Tech Flashback: Dick Smith’s Fun Way into Electronics Vol. 1

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

ds-funway1cover

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.

funway1-insidecover

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!

funway1-foreword

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:

  • Introduction
  • 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

how-to-build-ds-favourite-kits-supplement-cover

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.

how-to-build-ds-favourite-kits-supplement-foreword

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.

ds-kit-manufacturingdept

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.

ds-uhf-cb

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.

ds-playmaster-speakers ds-series200-speakers

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.

ds-asda-book

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.

ds-vz200-computer

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.

ds-storelocs

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.

Conclusion

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!

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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28 Responses to Tech Flashback: Dick Smith’s Fun Way into Electronics Vol. 1

  1. Pingback: Tech Flashback: Dick Smith’s Fun Way into Electronics Vol. 2 and 3 | Gough's Tech Zone

  2. shasheene says:

    Keep in mind inflation – $199 in 1980 dollars would actually be $781.65 in 2013 according to Australian inflation rates, and $199 in 1989 dollars is $384.80 in 2013 (source: http://www.rba.gov.au/calculator/annualDecimal.html)

    • lui_gough says:

      Yes, good ol’ inflation. Have to remember that back then, there weren’t as many “cheap” China imports flooding the market, thus charging that sort of price was totally in-line with the market at the time. While the price does seem high, for today, it was probably still miles ahead of what branded competitors charged. That being said, the quality of the Hi-Fi speakers probably isn’t too great compared to today (as technology progresses), but it certainly built upon their quickly growing reputation to break into new areas of the market.

      By the time I really got into DSE, their product line-up had changed, and those speakers were long gone. Aside from the problem with keeping suppliers, they probably knew when to discontinue their lines as they got less competitive over time. While inflation has changed the numbers somewhat, the cost of the kits seemed to remain pretty close to being the same numerical figure with most of the units being under $10 even right up to discontinuation. That probably had something to do with the fact they had very fat profit margins to begin with, and component cost reductions over time due to manufacturing volume and automation.

      Really does give you a little shock to think about the value of some of these things in “today’s” dollars. Thanks for that!

      – Gough

  3. I went to my very first Dick Smith store in Newcastle, when I was a college student at Tighe’s Hill Tech – just across the road from their Maitland Road operation, and have shopped at DSE stores ever since, until they shut down the components, wire and tools section. I had worked in a Retravision store and one other electronics store (pre DSE and Jaycar) known as Martin de Launey’s (now defunct). I have been winding crystal radio coils since I was 9 years old, but we didn’t have a DSE back then in the 60’s, and everything had to be scrounged from neighbours or the local tip.

    When the opportunity opened up to join the “class of 1980″ Electronics Trades Course 1067, in early February that year, I took it! During my time as a student there, I worked for the nearby Hills Telefix as a placement student for the latter half of 1980. the class schedule was grueling – we had to attend four and a half days each week except for two semester breaks. assignments and lab exercises were expected to be virtually faultless (except for the odd puff of smoke – students were notorious for destroying TAFE equipment during jaunts in the Lab…

    At the end of that year, I kept a job with Hill’s as their trainee ‘fix it’ man and was duly appointed to fix all of the K-Mart warranty junk (plastic fantastic 3 in 1 stereos) Walkman clones by the dozen (poor soldering back at the factory mostly) etcetera. I was paid piece work for each item repaired.

    Half way through 1981, I got the chance to join the old ‘Telecom” (now Telstra) and commenced work at the Hamilton Telephone Exchange. Five years later, the old Telecom was still buying the odd components to repair odd faults in the Cross Bar telephone switching system, and who do you think the boss always sent over to DSE in the company ute? That’s right – me! He figured that I’s spent so much time over there scouring the shelves in my miss spent youth that I would know the store well enough to pick out our order and not dilly dally around – he was right…

    It was really sad to see Big W (part of Woolworths chain) stuff it all up and go out of components, tools and kits. I’m told by reliable sources (former area manager) that a women at the head of the Big W chain stated to him that “that whole wall of kits and components frightens me…” and that was apparently, the end of that! when Woolworths supermarkets division managed the DSE chain it still has some shadow of its former glory, but when Big W took it over it was simply a matter of time before it became the high turnover/low ticket value discount store that it is vainly pretending to be nowadays…

    Austin Hellier
    Brisbane

  4. Jimi says:

    Great read!
    Where can one find the kits these days? I have funway1 and want to start building kits with my 7 year old son. Or is it just a matter of going to jaycar and buying the components?

    • lui_gough says:

      Hi Jimi,

      Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like any equivalent of the Funway 1 exists, so it’s probably going to have to be a case of buying a breadboard, some components and adapting to that. Some of the particular parts, such as the audio frequency transformers might be a bit harder to find nowadays, which is a bit sad.

      That being said, the Funway2 series seems to have some similarity with Jaycar’s Short Circuits Vol 2 series, but since it needs some soldering, it’s not exactly suitable for most 7-year olds.

      – Gough

  5. Simpleton says:

    Member the funway kits from my school days… Dick was a fuckin’ nerd then and he is still a fuckin’ nerd… Way to go Dicky!

  6. orinoko says:

    I wish there was a PDF of the books… 🙁

  7. Dick Smith says:

    Dick Smith here. Great to be reminded of the Fun Way series. It gives me great pleasure when a highly qualified engineer at the Optus Satellite station tells me he got into electronics through the Fun Way series!

    It was true that my origional experimenting was with wooden boards and screws to save soldering.

    I must chase up Ross Tester and Sam Voron and talk about old times

    Regards DS

    • lui_gough says:

      Dear Dick Smith,

      What an honour (and I truly mean it) it is to have a reply from the legendary man himself! I definitely have you to credit for my ongoing interest in electronics. I managed to catch a session where you were a guest at the MWRS society talking about your ’round the world’ adventures, and that was very enlightening. You are a true inspiration.

      I’m sure that you get asked this a lot, but on behalf of many people who have contacted me by e-mail in regards to your Funway series (especially those with old kits) – is it still published? Where can it be purchased from? Are you considering releasing it in some digital form for the present generation to build, with or without the kits? With the growing ‘maker’ and IoT movement, there is a bit of a resurgence in interest in Electronics, and even if they are involved with digital microcontrollers, analog interfacing (and basic soldering skills) are still very important to deal with real-world signals.

      Thanks,
      Gough

    • Dear Dick

      Your Fun Way books pretty much defined a big period of my childhood. I fondly remember sneaking off to the TV repair shop around the corner from my primary school to persuade the guy to sell me the odd diode, capacitor and resistor to complete circuits from your book. Also taking the lie detector circuit in to test my grade 6 teacher; she took some convincing. Nowadays I run the Centre for Neurotechnology at Imperial College London, developing new optical and electronic tools for analysing and repairing brain function – I would say that what I taught myself through the hobby that your books started was as big a part of my education as anything more formal. Thanks!

      Best wishes
      Simon Schultz

  8. Dick smith says:

    Simon. Thanks for the positive comment. Not at any stage when I worked on the Fun Way concept did I envisage that young people would turn into Scientists!

    Dick Smith

    • Franl says:

      Hi I got my daughter and son funway 1,2, and 3 and some of the kits, they really enjoyed them they are now both in their 30s, I’m having some health problems and I can’t get out much found all the gear in boxes in the garage and they are stopping me from going quite mad.

  9. Andy Langlois says:

    Hi Dick:
    I’m an old electronics tech and I have a renewed interest in doing some projects. I have a model K7339 mini square/sine wave generator that I would like to modify a bit. I don’t know if I ever had a schematic of the board and I hoped you may be able to tell me where I can get one. Otherwise,I will need to figure it out longhand.
    Thanks.

    Andy

  10. con says:

    http://web.archive.org/web/19970715163015/http://www.dse.com.au/locations/l_tas.html

    Hi All, I found this on the wayback machine.
    I like the old DSE flash backs. I worked for DSE as store manager for 15 years from 1995-2010 and then jumped ship to Jaycar for only 1 year then left. Being a Ham operator VK7 I really enjoyed going to work. The best general manager was Geoff Grosvenor. Head office was cool too, the helicopter pad for dicks toy, the satellite dishes and swimming pool.

  11. Steven Hardwick says:

    Wow! ‘How to build Dick Smith’s favorite kits’ I built the 2×50 RMS power amps, power supply, preamp miixer, input board all from scratch – including etching and drilling the boards. Best stereo I’ve ever heard. Would build another now if I had kept the magazine. 🙁

  12. Andy Gelme says:

    For the anniversary of the “Fun way into electronics” series, Karl Von Moller has been asked to compile a video of people who remember and were inspired by the books / projects … for Dick Smith.

    If you are in Melbourne on Saturday, 1st October 2016, please drop by the Connected Community HackerSpace in Hawthorn from 12 noon … if you’d like to contribute to the filming with your own fond memories. It should be a fun afternoon … of filming, general hacking on projects and a BBQ. We’ll probably stretch into the evening, depending upon interest.

    http://www.meetup.com/Connected-Community-HackerSpace-Melbourne/events/234362676

    • lui_gough says:

      Sadly, I’m in Sydney so I will miss out – but I wasn’t aware of this, but I suppose other Melbournites can chip in :). Sounds like a great thing to do. I wonder where the “State of Electronics” documentary is up to – it’s been many years in the making and I haven’t heard much about it since the trailer came out many years ago.

      – Gough

  13. Andy Gelme says:

    hi Gough, if you’d like to film yourself and send that video to Karl Von Moller by next weekend (I’d suggest a link to an unlisted YouTube video is easiest) … then, I’m sure Karl will be happy to include it in the edit. To be clear, Dick Smith (himself) asked Karl for this video compilation, it isn’t for DSE the ex-company.

    As for the “State of Electronics”, Karl started releasing episodes on YouTube a while ago … https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLIizEY7AraGytx9YRynoCqXuWcvvCjQbg … I suspect that the *huge* amount of footage he has collected had become a mammoth editing task.

    cheers andyg (@geekscape)

  14. Hi Gough,

    Firstly great site and the article on the Fun Way series is an awesome read. Well done. “State of Electronics” is still happening and I’ve released a bunch of videos on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOepzhfgouq_rPxDx-kCn7Q/videos I am putting together a new video which is very much focused on the Fun Way series and would love you to be part of it. As Andy mentioned above, if you have the time, you could record yourself on any type of camera (just check it for focus, audio quality and exposure before uploading), and tell us “I got started with Dick Smith’s Fun Way kits and books …. Now I work as a scientist/ engineer/ technician/ … and I work in … Bioengineering/ Radio Astronomy/ Quantum Computing/ Consumer product design …. etc.”

    A simple compact statement is great but if you would like to elaborate on why these books and kits were good to learn from, then you could explain that further. Thank you for providing such great information online and entertaining my request. The offer is open to anyone who got going in electronics using the Fun Way series. Simply upload your video unlisted on Youtube and provide me with the link to [email protected] or you could upload to Dropbox, Vimeo etc.

    Cheers

    Karl von Moller

    • lui_gough says:

      Thanks for that, an honour to be contacted by the man himself! I’ll definitely enjoy the tidbits you’ve put up, and I’ll do my best to get you something decent in quality as soon as I can. I really look forward to seeing just how influential the Funway kits were in shaping the lives of everyone :).

      Sincerely,
      Gough.

  15. Sam says:

    Anyone interested in purchasing a DS FunWay into Electronics Vol. 1 sealed kit (no book though). Found one hidden away in a cupboard and it’d be a shame to go to waste.

  16. Suzanne says:

    Hi there! I bought the 3 volumes second hand off ebay but they are of course missing the project overlay sheets from the back AND the parts. I’m brand new to electronics which is why I got the books. I feel I can probably fudge the overlay sheets from the pictures but can I get all the parts I need from somewhere like Jaycar or online does anyone know? Or if there are newer project books that teach beginners like me, recommendations much appreciated! Thanks!!

  17. the funway series was bought out arround the year kogan bought the web order buiness head to http://funwayelectronics.com/ to find out about revival of the funway series i have all 3 books in original condition that i got from ebay nothing missing which Suzanne which overlays are you missing as i have a scanner to copy my books. many parts can be substituted if you take the book into jaycar there staff should be able to find all the parts you need . many former dicksmith staff started jaycar and released the short circuit books which can be downloaded for free or purchased from jaycar the short circuits series is based on the funway books with simular projects.

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