Getting Started with Electronics

- 6 mins

Introduction

Towards the end of 2014 I decided that I wanted to learn digital electronics. As someone who would self-identify as a software person I only had a relatively wooley understanding of what happened at the “sand layer” of my computer. I’ve set myself the project of designing and making a 1980s-era computer called “Búri”. I’ve recorded a few YouTube videos on it:

This post covers the “bootstrapping” process I went through to get myself to a place where I could start learning electronics. Its the set of things I wish I knew when I started.

The essentials

Unlike software, electronics is fundamentally concerned with individual things. And the thing about things is that the incremental cost of making and delivering an individual thing is far greater than software. (Making a copy of a piece of software is very nearly free.) Hence you’ll need to spend some money. I spent quite a bit of money but if I were to bootstrap again, this is what I’d buy:

Prices inclusive of postage and correct at time of writing. Total cost: £25.95 or, again as of writing, around $45 (US). Note that I’m not endorsing these individual eBay sellers; YMMV when ordering from China. I was also lucky in that my Dad, on hearing of my new hobby, found a large box of chips, resistors, capacitors, etc. in the garage. Most of my projects have now been driven more by what I have for free in those boxes rather than what I’ve bought.

You can never have enough solderless breadboards. I bought a A4-sized whiteboard from Poundland and stuck breadboards to it. This is a lot cheaper than buying one of the metal-backed “advanced” breadboard modules. You can see it in action in the videos above and, in an earlier state, below:

(The video itself is the first test of using a MAX7219 chip to drive a set of seven segment displays from the Big Box. This ended up forming the core of the debug board for my homebrew 6502 computer.)

Less essential essentials

Aside from discrete components like resistors, capacitors and LEDs, if you want to play with digital electronics like I did you’ll need some 7400 series logic. I inherited a lot from my Dad in the Big Box O’ Joy. That being said, the chips you’ll definitely want a handful of are:

The latter two chips are useful if you’re using an Arduino to drive lots of outputs or getting lots of inputs. You’ll be surprised at how small “lots” can be.

There’s a good Computerphile video on the use of flip-flops in computer memory if you don’t know your “D-type”s from your “JK-type”s.

Knowledge

Once you’ve got your equipment, you need to start learning. I started with a little basic electronics knowledge from school and a couple of courses at University. I was rather dismissive of electronics ad University viewing it as a subject deeply steeped in “magic”. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that electronics people viewed software as similarly being the domain of wizards and sorcery. Such is any skill when viewed from outside.

That being said I was aware, perhaps distantly, of the following:

Of these, the first is the most important. If you’re not sure of the difference between voltage and current you’re going to have a bad time and you should watch some YouTube videos to get a good handle on the difference.

Aside: more correctly, I was aware that current is the flow of the places where electrons want to be. Conventional positive-to-negative current flow predates the discovery that electrons are negatively charged!

I had, therefore, something of a schoolboy electronics knowledge with some pretty large gaps but YouTube provided some important gap-filling mortar. I can’t stress how useful being able to sit down with a cup of tea and watch the odd ten minutes of electronics tutorial videos was.

A first project

The first circuit that almost anyone does these days is the Arduino “blinking LED” circuit. This consists of an LED, a resistor and an Arduino. There’s not much to that but I like to try and learn a little bit of theory from everything I do. The first question which popped into my head was “why do we need the resistor?” I’ll let the interested reader Google for better explanations than I could write here but suffice it to say that I found it pleasing to be able to calculate what value that resistor should have. Even the simplest of circuits can be a learning opportunity.

From deep in my old bedroom in my parents’ house came the book Adventures with Microelectronics. I’m sure many similar books exist which were printed after the colours brown and yellow went out of fashion. This book has a few simple circuits which can be built on a breadboard and which cover the basics of wiring things up, designing oscillators, etc. If you could find an introductory e-book on something Arduino related, that’d probably be just as good. Working through the book was the work of a single day but was fun to “get my feet wet”.

A stretch project

I found it important to set a “stretch goal”: a project which seemed imposing and difficult to begin with but could be broken down into stages which would spark off simple projects along the way. As outlined in the introuction, I chose to implement a 1980s-style microcomputer. The thought was that if I can get to the point where I can compile C, I had “closed the gap” in my knowledge between chip and code.

YouTube: let a thousand lectures bloom

YouTube is an amazing resource for learning while in the bath. Queue up some videos, draw some suds and lie and relax. If you;re learning electronics, searching for “arduino” will consume many happy hours. If you want some specific recommendations:

Conclusions

This post contains some of what I wished I knew when starting out in electronics. Specifically, it gives an initial, affordable, shopping list. I hope you find it useful!

Rich Wareham

Rich Wareham

You know, programming is fun!

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