Regular readers will no doubt already know my passion for Dick Smith’s Fun Way into Electronics series, as it was one of the big reasons for my interest and continuing self-education in electronics. This introductory series of projects were designed to introduce people into basic electronics, beginning with analog and ending in digital ICs. Furthermore, it proved to introduce users into larger projects and kits which would ensure return business for Dick Smith Electronics. It was a very successful business for this very reason.
Thanks to a very generous OCAU member, who was happy to send items to me for the cost of postage, I have again become reacquainted with the Dick Smith Funway series of books. It was a very nostalgic moment, and I felt it was important to share this with you all as best as possible. Unfortunately, as the books themselves are copyrighted although believed to be out of print, I can’t share everything, but I will do my best within what is considered fair-use (of research and academic study) to summarize the projects covered by the books and document the history of Dick Smith Electronics.
Many of the scans have had their contrast increased and some “defects” corrected in post-processing to better approach what it was “supposed” to look like.
Many people might remember the Funway series as this might have been their “introduction to electronics”. Others may remember it from it being integrated into school curricula. Regardless, I hope you enjoy this first part of a trip down memory lane.
Dick Smith’s Fun Way into Electronics
This book represents the first in the Funway series. The book was written by Dick Smith himself, and edited by Sam Voron and Ross Tester. Illustrations were by Mike Middleton. It was initially published in 1979, with ISBN 0 9595080 0 7. This book was printed in Australia by Kralco Printing Co. Pty Ltd in Flemington, NSW.
Early original print books featured the classic tri colour printing – in this case, orange, blue and black. This appears to be the second printing, which is fairly “early” as most of the books had over 10 printings in its lifetime. Towards the end of their run, the covers were replaced with full colour images. This particular book has a completely failed thermal binding, so the pages are loose despite the attempted tape repair.
It’s rather interesting to see the front cover itself, which advertises one of the projects within the book. The mention of a beer powered radio might not be politically appropriate for something that’s targeted at “all ages” but back then, Dick Smith wasn’t unknown for his zany approach. One of the key things to the success was its claims of being safe and educational. It definitely was, provided one took the time to read the book and understand what the projects were about. The book was very helpful, as each project was presented with a summary, theory of operation, schematic and build instructions.
Another way they ensured their success was to offer bulk discounts for educational institutions which led to some of these kits finding their way into schools and their curricula. This was definitely the case for Sefton High, when I was there. Dick Smith’s success in electronics was partly due to the ease of self-serve availability of components in small, retail numbers, where the hobbyist was welcome to make purchases without needing a trade account or minimum order quantities. As a result, they often had substantial mark-ups on components, although a lack of direct competition meant that this often went “unchecked”.
The Funway 1 series was designed to be completable without any soldering, with initial projects being constructed using particle board bases with printed “layouts”, self-tapping screws, and a set of components. This was later revised to use plastic “breadboards” of a peculiar design utilizing springs to make temporary connections. Components were supplied in bags (later, boxed) and designed to be reused between projects – the first 10 projects needed the components in K2600, whereas the latter 10 required components in K2610.
In order to get started, one has to first purchase the book, and at least one of the component bags. Part of making it appealing was limiting the cost of these items, which remained at a very similar price right up to when Dick Smith stopped selling electronics components altogether. By providing all the instructions and theory in one book, it wouldn’t be “lost” all over the shop, and it would provide further inspiration if one had finished the first half to go and purchase the components for the second half. Some information about integrating projects were provided, but since components were shared between projects, it was often not possible to “combine” projects together without first purchasing another set of components! If anything was damaged, you could easily purchase replacement components, but given the mark-up on them, it made for lucrative business!
It’s rather interesting to see how few stores they had at this stage, as their success was initially built upon mail order by running advertisements in electronics magazines of the time (i.e. Electronics Australia, Electronics Today International, Silicon Chip, etc). You can tell the age by how short those phone numbers are!
All of the Funway books were personally written by Dick Smith himself, and as a tradition, featured a foreword written and signed by the man himself. This page is illustrative of the rest of the book – internally, it was a duotone print, with greyscale plus the orange colour for headers and borders. It was well illustrated with greyscale photos, with decent contrast and quality. It’s interesting to note that Dick Smith’s callsign was VK2ZIP – he had later moved on to VK2DIK.
In order to make the projects as successful as possible for beginners, and to introduce them to the basics, all of these projects feature purely analog components and BJT transistors with no ICs or soldering.
The book itself consists of the following chapters:
- Getting started – and what you’ll need
- What the components look like
- How to read component codes
- Making a success of your projects
- Full list of the components we use
- Project 1: A continuity indicator
- Project 2: A transistor tester
- Project 3: A water indicator
- Project 4: A light/dark indicator
- Project 5: The flasher
- Project 6: An electronic siren
- Project 7: A dog and cat communicator
- Project 8: A decision maker
- Project 9: Morse code communicator
- Project 10: Music Maker
- Project 11: A sound effects generator
- Project 12: A crystal set
- Project 13: A one transistor amplifier
- Project 14: A beer powered radio
- Project 15: A two transistor amplifier
- Project 16: The world’s simplest transmitter
- Project 17: A more powerful transmitter
- Project 18: A CB radio receiver
- Project 19: An amateur radio receiver
- Project 20: A radio booster amplifier
- About radio transmission and reception
- The technical terms we use in this book
- Cut-out project board overlays
At a glance, the project names themselves are quite enticing, but because of the limited components, their performance was often relatively limited. I suppose for today’s generation of kids which expects things to “just work”, this might lead to some disappointment.
For example, the electronic siren is merely a transistor based oscillator that increases its pitch based on connecting a few probes together, and decreases its pitch when the probes are disconnected. The dog and cat communicator is an LDR controlled oscillator which emits a pitch outside of human hearing, and is substantially similar to the flasher which is the same as the flashing brooch in Funway 2 (as is the decision maker, morse code communicator and music maker). It’s amazing how many circuits can be made to revolve around something as simple as an astable multivibrator.
The radio-based projects mostly revolve around AM and “crystal set” diode-detector/demodulators for their simplicity, but the sensitivity is rather limited. The simplest transmitter, for example, took the input from the morse code communicator and uses a ferrite rod as an antenna with some impedance matching with a transformer. This is rather “crude” whose performance will depend on the oscillation frequency of the input and its harmonics.
A rather unusual artifact of Dick Smith’s “tinkering” is that the BJT transistors used are denoted DS548/DS558 (whereas, really they’re just BC548 and BC558). I suspect this may be to confuse early builders and stop them from buying their components elsewhere.
How to Build Dick Smith’s Favourite Kits
This was a precious little bonus I found in the back of the Funway 1 book, which seems to be a promotional booklet originally distributed in Electronics Today International in October 1983. Roughly comic-book sized, and printed on yellowing paper, it features information about the construction of the projects listed on the left-hand side. If anything, this is “inspiration” for hobbyists to consider buying some kits, or components to build it themselves.
As Dick Smith is a bit of an “idol”, I’ve paid much attention to his forewords. It’s very true, that there is a satisfaction that comes with making something with your own hands. But things have changed, and it’s often not any cheaper to do it yourself. However, the educational benefits still remain! A side note – there is a typo in the text, I’ll leave you to find that.
The booklet itself is constructed in a similar way to the Funway recipe, with construction tips and introductory information as a preface to the actual content. This tries to ease the nerves from hobbyists new to kit building. However, the content itself was also peppered with advertisements which provide valuable information about Dick Smith Electronics in that time.
A two page spread clearly showing and extolling the quality control behind their kit production processes shows just how central kits were to the success of Dick Smith Electronics. Their slogan, “looks so good, your friends will never believe you built it!” was intended to inspire confidence in their products (although I’m sure they could tell). It was an interesting spread, as it makes mention of CB radios, another big part of Dick Smith’s success.
Selling radios and accessories was one of Dick Smith’s achievements. The one above is probably the most complicated kit I’ve seen, and not one which was available when I was actually learning the ropes. It’s a (freakin’) 5W UHF FM CB radio completely in kit form! This would have been a very advanced build for those with enough test equipment to debug it. As a result, they seem to offer a debug service (although, they don’t mention that the labour cost is quite high). It’s another dying art today – most amateurs aren’t even building a radio from scratch these days.
Another big money making arena was that of home Hi-Fi, and there was no shortage of “kit” products there. There have been many amplifier kits available from Dick Smith, based on magazine designs with very respectable performance. What better than to pair them up with some kit speakers? Lets just say that building your own speakers is still a thing, and can save you considerable money/offer you better quality, but I suppose this might have been the beginning of the “home-electronics” evolution of Dick Smith.
Of course, the 1980’s was a big time for electronics enthusiasts, and component information and datasheets weren’t easily available like they are today. The internet wasn’t even a popular thing, and many companies didn’t even have BBSes or fax-back lines. In which case, if you needed data about a component, you were likely to have catalogues from major IC suppliers filled with datasheets (known as databooks). Dick Smith had their own, packed with both hard “numerical” data as well as application notes, which made a good reference that some people I know swore by. Some of the later books had tables of BJT transistor characteristics which made the job of finding compatible replacements a lot easier.
Dick Smith also didn’t shy away from selling a computer – after all, Tandy had one too. The computer described above was a rebadge of the VTech Laser 200 which sold an estimated 200,000 in Australia. Apparently it was derived from the Tandy TRS-80, but I’ve never seen one in real life though. I suppose the dream of a computer at $199 is well alive today when we consider the Chromebooks, Android and Windows tablets of today.
For historical completeness, a colour-corrected scan of the ordering page is above where a list of stores, locations, phone numbers and distributors as of 1983 can be seen. Compared to the inside cover listing in the Funway 1 book as of 1979, it can be seen that within a few years, the chain had grown considerably in size.
I’ve been a long fan of the Funway series, and being reunited with the books is a very nostalgic experience. It’s like digging through a time capsule, looking back at when electronics was very “analogue”. The baby steps that Funway 1 took revolves primarily about basic circuit theory, BJT vibrator circuits and diode-detector AM demodulation, without the complexity of soldering or digital ICs. Its marketing genius of being affordable, educational and safe proved to be effective, as well as the “repeat business” incentives of integrating projects with each other or to replace damaged components.
Many of the projects are given exciting names, but only represent really basic functionality which is of limited practical use. However, the educational value of the theory that accompanies the circuit is of high value, especially if one is expected to continue self-educating and understanding the operation of more complex circuitry.
It seems that their marketing insert, a very nice bonus to have discovered, follows a very similar pattern to the Funway book, but with more complex, practical and useful kits. The book itself has many promotional advertisements, which provide a keen insight into the state of Dick Smith Electronics in the mid 80’s.
Being aware of copyright issues, I’ve tried my best to avoid outright unreasonable infringement by excerpting small sections, necessary for this discussion, as well as promotional materials which would have been expected to see wide distribution. Unfortunately, the material is probably out of print, and potentially hard to find. If I were to be granted copyright permission to redistribute more of it, I probably would for everybody’s benefit.
Anyhow, do join me in a follow-up part where I will take a quick look at Fun Way 2 and Fun Way 3, coming soon!