How can I learn some basic electronics?
June 15, 2008 7:56 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn some basic electronics?

I've always wanted to learn how to build some simple electronic gadgets, but I've never really known how to begin. had one of those Radio Shack 80-in-1 kits when I was a kid, but I was just following the steps in the manual - I didn't really understand any of the theory behind it. I've done a little bit of soldering, and a little bit of basic repair work. I've picked up a couple of textbooks, but they seem a little too theoretical for an absolute beginner.

FWIW, I'm a fairly accomplished computer programmer, so I understand engineering, troubleshooting, critical/rational thought, and creative problem-solving on some level. I did well at math in school, but I've never learned calculus, and I've forgotten most of what I did learn. I'm willing to learn, though - or, to find a program that will do the math for me :)

What I'm interested in (eventually) building could best be described as electronic art objects: sculptures that incorporate LEDs blinking in sequence, motors turning gobo-like optical wheels, and the like.

Should I just get another Radio Shack kit, and try to actually understand the circuits I'm building? Can anyone recommend a book that's suitable for my situation? I think something more hands-on and demonstrative would be helpful. I learn by doing, so if I'm presented with a basic problem and the tools (e.g., principles) to solve it, I think I could get somewhere.

Lastly: is there any free or cheap software for virtual circuit design? Seems like that'd be a good way to quickly try out different designs, to see what works and what doesn't.
posted by greenie2600 to Education (17 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I would go the Radio Shack route, only less "kits" and more some basic breadboards and then the little books they publish, or at least used to, on basic circuit design. They're hand-size, just paper, and focus on one or two little things.

You will not need calculus, unless you're terribly interested in theory. You can certainly use it, but it isn't necessary - most of this stuff requires nothing more than algebra. Best part, no inductive proofs.

First learn how to do analog circuitry, then tackle digital. Don't do the other way around, or you will not understand with much depth what is happening. I have to get back in the swing of that stuff myself. Buy cheap LEDs at first, so you can get used to killing them.
posted by adipocere at 8:10 AM on June 15, 2008

There's always MIT's OpenCourseWare:

For things like the blinking LEDs you mention, a lot of hobbyist electronics nowerdays relies on programmable microcontrollers such as Atmel AVRs and Microchip PICs. Atmel AVRs come with a C compiler, which is nice. There are plenty of inexpensive development boards about, I gather, which have chips, some LEDs and buttons, and space to connect other things you want to mess around with.

Also, in almost every discussion of electronics someone seems to bring up the book 'The Art of Electronics' - I haven't read it much personally, but it gets mentioned *a lot*. You could have a look at it in your local university library and see if it agrees with you before spending $70 on it!
posted by Mike1024 at 8:24 AM on June 15, 2008

Re: software, there are a few free versions of the SPICE circuit simulation software (look up PSPICE 9.1 or SuperSPICE). You're going to have to learn some theory in order to use SPICE, however.

Re: "Art of Electronics" by Horowitz and Hill. It's a good textbook because it's not heavy on the math and it explains things qualitatively, but it won't give you step-by-step instructions for hands-on projects, although it does have a lot of circuit designs. I recommend getting it as a reference.

Since you're a programmer, I recommend getting acquainted with a microcontroller family (PIC or Atmel AVR). These chips will have a lot of built-in functionality -- just learning how to use these features will teach you a lot about electronics, and you'll be able to use the microcontrollers to eventually run your art projects.
posted by Krrrlson at 8:35 AM on June 15, 2008

Check out the physical computing pages at NYU's ITP. They are using the Arduino platform, chock full of examples. There's even a book from the faculty there that covers the basics.
posted by tip120 at 8:38 AM on June 15, 2008

I learned the basics as a kid by reading and doing the projects in the various Forrest Mims books available from Radio Shack. Consider this an endorsement of the Mims books and not of Radio Shack — back then, you could reasonably expect the people at Radio Shack to know what a capacitor or resistor was but these days they seem to consider such parts to be mysterious relics and bait for pitching a cell phone plan.

I also took electronics in college but I don't recall anything spectacular about the text. A very highly regarded book in the field is The Art of Electronics.
posted by tomwheeler at 8:39 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going through the software-guy-playing-with-hardware learning curve at the moment and definitely second the recommendation for the Arduino controller board.

I've got the Art of Electronics too (based on similar recommendations I'd heard), and while it's very comprehensive and doesn't require complicated maths, it doesn't really walk you through getting up and running. When I get back to somewhere where the bookshops stock books in English I'm probably going to have a browse for a more introductory book to complement it.

There is quite a bit of calculus etc. in the Art of Electronics, but the authors are big on explaining rules-of-thumb and favour getting a feel for how electronics work over working out the resistor value you need to five decimal places.

Try getting one of the Arduino workshop kits, or something similar (I picked up one of these but I don't expect you're in Italy. In the US, Adafruit do a starter kit that's the same idea). Then you'll have a little controller board, a breadboard to let you experiment building circuits (without needing to solder anything), and an assortment of input and output devices - LEDs, buzzer, light sensor, etc...

There are some pretty easy, step-by-step with pictures tutorials on the Arduino Learning page. I think it definitely helps to have some hardware to play around with to accompany the reading and learning of the theory.
posted by amcewen at 9:16 AM on June 15, 2008

For a self learning program I don't think you can beat the Navy Electrical Engineering Training Series (NEETS) publications. They assume you start with no knowledge of electronics and then walk you through the concepts in such a fashion that anyone can learn the stuff without having to have a teacher available to fill in those thorny gaps. Horowitz and Hill "The Art of Electronics" is kind of a bible in this area and you should also obtain a copy of that. Used ones are often available as it is a bit pricey. Anyway, I recommend starting with the NEETS and saving H&H for more sophisticated concepts and reference.
posted by caddis at 9:49 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

'The Art of Electronics' [...] $70

Checking ebay there are some sellers at lower prices than this - such as shipping from India. I assume they send you an inexpensive but otherwise identical international edition of the book, which is only sold in India.
posted by Mike1024 at 11:12 AM on June 15, 2008

I also approached electronics from a software perspective. Unless you've been writing device drivers the biggest obstacle to overcome is that things are MUCH faster when you're dealing with microcontrollers and analog circuits. It took me forever to get it through my head that things often happen in nano and microseconds, and a millisecond is considered slow. This is great for signal processing (e.g. amplification) but not so great when you want to build a circuit that interfaces to a slow human. I still find it wild that a simple switch has to account for 'bounce', since no switch is perfect, and when a button is pushed it actually makes contact a few times before becoming fully on. Electronics for me is literally building things at the atomic level (Hence, electron-ics, i guess) whereas software development is more like Lego. You will need to learn patience. But when it works, woo! And you understand a hell of a lot more about what is going on behind the scenes.

I haven't used the Arduino, but I've messed with PICs. The smaller ones are super cheap (under $2) and so you can load them up with your program and deploy them without worrying about cost. (A board to program the PICS is about $50-80.) You generally write that in assembler - which is actually a great way to make you a better coder. Once you realize the limitation of assember, then sure, start writing in C.

Also, seriously consider an oscilloscope. I will help you to see the invisible workings of your circuits and will save you a crap load of time when debugging problems.
posted by kamelhoecker at 11:47 AM on June 15, 2008

I'm with adipocere on the "start with analogue" thing, if you wish to actually learn electronics rather than "how to program the xxxx" - I've found that when people jump straight into the whole microcontroller thing from nowhere, they tend to stick with micro kits/modules and pre-published circuits built around them, and learn very little about actual electronics. Most of what people refer to as the 'black art' of digital - even simple things, like how/when to bypass supply rails, or propagation delay, or rise/fall times - is founded in analogue.

At the very least, start with something simple like a 555 - learn to flash an LED with that, how to change the rate and duty cycle, and why changing certain components changes the rate / duty cycle. Stick a decade counter on the end of that, and make a row of LEDs flash in sequence. Use an up/down counter instead of the decade counter and turn it into K.I.T.T. from Knightrider, and so on. Doing something like that will give you a basic understanding of the analogue underpinnings of digital.
posted by Pinback at 12:19 PM on June 15, 2008

You can get okay oscilloscopes cheapish that plug into your USB drive and display on your monitor. Not so great refresh rate but fine for basic analysis. Also get a breadboard, some veroboard, a pretty good soldering iron, and if you're some kind of richy rich then also a function generator and a voltage supply - it's a big hassle having to just run down 9Vs all the time, and ALSO run them through a voltage regulator first for any kind of work that likes 5V in rather than 9. If you can't afford a voltage supply, a mobile phone charger gives steady 5VDC I think, which is what you'll be using for most basic hobby circuits. Check first though! Also if you can't afford an oscilloscope and probably even if you can, pick up a multimeter.

The Arduino is good for a dev board. If you have more cash maybe pick up the Atmel STK, more fully featured and I think usable with a wider range of Atmel chips. Either way you'll want to pick up a loooong - uh, I forget the name, but a ten or six pin cable that lets you talk to a microcontroller when it's already soldered onto a PCB or some veroboard, as long as you map the appropriate pinouts on the micro to a ten/six pin socket. Even if you include a socket for the micro itself in your PCB / whatever, it's nice to not have to fuck with pulling it out to reprogram - PLUS, you can output data from the micro, in real time, to Hyperterminal or something, and adjust sensor data etc on the fly. A super time saver if you're trying to implement sensor / actuation feedback control in something - you know, like an awesome fucking robot.

I wouldn't worry too much about theory, just learn as you go. I know wayyy more theory than I do practical stuff and it's rarely THAT useful in the lab - past the basics, I mean. They're actually pretty different skillsets, circuit design and circuit theory. So yeah, don't fuss about theory, just research some interesting projects and try to build them. Start off with making a microcontroller turn on an LED when something occurs - say, when 2 seconds elapse, it receives input from a switch closing, a sensor feeds it information of some sort - whatever, just get a feel for the basics of putting together circuits and at the same time, using embedded systems programmy stuff.

I typed up a huge bit here about how to build the 7805-based voltage regulator that you'll probably need starting out, but I'm sort of high and I think it came out a bit "crazy". Let me know if you want it anyway, I guess.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 12:34 PM on June 15, 2008

Analogue's for losers, all you need is logic and a little PWM.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 12:37 PM on June 15, 2008

And as for circuit design software, it only takes you so far - you generally need to know what you're doing first. Still, it's nice if only to use as circuit CAD. I got some pretty excellent Australian software called Altium from piratebay, which also lets you design your own PCBs, definitely useful when you get to be more leet.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 12:41 PM on June 15, 2008

For testing simple circuits in simulation, try Paul Falstad's Circuit Simulator. (warning: Java applet) It's a lot more flexible and easier to use than most similar freeware.
posted by teraflop at 6:40 PM on June 15, 2008

What I'm interested in (eventually) building could best be described as electronic art objects: sculptures that incorporate LEDs blinking in sequence, motors turning gobo-like optical wheels, and the like.

I suggest a two-stepbook program:

JunkBots, Bugbots, and Bots on Wheels: Building Simple Robots With BEAM Technology

This book is your 1st-gear - it assumes you start out knowing nothing and gives you a basic introduction and understanding and feel for how to use basic components and how to build simple devices such that (a) they work, and (b) you understanding why they work, and thus (c) you can modify them to do your own things.

Art of Electronics

This book is your 2nd through 5th gears, and could take to you to professional levels of work if you put the time in.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:55 PM on June 15, 2008

The Junkbots book is a lot of fun. I didn't actually build anything from it, but his description of cracking open broken consumer electronics with hammers is a real hoot.

There is a lab book for the Art of Electronics. It will give you some experiments to try.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 10:26 AM on June 16, 2008

Response by poster: Tons of great advice. Thanks to everyone. I'll pick up copies of The Art of Electronics and JunkBots, as well as a breadboard, multimeter, and some other basic supplies. Looking forward to building my orbital death r—er, art projects!
posted by greenie2600 at 12:02 PM on June 18, 2008

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