Hot topics of conversation, like fads, come and go…and then come back again. Just when your memories of them have all but vanished, they return and capture the attention of a new generation of interlocutors. With each resurrection the topic encompasses not only the original material but picks up some nuance that reflects a contemporary issue. It is to be expected; otherwise why would the subject have re-emerged? This time around, we are lamenting (e.g., EE Times and other magazine letters from readers) the ostensive demise of the electronics hobbyist. Highly integrated, surface mount components are the villain.
In my roughly thirty years of involvement in electronics, I have seen the transition from leaded components to surface mount (same package outline, no PCB holes), and then on to shrunken package outlines and ultra high integration. The people with tears in their eyes over the evolution claim that the home experimenter can no longer sit with soldering iron and wire cutters in hand, huddled over a poorly-lit workbench, and build his own AM radio receiver or bistable multivibrator light-flashing circuit. Gone are the days, they would have you believe, when a budding young electrical engineer could nurture his inquisitive technical bent by plugging leaded resistors, capacitors, inductors, LEDs, and transistors into solderless breadboards (Pb-free, by the way), then hooking up a couple D cells to watch his creation run. Not working quite right? Solder another cap in parallel across the existing one to increase the RC time constant to get the timing just right. Life was good then, but not any more.
News flash to the forlorn: Have you thumbed through a Digi-Key or Newark catalog lately? Stopped into your local Radio Shack? Most medium-size and larger towns still have an electronics surplus store – look in the Yellow Pages. To their (evidently) surprise, there is still a plethora of discrete, leaded components available to satisfy their tinkering needs. If you cannot find what your heart desires at any of the aforementioned sources, go to eBay and search for the components you want. You will be like the proverbial kid in a candy shop (or like a fat lady in a crème puff factory, as old time radio detective Pat Novak would say). To assist those of us that drink too much coffee and have unsteady hands by afternoon, there are breakout boards like those manufactured by SurfBoards and SchmartBoard make it easy to integrate the truly tiny packages – even chip-scale packages (CSP) into our prototypes. Ramsey Electronics, Radio Shack, and many others still sell experimenter and home builder kits. Just because Heathkit no longer sells 25" color television kits does not mean nothing is available. Schematics and how-to articles can be located all over the Internet and from book sellers like Amazon.com Trust me on this one; if you want to tinker in the old-fashioned way, you still can.
Oddly, the argument most commonly made is that due to the extreme level of integration of today's parts, the fledgling experimenter can no longer build his own circuits. The claim is ridiculous since, as long as little Johnny (or Janie) is not trying to build a cellphone or PDA, he (or she) can easily throw together many beginner-level circuits. The great thing is that now, as his (or her) skill increases, the need to spend time “reinventing the wheel” can be bypassed by using ICs of higher integration and functionality. Instead of designing, building and testing a servo drive circuit for a robot, the hobbyist simply purchases the entire assembly, bolts it in place, and plugs it into a controller and power supply (also purchased as a complete assembly). Nowadays, instead of being time and funds limited to tinkering with small circuit-level subfunctions, experimenters can accomplish entire complex systems single-handedly. If you look inside the consumer products that grace our superstore shelves, they are filled with multifunction ICs, not a bunch of discrete components wired together. Most of the Rs, Ls, and Cs in those products are for level adjustment, coupling, and bypassing. Monster capacity memory chips, microprocessors, transceivers, full temperature compensated amplifiers with power level setting and detection, VCOs, function generators, DC-DC converters, SAW filters, camera modules, and ultrasonic sensor can be relatively easily integrated into projects with a sophistication level that 30 years ago took entire corporate design teams to accomplish.
There are still a very large number of engineers designing all the sophisticated integrated circuits that plague our products now, so an opportunity does still exist for those who desire such work. Hundreds of consultants do the majority of their up-front work literally in a basement of garage workshop. Take a look around in magazine advertisements and on vendor websites at the pictures of open switched filter assemblies, airborne receiver front ends and processors, base station transceivers and even the insides of a network analyzer. Those products are loaded with circuits that have been fashioned from discrete parts (albeit surface mount) because integrated circuits do not exist for them. Many, if not most, of those circuits are breadboarded on a bench, sometimes with leaded parts. All is not lost; you might just have to work a little harder to find what you want.
The same type of argument is offered in my chosen hobby of model airplanes. Old-timers rue the day that almost-ready-to-fly (ARF) and, gasp, ready-to-fly (RTF) models appeared on the market because, alas, the art of model building is surely dieing. With the emergence of these new-fangled objects from Heck, skills once needed to design flyable craft, cut balsa and plywood, mix epoxy, cover the surfaces, and trim the model for proper flight would be lost. After all, if all the hard work is done at a distant factory so that the consumer need only turn on a switch and launch the fully airworthy plane skyward, then nothing of value is learned. Never mind that the hobby stores are still chock full of balsa sheets and model airplane kits. Our national supply of future aerospace engineers will now disappear for lack of motivation and skill, and there will be no one left to design the next generation of airplanes.
I have never understood or embraced such a mindset. We have to keep moving forward. We cannot merely wax nostalgic about the past. Sure, the IBM Selectric typewriter was a modern marvel of technology in its day, but I would never trade in my Dell XPS400 computer and keyboard with HP LaserJet printer for one. I love looking at old photographs and perusing through collections of relic tools, furniture, cars, soda bottles, tube radios, and the like as much as anyone, but I also salivate over the latest electronic gadget, fuel injection system, and star-tracking backyard telescope. I’m not into Taliban-style thinking that is centuries behind the time. As author Anon famously said, "The past is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there."