Proops and other surplus memories… | Odd Blog

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Proops and other surplus memories…

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…


  • Do also you remember” Z&I Aero Supplies” a bit further up Tottenham Court Road? They were like “Proops” in what they stocked but they also carried new components as well, often of Russian (Soviet at the time!) origin.

    For me the Edgeware Road was the centre of the diy electronics world with shops like Henry’s Radio and RTS which I think stood for “Radio and Television Supplies”

  • Hi again,
    I had similar experiences with surplus electronic stuff bought in Manchester either Shudehill or New Cross supplies in 70s and early 80s
    Bought GPO relays (pluggable) and mercury tilt switches and I think I also have some of those gold photocells, mine are in a bc108 sized gold plated can package with a transparent dome on top.
    Also used some 741 ICs which were in a circular can (miliatary?) package with 8 wire legs. Got a bunch of parts like that from a school mate whos father worked at GEC. The mate’s name is Jon Squire of Stone Roses fame (sorry to name drop). Also got some computer boards from a chap that worked at ICL, I later found they came out of a Lyons LEO computer. Many germanium 2G302 transistors were salvaged from those boards. Built a white line follower (EE) using the metal can 741 and the gold optos and the relays and some motors and gears from a model shop. That was not my first construction, the first was probably a metronome (EE again) using BC108 and 2N3053 driving a flashing bulb (before days of LEDs). I also had a Philips EE1050 kit and a Radio Shack/Tandy 50-in-1 set in early 70s.
    These days I often visit Taiwan on business. They have many of the old style electronic parts stores that you can wander around. They have drawers containing everything in abundance even old germanium transistors and lots of surplus parts of the type that were sold new in UK during 70s to 90s. I have been known to return from Taiwan to UK with bags full of these…

  • My father would take me to fabulous shop in Hatfield in the early 1980’s..I cant remember the name of the shop..The shop sold all kinds of Ex-MOD/surplus electronics.. we would spend hours in that place trying to work out what all the machinery was for!.. I allways remember that most of the equipment usaually had two marks..the broad arrow. indicating it was MOD ptoperty.. and the MOD Record sticker.. My Father bought me an old adding machine from that place and I spent a whole weekend dismantling it!..All that cold-war era government defence spending paid for most of my childhood as both my parents were employed by the industry.

  • In the 70s there was a Russian radio sold through lineage adds in the papers. They were well made and solid. One day I was asked to fix one that was reader. No it wasn’t the audio stages were ok, but not a squeak from it tuner. Poking and prodding brought an avalanche avalanche of static when I touched one transistor. Closer inspection showed a leg cracked off clean with the bottom of its case.
    Examining the item there wasn’t a single thing I could read, but it had a big red spot. Ah well in for a penny – grab red spot tranny and push it into the socket. Delighted owner said I don’t know what you did but it’s even better than when I got it. Happy days.

  • I have discovered an old Garland Bros catalogue from 72-73 in my loft and thought some of you might like to leaf through it. Ah the memories…

    Garland Bros Catalogue 72-73 2nd Edition

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