Since I’ve started the blog, the majority of my posts have always focused on the technical aspects of different products and items. But increasingly, I feel, it’s also valuable to provide a personal perspective to the posts, so I have occasionally slipped in my own opinions and judgement.
But never before have I written about myself to such extent on this blog – this is the story of how I got into electronics, and a chance to share with you, the construction of last Dick Smith Electronics Kit in my possession. Maybe, along the way, you might understand just why this is such a nostalgic moment for me.
As a child, I’ve always been fascinated by how things worked. I’ve been known to smash apart both incandescent and energy saver light globes just to see what was inside – and this was before I got into primary school. I still remember it. For the record, glass cuts deeply and I still remember seeing the blood on my thumb and trying to “hide” the glass fragments to avoid the wrath of my parents. Hah.
I was also fascinated by computers, TVs, VCRs and camcorders. Just watching the drum on the VHS deck spin, or the reels of the VHS-C camcorder turning would mesmerize me for minutes. The glow of vacuum fluorescent displays, the blink of LEDs – it seemed magical.
As a child, I attended Cabramatta West Primary School. In Year 2, I was being taught by Mr. M. Thomas, a teacher I was very fond of (pictured left, from the yearly school photo – other students blacked out for privacy reasons). He came in one day with a zip-lock bag filled with electronics parts from Tandy. This included batteries, mini motors, lamps, lamp holders and battery holders.
Little did I know at the time, that everybody in my Year 2 class would be fascinated with the other toys, leaving me alone with the stash of electronics. I took to them like a duck to water and seeing things move and light-up really excited me. There wasn’t much you could do with them (as I realize now), although at that age, almost anything that moves, lights-up or makes a sound is exciting.
One of the challenges I was set was to produce a colour wheel on a piece of cardboard, and attach it to the motor to “blend” white from a mixture of colours. Unfortunately, without anything to secure the cardboard wheel to the spindle of the motor, it didn’t really work too well. I felt a bit disappointed at this.
Then I discovered that the spinning motor spindle itself generates a decent amount of friction and I started using the spinning motor itself to engrave my name into almost everything plastic. Oh I was a handful indeed!
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had Tandy to thank for this “early exposure”. It was thanks to this that I had an appreciation for testing 9v batteries on my tongue. The tingle is a very memorable part of playing with the batteries.
After I moved onto classes with other teachers, my exposure to electronics lulled somewhat. I did have a lot more exposure to computers at the time, being proficient in MS-DOS and troubleshooting computers at the school already by Year 2-3, and building my first computer by Year 5.
At times, I had “dead” computers and spare parts donated to me and I would extract things like the 80mm fan from the power supply, the LEDs from the cases and just power them from batteries just for a bit of amusement.
In High School
It was not until I reached Year 9 at Sefton High School that my interest in electronics was reawakened. As one of the few schools in the state of NSW to have an electronics course for Year 9 and Year 10, I was very lucky to have been taken into the course which only accepted 20 students.
I very much have Mr. G. Frangos to thank (pictured left, picture taken at a school camp – the only picture I have). He was the teacher for the electronics course, and he braved the trip from near Wyong into the city and back every day of the week to make it all happen.
His background was in industrial electronics, designing variable frequency AC drives for cranes if memory serves me correctly. Despite this, he was extremely supportive and maintained a constant enthusiasm despite delivering what I now realize is very basic and fundamental material. It was a joy to attend classes, I always looked forward to days with electronics scheduled.
The class was held in a state-of-the-art facility featuring Weller soldering irons and workbenches. Safety was always paramount, and we were always aware that we may be on borrowed time due to the constant “overprotectiveness” of the government. Apparently Ammonium Persulfate etchant was to be banned in the year following, making PCB production a thing of the past. Ferric chloride was already banned at that point.
It was in these classes, I got to experience producing PCBs with Dalo pen and an etching tank. I got to drill out holes with a drill press, and solder it all up. The solder we used was good old 60/40 (tin/lead) solder, which might be presently banned due to lead content. We got to use wire strippers, side-cutters, clip-on heatsinks, a solder sucker and desoldering braid. It was well-equipped.
It was so well-equipped that we even had an Isel CNC machine which was not used and Galaad 2.5D CAD software, with the support of the teacher, from which I produced the foil cutting patterns to produce PCBs without etchants in my own time. The teacher was even supportive enough for us to start a lunch-time electronics club to get a little more foundation. Further to this, I had access to additional kits and the occasional component in case of need – I felt like I could start to explore on my own for the first time. It provided a foundation on analog electronics and gave me some of the skills and drive to go and build on my own.
The classes were not all practical construction only – we had copious amounts of theory to process which gave us an appreciation and understanding of how to read resistors, capacitor codes, and understand the operation of BJTs (at a basic level), the 555 timer, relays and LEDs.
Thanks, Dick Smith Electronics!
It was then, I had Dick Smith Electronics to thank. As part of the school curriculum, we built kits from Velleman and Dick Smith Electronics. Both of the brands could be purchased from your local Dick Smith Electronics retailer – they were ubiquitous, plentiful and accessible. The curriculum had me construct the 555-timer based “Universal Timer” and the Wireless Microphone “FM Bug”, both parts of the Funway to Electronics Volume 2. These are very popular introductions to electronics, and I was allowed to go further. What a shame I don’t have pictures of those kits – although I still think I know where they are (not within reach, at another house!).
I always loved going to Dick Smith as they always had a variety of interesting products for sale. I still remember back then, when Ni-CD rechargeable AA’s were popular, they only held 600mAh to 700mAh, but Dick Smith offered a 1000mAh version. Later on, I bought some from Jaycar, but I had always marvelled at the ones from DSE. It struck me as amazing again when Ni-MH cells were introduced, starting at 1200mAh and steadily increasing past 2500mAh over time. I found these in my box, so I thought I’d share these as well.
Most importantly, Dick Smith offered numerous, affordable, simple kits under the Funway to Electronics branding. This was available in two volumes, with the kits containing only components and PCB. The theory was included in a separate book which was well illustrated making it educational and fun for the beginner. The kits themselves were sold in plastic bags, and later, in cardboard boxes. The kits were often no more expensive than about $5, making it affordable.
In fact, the first volume was constructed solely using a board with spring-cross-connects, needing no soldering. This made it inherently safe. The second volume introduced people to soldering and more advanced concepts. The best part of the kits were that they were “components” which could be chained together to achieve more elaborate functions, almost like lego.
All of the boards were simple, single-sided PCBs with no solder mask or silkscreen printing to keep costs low, but apparently, they were proudly packed and made in Australia. Unfortunately, I gave my book away to a friend back in High School – it would be a nice momento to keep.
More advanced, pricier kits based on Silicon Chip and Electronics Australia magazine articles were available as a logical progression, along with the resources and components required to do something from start to end. The components were often of a high standard.
As I was progressing ahead of time in my course, I went further and constructed Jaycar’s version of the Wireless Microphone and their “high powered amplifier” kit.
Similar to the Dick Smith Kits, Jaycar’s ones did not come with instructions and unfortunately, they weren’t purchased so I had to work it out. The latter amplifier kit was very disappointing though – it’s not much of a kit when you’re using an amplifier on a chip!
The First Flight: Doing it Alone
On the side, I decided to build my first kit, on my own. I chose the roughly $40 BA1404 based stereo FM transmitter, affectionately known as the minimitter. This was a Silicon Chip Magazine kit, more advanced than the Funway series but still considered a beginner-intermediate level kit.
Back then, I didn’t have any better camera, but you can tell, my first soldering job on my own was not pretty. It’s not the worst I’ve seen though – in fact, I’m convinced many newcomers aren’t learning how to solder at all nowdays.
In fact, I started with a $7 no-brand 60W iron, rather than the lower powered jobs, which took a little work to master. But the low quality tip caused me trouble.
Initially, this build was entirely soul-crushing. I had spent an hour sorting and labelling the value of the numerous components, winding chokes and inductors, and fastidiously installed and soldered the components down, along with the last addendum which resulted in a trace needing to be cut and a resistor in-lined as in the picture.
But the kit didn’t work initially. I was distraught. I felt like I had been overly ambitious, I almost thought that I had wasted the money and that it would never work.
After a day of thinking, I worked out exactly why – the enamelled copper wire wound on the tuning slugs. I tried my best to strip the insulation, but the solder just failed to connect it well. Eventually, I had to remove it, without the help of solder wick or sucker at home, and that caused me to overheat and lift the top inductor trace.
Again, I felt that I might have blew it – by this time, I almost wanted to throw the kit away and forget it ever happened. Then I decided to entertain the chance – what if I were to replace it with solid core tinned wire, making sure adjacent turns didn’t touch?
With a bodge job of soldering, I managed to do it. It came to life. I was so relieved right up to the moment I started to tune it, realizing I had no non-ferrous screwdrivers for use with tuning slugs, I had an arduous task. I opted to use my jewellers screwdrivers, with a turn-remove-check regimen.
Then, I cracked the slug. I was never prone to swearing and cursing, but this was the day I started. Carefully, I backed the slug out, reversed it so the slot on the other side was accessible, and continued. The lack of free space on the FM band was a problem, and ultimately, I gave up using my screwdrivers and opted for a tooth-pick with a carefully shaped end with a knife. Bingo!
I still remember this, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. It gave me confidence in my skills in terms of constructing things meticulously, and taught me several valuable lessons about what to look for, how to solder, how to recover from “disasters”. It also told me to not give up too easily – if you troubleshoot hard enough, you can probably fix it as it’s supposed to work!
Finally, it taught me the golden rule – don’t go blaming the IC just because you think you’ve fixed everything else and you can’t see what’s inside. ICs are extremely reliable, and as it turns out, the fault was indeed mine.
The End of Dick Smith Electronics as I Knew It
Unfortunately, with the acquisition of Tandy by Woolworths Group, which also owned Dick Smith Electronics, the rebranding operations beginning 2008 put an end to the “electronics” in Dick Smith Electronics. Instead, the focus was on consumer electronics, thus killing off the supply of kits and components which nurtured me. This meant decreasing accessibility to components and kits, and less competition. It was a very disappointing move, and I’m still a little shocked it even happened.
No longer could I rock-up to the local DSE and expect to get a few resistors, capacitors, connectors or potentiometers. The lines of carousels and bins which used to take up a sizable amount of floor space were instead replaced with TVs and Hi-Fi systems. It was a very sad sight – along with it, it seemed my ability to obtain electronics components along with the parent’s weekly shop was diminished. The nearest Jaycar was too long of a walk from the shops.
Most Tandy stores were closed down as well as part of the acquisition, which further reduced variety of supply. While the latter years of Tandy operation resulted in them selling DSE branded parts, they initially had a large catalogue of Radioshack components from the US, which provided valuable variety. Some of this variety was good, because the Radioshack components were often of a decent quality as well.
I’m not sure about it, but I think these changes have really taken the whole entrepreneurship aspect of Dick Smith out of the shop which still bears his name. His claim to fame was the development of self serve electronics retailing – now that is but a distant piece of history.
My Last Dick Smith Electronics Kit
It was last week, when I decided to do a little room cleaning, that I came across my last Dick Smith Electronics Kit. This one was an early kit, as the later ones came in a much better printed box. Likewise, the PCB had much straighter traces instead of the curves we see on this PCB. This was stored by Sefton High for an extended period before I even got into the course, but I was allowed to take it off their hands as they weren’t using it in their curriculum. I have kept it with me since, as it’s a very trivial kit.
But rediscovering this kit bought back all the memories of a childhood “nurtured” by kits from DSE – something which people aren’t likely to see again.
I was in a split mind – do I keep this in mint condition as a valuable artifact, or do I open it up and share it with everyone? After some thought, given that I operate a blog, I thought it could be part of a good experience to share it with the public and show just how it helped me get into electronics.
The top card tells us this kit is catalogue number K2621, part of the Funway Into Electronics Volume 2 series. This project is the Flashing Brooch, and was packaged in Australia with batch number 2621159. Of interest is that I’ve constructed this, in addition to the universal timer, touch switch, wireless microphone, electronic siren and shortwave receiver, although I could never get the shortwave receiver to receive anything.
Standard inclusions in the kit include the components, 60/40 solder and PCB, with instructions and theory for the Funway series provided in a separately-purchased duo-tone black-and-green book (with colour soft card cover). You’ll need to provide your own iron, of course, although other things like side-cutters, clip on heatsinks, solder braid and solder sucker being options you probably would like to have.
In fact, it seems that selling this kit is a stroke of marketing genius as it’s got a spot for an additional LED, and constructing it may give you the incentive to revisit your DSE, purchase some accessories or another kit and start the whole process again. It’s a return business generator!
Standard inclusion in the kits included this disclaimer, printed on a red background. I’m sure some less-than-organized and less-than-coordinated people may have purchased this without first passing the Ikea furniture test and tried to take it back. Of course, you’re not going to get your money back if you screw it up!
Also included is the quality control card which allows you to provide feedback on the quality of the kit and things that could be improved.
The kit itself doesn’t have instructions, but I can remember vaguely that it’s an Astable Multivibrator, so I guessed (probably correctly) how the schematic would look like and assembled it as per the one I drew:
Here, I build the kit right in front of your eyes. I hope the commentary is interesting to viewers … sorry if it’s a bit disorganized.
So there, my last DSE kit that I have, and probably the last DSE kit I’ll ever see. Done and dusted.
As configured as expected – not a big or complicated project of course, but gives me a chance to use my iron. Not my best soldering, but not too bad either. Burnt flux looks bad, but it’s not too bad.
Beyond Dick Smith
Seeing the loss of Dick Smith as a component supplier had initially made things a bit more difficult, but it definitely hasn’t stopped me from experimenting with electronics.
I had always been interested in computing from when I was young (I remember Qbasic), but I didn’t want to be stuck with programming and competing with the “rest of them”. This led me to beginning in a Bachelors of Electrical Engineering at UNSW which further developed my appreciation and understanding of analog and digital electronics theory. Unfortunately, the math was an insurmountable hurdle for me – and so I graduated as a Photovoltaics Engineer instead. But that hasn’t stopped me from doing things which are very electronics-ey.
It’s all an interesting result, because if anything, we are seeing a renaissance of “hobby electronics” thanks to the “maker” movement, internet-of-things and Arduino community amongst others. If anything, it’s even possible to see a positive trend of sales, and some new internet companies have taken up where they left off. Thanks to online shopping, it’s not as hard to get parts anymore, although it’s arguably still more convenient to be able to walk to your local shop and pick it up!
Regardless, I enjoy playing with the Arduino and Raspberry Pi when time permits and building things (if not, tools) with them to solve my problems (some of which are self-generated). That being said, it’s a lot less hands-on with the advent of pluggable modules and shields, meaning users merely have to plug things in, screw down to terminals rather than solder up their own veroboard (which I still do).
Unfortunately, it seems like it will get more and more difficult for the hobbyist to be involved at the analog level – the more surface mounted components are used, and the more DIP packages are phased out, the more difficult it is to prototype with and probe the signals on these parts. It will be interesting to see where the future takes us.
Electronics has always been a part of my life. Not just in the everyday, “I’m just another user” kind of way. From a young age, I was inquisitive about circuits and making things happen with batteries, and I was always fascinated by how things worked.
My elementary school teacher showed up with a bundle of stuff from Tandy. This ultimately set me up toward a path of becoming an Engineer. The opportunities I was afforded in high school gave me the foundations, drive and confidence to explore on my own.
This wouldn’t have happened without Dick Smith Electronics. It was the accessibility and generally good quality of components which made Dick Smith so much more enjoyable compared to shopping at their rival, Jaycar. Unfortunately, Dick Smith Electronics was no-longer the same after the rebrand, and their competitor (Tandy) was sacrificed. This decreased exposure and accessibility to the educational kits which had nurtured the beginning of my own adventures in electronics.
We are now in a renaissance of “hobby electronics” thanks to the “maker” movement, internet-of-things and Arduino community amongst others. With online shopping, it’s not as hard to get parts anymore, although not having the exposure and convenience of a bricks and mortar store is something that I miss to an extent.
As long as the youth of today are exposed to this, they might grow an appreciation for electronics, and the engineering and theory that goes behind making something work. Exposure might actually fix the constantly looming science, technology and math “disinterest” by the kids of today who seem to be more interested and absorbed into mobile gaming than actually learning and mastering a skill, or a hobby.
I still have hope – it’s never been easier to do something relatively sophisticated with electronics you can almost completely DIY, maybe this will excite and inspire a new generation of electronics kids.