When I were a lad… here we go again… There was a very healthy market in surplus electrical and electronic equipment. It seemed to be the hub of this market was Tottenham court Road in London.
My Dad introduced me to Proops in Tottenham Court Road. I remember you would walk in and there would be stacks of interesting electronic ephemera everywhere. Some were in bins (literally), so on shelving. Much of it was both old and brand new panels from commercial equipment. The idea is one would de-solder the components or just adapt the ready-built equipment to your own purposes. My wife tells me that her Father also frequented these establishments and remembers the back off the TV and adjustments’ being made!
Specifically, I can still lay my hands on some gold photo-transistors I purchased there in the late 70s. There was another component from Honeywell, an eight pin chip in an odd package and with those oddly bent pins they used to have. I wrote to the company, yes, using pen and paper, and a very nice gentleman sent me back a data book showing the details for the chip and a very nice note. I still have all of these items as hoarding seems to go with the hobby of electronics, especially when you started in the 70s!
Things are so different now. You can buy any component you may want to imagine. If you have an idea for a project, there is probably a chip that does the whole thing for you. If you come across an unknown component, five minutes later it is no longer unknown! There was a certain mystery to the wonderful experience that was surplus equipment, you never quite knew what you were getting.
It is sad, to me, that much of the art of project home electronics has gone. I devoured magazines such as Hobby Electronics, ETI, Practical wireless and the (later) Maplin Magazine. Every month there was the prospect of a new project, new learning. I was very lucky. My parents boarded the loft for me, my Dad wried power up there and a workbench. Together we put up decent 2m and 70cm antennae on a rotator on the chimney and the loft became my paradise. From time-to-time I would even sleep up there – it was the darkest place I have ever known!
I am heartened though by the Raspberry Pi effect. Eben and his compatriots have introduced this amazing little board with the premise that it be the heart of learning to program, sorry, ‘code’ I think is what I should say! But it has led on into the realms of the ‘maker’ revolution as it seems to be called. It is basically a revival of what we were all doing back in the 20s – 80s, designing and building electronic projects. I am all for it and would love to get involved with any workshops that might spring up locally to teach adults and kids to build and program.
Personally it has revived my home electronics passion as now I see a Raspberry Pi solution for everything around me. I now have a home-designed security system that does exactly what I need it to do. I have an SDR receiver in the loft, attached to a general wideband receive antenna mounted on the roof that I can connect to from anywhere (including work 😉 ). I have an Internet Radio that is a two channel receiver – Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. It only ‘tunes’ those two, who needs more? Amazing devices, all built by me with custom software on at least two of them. My biggest Pi project was a photobooth for my daughhter’s wedding. A huge job but incredibly enjoyable.
So, hopefully we are back to the day when we build our own bespoke electronic items. It’s a great skill to have. For example, we throw so much electrical equipment away because it is not economically viable to repair it. If each of us had the skill to make simple repairs ourselves, then it would be well worth it. And the sense of achievement when you make a successful repair is amazing!
Please do leave a comment and tell me your memories of the days of surplus and building electronics projects from scratch. I will publish my Pi designs here in due course…