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Popular Electronics Magazines and Books – Where Are They?

In the 20th century there have been three main American publishers of popular electronics books and magazines. All were founded by individuals who published material that bridged the hobbyist-technician-engineer gap:

1. John F. Rider

2. Howard W. Sams

3. Hugo Gernsbach

I won't recount the history of each here except to say that the first two published reverse-engineered consumer electronics circuit diagrams for radio-TV repair shops. These shops were plentiful in my youth (the 1960s) but have since gone away in the US (and presumably also in Britain) as low-cost Asian consumer electronics has dominated the marketplace. With throw-away electronics and surface-mount parts, repair is no longer in vogue. Gernsbach published Popular Electronics and other widely-circulated hobbyist and radio amateur electronics magazines in the US.

All three published paperback books on basic electronics theory that were intended for those interested in electronics over a wide range of skill levels, from hobbyists to technicians and even engineers. They were sometimes light (pre-technician) and were rarely deep into engineering (rarely invoking the s -domain). A wide range of people interested in electronics could pull something out of them. They were also artistically illustrated, and the illustrations drove the text rather than the other way around – a storyboard format that script-writers use. Perhaps a resurgence of these kinds of books is possible. Netherlands-based Elektor sells them in Europe. Sadly, interested youth would have a hard time today finding this kind of literature in the local neighborhood grocery stores. The last time I was in the United States (a decade ago) I found no electronics magazines on the racks. There was marketing-oriented user-level electronics for mass consumption but not technical material with circuit diagrams – not even Nuts and Volts .

The Web has replaced the magazine racks in the local stores. There is much superficial technical information on the Web and it takes some searching to find good websites. Few, if any, provide the quality and extent of content found in books or even single issues of some magazines. Books are also available through the Web, though it is difficult to gain any real appreciation over the Web for their content. America’s largest new and used technical bookstore, until its recent absorption into the main store, was Powell’s Technical Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, a convenient location for those in the Silicon Forest of Tektronix, ESI, Intel, Audio Precision, Mentor Graphics, OECO, and other electronics companies in the area.

Perusing the Web cannot match the experience of standing for hours among row after row of interesting engineering books, perusing them and occasionally becoming deeply absorbed in their pages. One might enter the store in bright daylight and eventually leave in the dark with a box of purchased and give-away books, wondering where the car was parked and whether it would have a parking ticket on it. The occasional trip to the bookstore would result in a great intellectual boost at modest financial impoverishment. Engineers have been known to spend hundreds of dollars per visit. The unmarried engineer who persists among the shelves too long might also incur the additional cost of dinner in town. The vast personal libraries of some engineers can even hamper their move to a different house.

After World War II, technician training literature of the U.S. Navy found its way into general circulation through John F. Rider, by 1955 a division of Hayden Publishing Company. Rider published a Basic Electronics series as used by Navy specialty schools. The nondescript author was a corporation: Van Valkenburgh, Nooger, and Neville, Inc. Volume 4, for instance, covers transmitters, class-C amplifiers, frequency multipliers, transmission lines, antennas, and CW and AM modulation. The pages are about half text, half black-and-white illustrations, drawn navy-style. An example is shown below from Volume 4, No. 170-4, pages 4-68, 4-69.)

Rider also published a Basic Audio series by Norman H. Crowhurst, a prolific electronics author who later lived in Oregon. Volume 2, published in 1959, is nearly identical in style and size to the navy material; even the illustrations look like they came from the navy. Both BJTs and electron tubes appear in the 122-page book. While the content is not quite at an engineering level, it is hardly vacuous and makes for interesting perusal by engineers.

In 1962, Howard Sams (by then a Bobbs-Merrill company) published a “basic electronics series” on Transistor Circuits and also on Radio Circuits , both by a navy captain, Thomas M. Adams. Previous basic circuits books by him were based on electron tubes. These books did not have the navy style; they had more text than drawings, though the current flows on circuit diagrams were in color and were solid or dotted, to aid explanation. (See page 114 below, as an example, using the negative-current convention of the US Navy.) Although these books are also best suited for technicians, they are excellent examples of how to explain concepts clearly and simply, using good illustrations. Engineering authors could benefit from a perusal of these books when writing on electronics.

This genre of electronics books can be associated with the style of presentation of the 1950s or earlier, for it was near the end of that era, in 1961, that Tektronix published a hardback book 1.25 inches thick (with each chapter having its own page numbering) titled Typical Oscilloscope Circuitry . Boxes of these books lay dormant on filing cabinets near the fourth-floor elevator at the rear of Building 50, the Technical Center of the company, available to technical employees and kept under the presumed auspices of “the Reverend” Russ Fillinger, an earlier Tek manager who made many and varied contributions at Tek. I absconded with two or three copies, and I still have two – they are that noteworthy. I recall years ago in a discussion on this subject with Jim Williams of Linear Technology (to whom I might have given the third copy) that he had a high regard for this book. It is not what would be considered today an engineering book, though it is full of conceptually descriptive material about oscilloscope circuits that would interest engineers. The circuit analysis was technician-level but the concepts were illustrated with actual ‘scope circuitry to such depth that an engineer could be drawn in by it. Perhaps the book was written in part by Tek founder and creative engineer, Howard Vollum; no authorship is ascribed to it. Example pages are shown below.

In the era of this book, Tek also published two series of paperback books with similar style, one on circuit concepts and the other on measurement concepts. These books looked like they were typed; the font was courier and the right margin was not justified. The drawings were neat but plain. The books I have of these series were published in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. They are presently available in PDF for download at:

During this time and thereafter, a large number of quite useful paperback publications appeared from what were mainly semiconductor companies. Most prominent was the library of useful paperback volumes that came from National Semiconductor Co., not the least of which was the classic Linear Applications Handbook . My copy is the 1986 edition and it has 1222 pages full of useful circuit applications. Earlier, Signetics published a white hardback classic with a mix of circuit applications. For both books, ICs of the companies would figure prominently, of course. Linear Technology, Analog Devices, and TI continued this tradition of maintaining a well-informed customer base. These companies have made available far more engineering literature than was necessary to sell parts, and the electronics engineering world is enriched by them through it to an extent hard to quantify.

This newer generation of industrial electronics literature has replaced the Rider-Sams-Gernsbach era of electronics material, beginning perhaps with the GE Transistor Manual , a classic transitional example. (Predating it was the RCA Radiotron Designer’s Handbook , an electron-tube classic, downloadable from the Web.) With the ease of producing publication-quality script on an ordinary laptop computer, anyone who can write can become a self-publishing purveyor of electronics literature. Much of it has appeared on that great communications outlet of the current era, the Web, thereby replacing the magazine rack and even bookstores to an extent. Although material of varying quality has always appeared in the dominating media, today the Web increases the scale to where greater effort must be paid in finding the better material. (Incidentally, some of it can be found on this website!)

For those of you who aspire to write a book (or even a stapled or “saddle-stitched” booklet) on electronics, the task can be made easier by self-publishing (if you have some language and page layout skills) through print-on-demand companies such as www.thebookpatch.com. The Book Patch and www.blurb.com even handle ordering for you so that you need only submit your PDF manuscript (observing some constraints required for book binding, such as the number of pages being divisible by 2 or 6). The Book Patch charges $25 or $50 US for ISBN book numbers and at Blurb, they are free. With printing technology that now allows small print runs at low cost, and with printing companies that also carry out order fulfillment, the role of the traditional publisher is being reduced to that of page layout and editing for the grammar-deficient writer, and marketing through the established book distribution wholesalers. Indeed, traditional book publishing might be headed the way of the blacksmith, though with the general American trend toward poorer language skills, it might be a long while before it becomes obsolete.

13 comments on “Popular Electronics Magazines and Books – Where Are They?

  1. antedeluvian
    December 12, 2016

    Dennis

     

    I agree with your sentiments especially your comments about the data and applications handbooks. I believe I owe my career to them.

    Readers may find some interest in my efforts at preserving the data. Although it's not evident in the blog- if you click on the picture there is a sort of “art show” of many data book covers.

    Preserving Data Books From Yesteryear

  2. D Feucht
    December 12, 2016

    I read your ee times article. Thanks for making available your considerable databook e-library to others. I have many of the older databooks that appear to be in your collection and am holding on to them.

    I am wondering how you acquired databooks in South Africa. Are the major semiconductor companies well-represented there? In the '70s? It's a long way to ship paper books.

    Thanks also for providing the link to your stash – or cache! History teaches us that old ideas that were given inadequate consideration are freshly discovered and become big tech “hits” while some technology historian subsequently digs up the older, forgotten work, demonstrating that there is “nothing new under the sun”.

    Dennis

  3. antedeluvian
    December 13, 2016

    Dennis

    I am wondering how you acquired databooks in South Africa. Are the major semiconductor companies well-represented there? In the '70s? It's a long way to ship paper books.

    Although I frequently travel back to SA (I have lived in Canada since 1989) I am not sure of the market conditions now. I do know that Avnet bought out one of the major players there and now have a significant presence.

    Back in the 70s and 80s certainly the major players were represented. The databooks were shipped by sea, I guess and there was certainly no shortage, although sometimes they were avaialble a little later than elsewhere. South Africa was often see as an offshoot if Europe so sometimes the databooks were European editions. I see to remember TI was from Germany and  Motorola from France. Certainly the transistor selection had a European flavour with teh BC107 being used in preference to the 2N2222.

    I don't know if the distributors ever charged for the data books. I had a sufficiently good relationship with most of them to be able to scrounge them. Often though you would come across an advert in EDN for a new product (especially from a smaller player) and you had to write a letter to request the datasheet (the bingo cards (remember them?) didn't seem to work so well for us) and then wait for the mail to find its way across the Altlantic and back again(probably 3 weeks if you were lucky) before you could even know if you could use the part.

    Faxes came later, but the paper felt awful and the text was often corrupted, especially at some critical spec. Speaking of awful, do you remember how bad the orginal photocopies used to feel. And the smell!  Ah the good old days.

  4. tonyo
    December 15, 2016

    I got rid of all my databooks once I found that I could google almost any part number.

    As for design stuff and app notes, for the most part they are a google away or in my bookmarks.

    Instead of reminiscing about the past, why not build up a set of links to design articles and websites?

    Those would be far more helpful than an armful of musty old books.

    Here's one of my favorites for audio stuff, Elliott Sound Products:

    sound dot whsites dot net (sorry, planet analog doesn't like links posted in replies)

    Keep adding to a list on Planet Analog for newcomers and old-timers that want to 'browse'…

     

     

  5. tonyo
    December 15, 2016

    I got rid of all my databooks once I found that I could google almost any part number.

    As for design stuff and app notes, for the most part they are a google away or in my bookmarks.

    Instead of reminiscing about the past, why not build up a set of links to design articles and websites?

    Those would be far more helpful than an armful of musty old books.

    Here's one of my favorites for audio stuff, Elliott Sound Products:

    sound  dot whsites  dot  net

    Keep adding to a list on Planet Analog for newcomers and old-timers that want to 'browse'…

     

     

  6. antedeluvian
    December 15, 2016

    @Crash McBang

    Based on the responses that I have got, I can only say that there are many people who disagree with your assertion that everything is on the web- it was certainly my desire to accumulate the knowledge that I had and had not made it to the web and place it there. The data on the web did not just get there by itself. Unfortunately there is much that has been lost.

    You should also (re)read Denis' article to get the feel of what you get from books compared to the stuff on the web. I know it's a new world that I appreciate in terms of its speed and convenience, but I would bet that without the accumulated data every now and again someone re-invents the wheel. I see it in some of the Design Ideas that get published in EDN and Electronic Design.

     

     

     

  7. EdwardB
    December 15, 2016

    Snap:  Linear Applications Handbook, 1986 edition

    An excellent reference.

  8. D Feucht
    December 16, 2016

    McBang,

    I would tend to agree with Aubrey (antediluvian – which means, before the Flood, though he could hardly be that old!) that the Web is not merely a superset of what is in print. The Web is huge, but what is in print is also immense. They overlap significantly but not entirely. That they overlap as much as they do is because of efforts like Aubrey's to scan and post paper info.

    Plus, I find paper easier to read than a LCD, LED, or CRT display. Perhaps this is just the familiarity of longstanding habit, but I prefer paper books. Not only are they easier on (older, especially) eyes, it is easier to search them. I can flip through the pages of a book much faster (while looking for key images or text) than through computer screens.

  9. D Feucht
    December 16, 2016

    McBang,
    I would tend to agree with Aubrey (antediluvian – which means, before the Flood, though he could hardly be that old!) that the Web is not merely a superset of what is in print. The Web is huge, but what is in print is also immense. They overlap significantly but not entirely. That they overlap as much as they do is because of efforts like Aubrey's to scan and post paper info.

    Plus, I find paper easier to read than a LCD, LED, or CRT display. Perhaps this is just the familiarity of longstanding habit, but I prefer paper books. Not only are they easier on (older, especially) eyes, it is easier to search them. I can flip through the pages of a book much faster (while looking for key images or text) than through computer screens.

  10. D Feucht
    December 16, 2016

    McBang,
    I would tend to agree with Aubrey (antediluvian – which means before the Flood , though he could hardly be that old!) that the Web is not merely a superset of what is in print. The Web is huge, but what is in print is also immense. They overlap significantly but not entirely. That they overlap as much as they do is because of efforts like Aubrey's to scan and post paper info.

    Plus, I find paper easier to read than a LCD, LED, or CRT display. Perhaps this is just the familiarity of longstanding habit, but I prefer paper books. Not only are they easier on (older, especially) eyes, it is easier to search them. I can flip through the pages of a book much faster (while looking for key images or text) than through computer screens.

  11. Arnaudlav
    December 26, 2016

    I need some this magazine for my new installation

  12. Victor Lorenzo
    December 26, 2016

    @Crash McBang, I remember the last book I got rid of, it was about ASP.Net (version 1.0, so it was absolutely obsolete and useless). I find paper books useful, enjoyable and convenient. I use to write down comments and notes on my books for later use. Maybe the book that has suffered more the weight of my pencil is “Microelectronics Digital and Analog Circuits and Systems” by Jacob Millman. It is a 1979 edition.

    Of course I sometimes “repurpose” some other books. These two books in the picture below are more useful serving to get the oscilloscope closer to my eyes than for their initial purpose ;). I nearly hate Visual Basic but I found it usefull too, LOL. The other book, LabView, well, I'm ten times faster (or more) programming in any other structured language than in LabView, thought many other engineers feel confortable with LabView.

    Not all application notes and operating principle explanations we used to find in books from analog devices, burr brown, texas and others are easily accessible today, or even exist in the internet. The internet is so full of garbage today that it often makes it difficult to find accurate information.

  13. mfratus2001
    December 28, 2016

    On my site I have strived to collect and maintain links to good references from all over, in the form of scanned books, PDF's, and videos. One could spend literally hours following links and reading the references.

    fratus-amplification.com/Learning.html

    fratus-amplification.com/Links.html

    …and so on. There is so much there that I have trouble maintaining it.

    Mike Fratus, Fratus-Amplification.com in Houston, Texas.

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