Recommend a book that will help me make simple electronics?
August 29, 2004 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn how to make simple electronics, like LED controllers that I can hook up to a serial port. Can anyone recommend a book to get started with? [more inside]

I have a CS background, but I know zilch about circuits and basically anything involving electricity. Would something like Electronics for Dummies be too simple? I'd like to start with simple breadboards and eventually get up to stuff like PIC chips. I love the smell of solder in the morning!
posted by krunk to Technology (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I suggest hitting used bookstores and looking for the old Tandy/Radio Shack series by Forest Mims.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:35 PM on August 29, 2004

you can still buy the green radio shack book at radio shack, i think. it's totally great.
posted by judith at 12:39 PM on August 29, 2004

For general electronics, you can't beat Horowitz and Hill's The Art of Electronics. The second edition (which is the most recent) is dated in some ways: microcontrollers, logic, and op-amps have moved on by leaps and bounds. The principles are all still valid; it's just that there are better parts available now. It starts with the basics, but the learning curve is steep, so you might want to get another introductory book to help you get started.

I haven't read them, but Jan Axelson's books seem like they might be a good resource too. Also you might want to check out books aimed at beginning hobby roboticists. Or websites for roboticists, even if you're not interested in robotics specifically. If you have access to Usenet, check out sci.electronics.misc / sci.electronics.basics, and comp.robotics.misc.
posted by hattifattener at 12:40 PM on August 29, 2004

I hadn't touched electronics for a long time, and started back with PIC chips. If you get the C compiler it'll do much of the serial evilness for you (you'll probably need a max232 to get the serial voltages, but some pc serial ports are forgiving and you may get away with just inverting). I enjoyed being able to leverage the CS knowledge I had. I got the ICD2 from digikey for about $160.

To get started with electronics people say that Horowitz and Hill is still the bible despite it's age. If you are really starting from scratch mucking about with a power supply and a few resitors and LED's and using a multimeter can let you see the maths working. I've ended up using it as a mental check a few times.

Another thing to consider is a prebuilt solution. I've seen serial based display/keypad combos for $60-ish, not super cheap but they'll get you finished quicker.

Saying that I don't know if self-education's your real aim. It was when I went back to electronics, but I'd forgotten how much slower breadboard fiddling was than coding. All the staring at spaces a frew cm across for hours.

Good luck! My knowledge is a little shallow, but if you've got more questions fire away.
posted by Flat Feet Pete at 12:41 PM on August 29, 2004

[on postview] Yeah, I'd forgotten about the Forrest Mims books. Does Radio Shack still sell those "Umpteen-in-One" experimenter kits?
posted by hattifattener at 12:43 PM on August 29, 2004

A pdf on the ICD. I should have said that it's the only thing like it I've used so I'm not sure how it stacks up to other things. Digikey is here, not sure if they do Canada.
posted by Flat Feet Pete at 12:49 PM on August 29, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice; I didn't realize that serial was harder than parallel.

I've did some Max+Plus coding in undergrad, but I sold off my old text years ago... I should try and find an old copy.

Oh wow, I had one of those Umpteen-in-one kits when I was a little kid. I remember making a motion detector that would emit a horrible shreiking noise whenever my sister left her room. Classic. I always wanted one of those heathkit robots too.
posted by krunk at 1:03 PM on August 29, 2004

I wanted to second b1tr0t's recommendation of going with the parallel port for simple interfacing. In the past, I've found Craig Peacock's Beyond Logic to be an invaluable resource for this sort of thing.
posted by Galvatron at 4:31 PM on August 29, 2004

If you want to make interesting gizmos that have a little life of their own and are easy to hook up to a serial port, The Basic Stamp is the way to go. There are a set of kits that they sell that run you through some essentials (how do I hook up an LED, a switch, a motor, a servo). There is also a ton of free documentation of doing a ton of other things. I ran a lone student through this curriculum and he was able to design a circuit to drive an lcd panel and take input from buttons. He used it as a controller for mpg123.
posted by plinth at 3:40 AM on August 30, 2004

If you know C/assembler and want to get into PIC/micro work, get an Atmel Butterfly for $20 from Digikey. It's got the ttl->232 converter built in and self-programs (so you don't need external hardware to 'flash' it.) It's just as good/better than a basic stamp and much much cheaper, but will require a bit more startup time to get up to speed using it. It's got a (crappy) LCD screen, a joystick, a few sensors, 4 analog inputs, 4 pwm outputs etc etc. Open source / free toolchain for programming it as well. You could easily tack a bunch of LEDs onto it. And from there you can easily graduate to the 'real' avr micros that have a lot more potential.
posted by neustile at 6:32 AM on August 30, 2004

Response by poster: ooh... this is a nerd's paradise! now I know how radioshack stays in business. (and not just by selling my phone number to mass marketers). thanks for all the info!
posted by krunk at 9:06 PM on August 30, 2004

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