Editor’s note : In addition to Tim McCune’s excellent review below, please also see my EDN review on this book here.
Review by Tim McCune
Last summer, when a much-hoped-for mining industry internship for my son fell through, I looked around for something in addition to a job to occupy his time. With the help of friends, I cobbled together a basic electronics internship centering on some classic books from the 1970s and a couple of projects from friends at diyaudio.com.
The electronics internship turned out well. My son went back to school in the fall after building a couple of Nelson Pass-designed “Amp Camp” Class A amplifiers that use our LSK170 n-channel JFET singles in the front end. These amps – beautiful, clear-sounding units with unenclosed circuit boards mounted on big-finned heat sinks – were nice additions to his dorm room. Pass’s Amp Camp design is an excellent visual-tactile audio project and the kit, when it’s in stock, comes with a first-rate build guide. Pulling a couple of abused-but-serviceable old Bose speakers from a neighbor’s trash pickup completed the college room stereo project.
The Amp Camp build and a couple of other project kits ordered off Ebay were helpful. But missing from the summer experience was a guide to electronics based on easy-to-get items and projects relating to electronics in today’s world. We got a lot of good info and instruction from our main text, How to Build and Use Electronic Devices Without Frustration, Panic, Mountains of Money, or an Engineering Degree , an early 1970s masterpiece. But that book is hard to find, and though its audio amplifier and op amp projects age well, it just doesn’t connect with young hobbyists the way it did back in the day.
Fans of that book, as well as Alfred Morgan’s wonderful The Boys Book of Radio and Electronics series, will fall in love quickly with Ron Quan’s latest, Electronics from the Ground Up: Learn by Hacking, Designing, and Inventing . . Quan’s book, like his earlier work, Build Your Own Transistor Radios , is clear, accessible and assumes no previous electronics experience on the part of the reader. The approach, terminology (starting with the title), projects and explanations have a sharp, fresh feel to them.
The first six chapters of Quan’s new book are written for beginners, starting with descriptions of different types of wires, wire tools and batteries. The lessons are built partly around “hacks” that describe how to take items apart to examine and/or modify them in electrically significant ways, such as cutting apart a nine-volt battery to find out six cells are needed to make nine volts.
The next hack involves taking one of those LED keychain lights found at the bottom of every desk drawer and swapping out two small CR2016 batteries for one larger CR3032 cell. Dropping the voltage slightly and having a battery with an increased capacity means the device, usually destined for the trash can after a couple of hours, will now last 32 hours. The concepts of current, battery voltage and the LED’s minimum voltage requirement are drawn together in this quick project.
Quan then transitions readers to the world of simple circuit construction. My favorite from the beginner’s section is a circuit to “listen” to a remote control’s IR output. This looked like a fun evening project, and I hunted down a surviving Radio Shack store to get the parts I didn’t have. This was a simple but cool build, creating a device that converts remote control IR signals into an audio output that sounds like a Star Trek phaser.
After getting the Radio Shack IR LED, I realized I needed a small 8 ohm speaker, so I dug out a broken Afghanistan war surplus Voice Response Translator from our sister company. A short time later, I was bothering my family by stealing their remotes and making phaser noises.
This project technically isn’t a lot different from light sensor circuits someone might have built decades ago, but presenting it as a device that intercepts – hacks – a TV remote control and converts the signal to hear it creates a relevant understanding of analog electronics in a digitally dominated world. This is how Quan connects with newly interested hobbyists.
Doing a first build gets a lot of young people started on electronics from the hardware side, and the way Quan presents these projects and explains what’s going on makes it easy to spark someone’s interest. A weekend with this book would enable a student to bring into school a homemade circuit and explain Ohm’s Law by switching out resistors and showing a multimeter readout.
Quan’s projects get incrementally more interesting and difficult, building on the basic skills of reading schematics, correlating parts to them, using perf boards or some other method of putting the parts in the right places, and soldering/testing the circuit. Quan does this in a way that is clear and easy to follow without dumbing-down the instructions with too many pictures or notes. If a reader doesn’t remember which side of an LED is the anode on a schematic or part, he’ll have to look back in the book to figure it out, and in doing so likely remember in the future.
The second part of the book, “Intermediate-Level Electronics,” gets beyond Radio Shack and into the realm of the big online parts providers. Not only are these circuits more difficult to lay out and solder, but what’s happening within them is more complex, and Quan’s clear explanations keep paying off.
The third and last part, “Advanced-Level Electronics,” takes the hobbyist to more complicated projects and also includes a nice section bringing in high school-level mathematics related to the projects. Math at this level would be useful to a wide range of hobbyists. Adults who’ve built circuits intuitively will get a better idea what’s going on. Middle school kids with an interest in science would get a lot out of it, as many of them are already well into high school and perhaps AP math. Some people get into math for math’s sake, but the kind of people who build circuits often need math to relate to real-world projects for it to have any meaning for them. Quan makes a good connection here.
Getting the parts to build the projects from a local store shelf has gotten a bit harder with the demise of electronics surplus places and many Radio Shacks, but all the parts are cheap and easy online. The device dissecting and circuit building projects are fun and relate to things students have around them. Related tools have become ridiculously cheap – a decent starter multimeter costs less than $3, shipping including, from Ebay.
Quan’s book is a great resource and does truly start from the ground up. Generations of future electrical engineers will someday look back and say this book was what got them interested in the subject and moving forward with useful learning experiences.