did.

Occasionally a pile of dumped surplus electronic parts in polybags would be unearthed which we particularly prized! Sometimes the rubbish dump yielded something interesting-looking like a massive multi-way Maka wafer switch which offered us plenty to explore. We'd figure out how it worked, how many wipers, ways or poles it had, and how the end-stops could be moved. We heard about “phosphor-bronze” contacts and the wiping action of the pole.  We saw how instrument knobs or wireless tuner dials worked too and how old radio chassis were put together.

All sorts of bulbs, indicators, transformers, speakers and meters were rescued from the dump. I noticed how some motors and electric bells didn’t work with my torch batteries, which I found very odd.  In due course I learned about valves (vacuum tubes) too, managing to figure out their basic pinouts and heater connections from a book of valve data, and I could make them glow with a 6.3V a.c. valve transformer, or higher if I wanted to blow them up.

I rescued a carbon microphone from an old telephone, and figured out how to hook it in series with a battery to a transformer (which had something to do with a.c. signals, I’d learned), which I hooked a car radio loudspeaker also scavenged from the tip. It was all trial and error, but I built my own personal P.A. system, broadcasting from my bedroom to the speaker that I perched on the landing floor upstairs at home.

Generally I acquired a collection of old or surplus electronic parts but I didn't know how they worked or what to do with them, because I could neither solder nor read circuit diagrams. In 1970 I had been lucky enough to get into an excellent grammar school, and one day in “O” Level Physics I saw a book of electronic components lying around in the lab: it turned out to be the RS Components' catalogue and I begged to borrow it! I never knew that components could be bought that way. An audible warning device and speaker grille, screw terminal blocks, some panel meters and warning lamps all caught my eye, and memories of making my own control panels came flooding back. The more I read the RS catalogue, the more I learned about components, and I saw jargon such as “MES” or “LES” bulbs, “spst” switches and much more.

The more I read the RS catalogue, the more I learned about components, and I saw jargon such as “MES” or “LES” bulbs, “spst” switches and much more... Gradually I familiarised myself with the basics of electronic parts and components.

I learned about things like interconnecting wire (multi core or single core) and more. Gradually I familiarised myself with the basics of electronic parts and components.

On Safari

In that era I would sometimes cycle on my fantastic Raleigh Palm Beach to a nearby town, a good 10-12 miles each way, to spend my hard-earned pocket money on new electronic bits and pieces from local electronics shops. Looking back, I don’t know how on earth I managed it, but I literally sweated over the challenge and cycled home at top speed carrying another prized purchase, such as a Babani electronics paperback book or a packet of little rocker switches.

I dabbled a little with radio, and built a simple crystal set from a fixed inductor and variable capacitor from the rubbish tip, with an aerial wire hanging from the upstairs window and a similar ground wire wired to a stake driven into the flowerbed outside. I rigged it to my brother’s stereo amplifier and turned on his Grundig tape recorder – amazingly, I immediately heard a radio broadcast coming live from the Grand Old Oprey House in Nashville, Tennesee (because the radio announcer said so). I was stunned!

By now I understood the fundamentals of current, voltage and electronics thanks to my “O” Level Nuffield Physics. I also tried my hand in computing, and I was an early member of the school’s computer club. We programmed the local council’s ICL mainframe in a language called CESIL (Computer Education in Schools Instructional Language), sending off our handwritten coding and getting the printouts back next week. Flowchart templates and sliderules were the order of the day.

Many of us school chums were all interested in electronics and we soon started swapping notes and ideas. One day a schoolfriend saw in the school's tuck shop a magazine called Everyday Electronics. Its pages contained all sorts of circuit diagrams, theory and advertisements from mail order suppliers. Soon I bought my very first copy with my pocket money, the April 1974 issue. I couldn’t put it down.

Everyday Electronics, April 1974 has a lot to answer for - it was the first electronics magazine I ever bought and was a precursor for a freelance careerAs a younger boy, I used croc-clip leads to make little electrical circuits with a bulb, wafer switch or buzzer (which I made from a 6” nail, some magnet wire and strips cut from a tin can, screwed onto an old wooden cigar box also salvaged from the tip). I figured out the base connections of some relays.

The local library yielded hobby “cookbook” American books on electronics and radio which I found quite inspiring but very confusing: in particular I couldn’t understand the weird use of the ground or earth symbols in circuit diagrams, or why they appeared even in simple battery circuits. I thought you maybe had to “earth” battery circuits to a radiator pipe or something.

A little later I also discovered Practical Electronics magazine, published by the same folks as Everyday Electronics, containing very dense and complicated circuitry that I could not comprehend at all.

In the 70’s I also continued to show an interest in computing, though I slightly missed out on the new Commodore PET computer that the school had by then acquired. I ran BASIC programs on the council mainframe as before, using the school’s new computer terminal room, devising programs offline and dialling in on the teletype, feeding in punched paper tape. I also looked at FORTRAN briefly.  I flowcharted merrily away to myself, but I did not develop my computing and programming skills much further.

In Summer 1975 I won a school prize for my “O” Level results, a 50p. book token that I spent locally on A Dictionary of Electronics by Penguin. In November 1975 (because I’ve dated it inside) I also bought a copy of “Electronics Made Simple” which was of little relevance: it focussed on valve (vacuum tube) theory and I recall particularly how it stated that current flowed from negative to positive poles. The difference between “electron flow” and “conventional current” escaped me for a while, and I was disappointed with my book purchase.

Lethal Weapons

School taught me how to use the oscilloscope, galvanometers and signal generators, and some pals were more into music and hi-fi and they dabbled with audio amplifiers and PA. We tended to mess with cassette tape recorders a lot and I recall building a “recording studio console” in my woodwork lessons (control panels again!) which I equipped with Standby/ On Air switches, powering an amber and red mains bulb hooked via a Bulgin 4-way multipole connector. (Looking back, I see the Bulgin connector was unshuttered and designed for internal use on equipment, so it was sometimes live and possibly lethal in this application, but I used it anyway.)  If nothing else, I learned the difference between 20mm and 1¼” fuses and how to wire multipole sockets and  s.p.s.t. rocker switches.  I could solder by then too, after a fashion.

Thanks entirely to Everyday Electronics I discovered Veroboard (stripboard) and finally my assortment of discrete components started to make sense. I learned to recognise some devices and their pinouts. Magazine advertisements were great! I started to send pocket-money postal orders to a handful of suppliers, notably Henry's Radio in London (whose catalogue was a must-have in the 1970’s) or maybe Home Radio in Mitcham, or others. Once or twice I visited Birkett’s Radio shop in Lincoln, an Aladdin’s cave of surplus parts, and bought a colourful bag of surplus Mullard C280 capacitors (as they would turn out to be) or croc clip test leads for use with my experiments. A Saturday job at the newsagents WH Smith helped fund my interest.

It was also in the mid 1970s’ that pocket calculators first arrived on the market and I could demonstrate these new marvels at WH Smith, where one was padlocked onto a display counter. There were some ghastly calculators around, and some had vacuum-fluorescent displays and cost a fortune. A schoolfriend built his own Sinclair Cambridge calculator from a kit, which I thought was amazing. We saw a procession of Sinclair products advertised over the years, including the Sinclair Scientific and Oxford l.e.d. calculators: I would meet Sir Clive Sinclair 20 years later. Some integrated circuits crept into own my arena too, probably starting with the unfathomable 723C regulator and the ubiquitous NE555 timer. Light-emitting diodes started to appear, and the Texas TIL209 or TIL220 were becoming standard fare.

The interesting thing is that I don’t think I ever built any magazine projects directly  ”off the page”, but I read and was inspired by every article and I absorbed a lot from the skilfully-designed projects offered by the likes of R A Penfold, F G Rayer and many more. I guess that being a school student made me hungry and far more receptive to the learning process at that time. My own resources were very thin on the ground, but I was incredibly happy and motivated, as I’d learned how to experiment, how to use Veroboard and every month I looked forward to being inspired by the next copy of Everyday Electronics magazine.

In Part 2 coming up, things get more serious and my own constructional projects for Everyday Electronics start to appear in earnest.