Analog Angle Blog

DIY days: better, worse, or just very different?

Norman Edmund passed away last week at age 95, but the news received very little attention; you can read a nice Wall Street Journal remembrance here.

Some of you are asking: “who was he, anyway?” For many years, Edmund Scientific was the best-known supplier of lenses, optical filters, polarizers, motors, switches, gears, small fixtures and tools, and all sorts of electromechanical items and gadgets to the amateur science experimenter/hobbyist (as well as government agencies, such as NASA). They accepted one-off, small orders in addition to those of the “big boys.”

Getting his catalog in the mail was always a joy, just thumbing through the pages to see what he had—and they sent the catalog to anyone year after year, even if you never bought anything. Going through it page-by-page was a way to, at least vicariously; and to feel like a scientist and engineer, and on the cheap, until you had saved up enough money to fulfill your small-scale “must have” aspiration.

[Some years ago, he and his family sold the “mail order/experimenter” business to another company (see here) while they focused on selling optics, and only to commercial customers.]

His passing made me think of the world of the amateur experimentation and project-building years ago versus today. Some will those say were the good old days: you could actually handle the electronic parts (and you could strip them from old TVs, too), you didn't need development systems, and things were more tangible in various ways. You didn't need a microscope or special oven to solder components to PC boards.

In addition to project-oriented publications such as Popular Electronics and its rivals, even the prestigious Scientific American had a popular monthly “Amateur Scientist” column (long-since discontinued), which presented electronic and mechanical projects that were non-trivial but very buildable—a typical project was a highly sensitive seismograph built from easily obtained parts.

But were those really such “good old days”? Today's DIY folks have easy access to online search and sources with quick delivery; rapid prototyping machines and small machining centers; Lego Mindstorms; customizable, software-driven subassemblies (such as motor and controls; high-performance servos and controllers; wired and wireless communication links; displays and keyboards; and much more. All of these can be tied together with powerful, often free tools, apps, operating systems, and development systems that run on PCs, tablets, or even smart phones.

For ideas, plans, and tutorials, there are countless user groups, informal forums, and blogs, as well as more formal sources such as data sheets, or Circuit Cellar and Maker Faire/Make:(full disclosure: we and our parent UBM have absolutely no connection to either of those two publications; in fact, they are competitors in some ways.)

So, is hobbyist and experimenter DIY situation better or worse than back th en? I'd say it is both, and certainly it is very different. As with most things in life, what you get out of it depends on what you are willing and able to put into it.

What's your view on the past-versus-present DIY situation??

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