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Make: Electronics

Learning by Discovery

Charles Platt

with photographs and illustrations by the author

Beijing • Cambridge • Farnham • Köln • Sebastopol • Taipei • Tokyo

Make: Electronics

by Charles Platt

Copyright © Helpful Corporation. All rights reserved.

Printed in Canada.

Published by O’Reilly Media, Inc., 1005 Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, CA 95472.

O’Reilly Media books may be purchased for educational, business, or sales promotional use. Online editions are also available for most titles ( For more information, contact our corporate/institutional sales department: 800-998-9938 or [email protected]

Editors: Dale Dougherty and Brian Jepson

Development Editor: Gareth Branwyn

Production Editor: Rachel Monaghan

Technical Editor: Andrew “Bunnie” Huang

Copyeditor: Nancy Kotary

Proofreader: Nancy Reinhardt

Indexer: Julie Hawks

Cover Designer: Mark Paglietti

Interior Designer: Ron Bilodeau

Illustrator/Photographer: Charles Platt

Cover Photographer: Marc de Vinck

Print History:

December 2009: First Edition.

The O’Reilly logo is a registered trademark of O’Reilly Media, Inc. Many of the designations used by manufacturers and sellers to distinguish their products are claimed as trademarks. Where those designations appear in this book, and O’Reilly Media, Inc., was aware of a trademark claim, the designations have been printed in caps or initial caps.

While every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

ISBN: 978-0-596-15374-8


For my dearest Erico


How to Have Fun with This Book

Everyone uses electronic devices, but most of us don’t really know what goes on inside them.

Of course, you may feel that you don’t need to know. If you can drive a car without understanding the workings of an internal combustion engine, presumably you can use an iPod without knowing anything about integrated circuits. However, understanding some basics about electricity and electronics can be worthwhile for three reasons:

By learning how technology works, you become better able to control your world instead of being controlled by it. When you run into problems, you can solve them instead of feeling frustrated by them.

Learning about electronics can be fun—so long as you approach the process in the right way. The tools are relatively cheap, you can do all the work on a tabletop, and it doesn’t consume a lot of time (unless you want it to).

Knowledge of electronics can enhance your value as an employee or perhaps even lead to a whole new career.

Learning by Discovery

Most introductory guides begin with definitions and facts, and gradually get to the point where you can follow instructions to build a simple circuit.

This book works the other way around. I want you to start putting components together right away. After you see what happens, you’ll figure out what’s going on. I believe this process of learning by discovery creates a more powerful and lasting experience.

Learning by discovery occurs in serious research, when scientists notice an unusual phenomenon that cannot be explained by current theory, and they start to investigate it in an effort to explain it. This may ultimately lead to a better understanding of the world.

We’re going to be doing the same thing, although obviously on a much less ambitious level.

Along the way, you will make some mistakes. This is good. Mistakes are the best of all learning processes. I want you to burn things out and mess things up, because this is how you learn the limits of components and materials. Since we’ll be using low voltages, there’ll be no chance of electrocution, and so long as you limit the flow of current in the ways I’ll describe, there will be no risk of burning your fingers or starting fires.

Stay Within the Limits!

Although I believe that everything suggested in this book is safe, I’m assuming that you will stay within the limits that I suggest. Please always follow the instructions and pay attention to the warnings, denoted by the icon you see here. If you go beyond the limits, you will expose yourself to unnecessary risks.

Figure P-1. Learning by discovery allows you to start building simple circuits right away, using a handful of cheap components, a few batteries, and some alligator clips.

How Hard Will It Be?

I assume that you’re beginning with no prior knowledge of electronics. So, the first few experiments will be ultra-simple, and you won’t even use solder or prototyping boards to build a circuit. You’ll be holding wires together with alligator clips.

Very quickly, though, you’ll be experimenting with transistors, and by the end of Chapter 2, you will have a working circuit that has useful applications.

I don’t believe that hobby electronics has to be difficult to understand. Of course, if you want to study electronics more formally and do your own circuit design, this can be challenging. But in this book, the tools and supplies will be inexpensive, the objectives will be clearly defined, and the only math you’ll need will be addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and the ability to move decimal points from one position to another.

Moving Through This Book

Basically there are two ways to present information in a book of this kind: in tutorials and in reference sections. I’m going to use both of these methods. You’ll find the tutorials in sections headed as follows:

Shopping Lists

Using Tools


You’ll find reference sections under the following headings:




How you use the sections is up to you. You can skip many of the reference sections and come back to them later. But if you skip many of the tutorials, this book won’t be of much use to you. Learning by discovery means that you absolutely, positively have to do some hands-on work, and this in turn means that you have to buy some basic components and play with them. You will gain very little by merely imagining that you are doing this.

It’s easy and inexpensive to buy what you need. In almost any urban or suburban area in the United States, chances are you live near a store that sells electronic components and some basic tools to work with them. I am referring, of course, to RadioShack franchises. Some Shacks have more components than others, but almost all of

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