I’ve been trying to learn electrical engineering in my spare time.  It’s been going fairly well even though I have produced very little.

I was supposed to have learned some of this in college.  I was required to take an electronics class but it was a self-paced lab where we read from a book and built stuff on a breadboard and I learned almost nothing.  A self-paced lab with no instructor is fine for somebody with sufficient motivation but I lacked that motivational part.  The lab was in the afternoon when my friends were off throwing a Frisbee, I thought it was nerdy (ironic since I apparently did not think that my major of physics was nerdy), and several other things.  I passed it and promptly went on with life thinking that electronics was magic.

I understood it to be powered by magical smoke.  If you ever did anything that let the magic smoke out (which was obvious from the smell), the item never worked again and the magic was beyond understanding.

I got by with that for a long time.

Then I met a guy who told me that it was all really simple.  In my mind, this clanged like a box of cymbals in a monkey cage.  Electronics simple?  Impossible.   Then, over time, he set himself to proving it to me.  Just a little bit here and there. 

Then a perfect storm of circumstances occurred which made me revisit the whole thing.  First, I subscribed to Make Magazine which features lots of electronics projects.  Then there was my friend the guitar player who decided he wanted to learn how to create his own effects boxes.  That did it.

My EE friend has said one thing that rings true for me and that is:  the old days of wiring discrete components together are gone.  Using integrated circuits that do well-defined things has turned electronics into a lego set of functionality.  To a large extent this seems to be true.  I have built several things on the breadboard that produce sine waves, square waves, etc. 

It remains to be seen if I can design something myself that will work after being hard-wired together on a circuit board.  My tutor however has many examples from his own work of custom-made circuit boards that do wonderful things so he can usually prove things to me that I have trouble believing. It’s pretty empowering.

One thing that stands out to me more than anything else is how cheap it is.  My friend loaned me an old oscilloscope (he has two!) so that I can check things more easily and precisely.  Other than the ‘scope, everything else is ridiculously cheap.  The most expensive integrated circuit I’ve been able to find that applies to something I’m interested in is $10.  Everything else can literally be had for pennies.  Plus, it doesn’t take up much space.  These two things are in stark contrast to woodworking.  Perhaps this is why my Dad got into electronics tinkering as he got older.  When they had to move away from the sketchy neighborhood he lost his workshop and turned to electronics and perhaps this is why.