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Is the Golden Age of Builders Returning?

The above picture is taken from “Practical Radio” by Henry Smith Williams.  This authoritative tome, published in 1922 details how one might go about getting into the ‘radio game’.  The entire first chapter is rife with passages like the following:

Thousands of them [youngsters] – tens of thousands – who a year or two ago would have lingered after school to play marbles or to bat a ball about a vacant lot… now hurry home and rush up to the attic where their radio outfit is installed in order to do a little tinkering before suppertime….

Lest, looking at the picture above, you think only boys were interested in radio, fear not, girls were in on the game as well:

The book goes on to describe a scene witnessed by one of the authors associates wherein three students were peppering a salesman at a local radio store with questions well out of his depth.  They were able to ask such questions because they had all constructed their own radios.  With the advent of the Arduino and other project computers, I’ve wondered if we might be on the verge of a new era of very well-informed builder-consumers, people who had built their own special purpose digital and/or analog systems from the ground up.  However, as far as the Arduino and company have brought us, I still had doubts.

Long-time readers might remember that I bemoaned all the extra circuitry on a typical Arduino board and patiently waited until the naked Arduino was available.  I loved being able to handle the project’s individual components and have a solid feel for what each of them did.  I’ll let you in on a secret though.  Even with the naked Arduino shown below, I was still a little irked.  Why?  The USB interface on the left-hand edge of the plug board was the culprit.

To paraphrase one of our politicians, I didn’t build that!  The microcontroller, and the crystal were as bare as could be, but that USB interface was custom designed and sourced by someone else.  To be fair, I didn’t have the time to study data sheets, select a USB to SPI interface chip, design a printed circuit board and layout the surface mount components.  So, in a very real way, the little interface card was certainly worth it.  On the other hand though, there was no getting around it, there was a portion of my circuit that I had to depend on someone else for.

An item from this week’s low-power news, however, gives me hope that we’re one step closer to being able to source our own devices if we’re so inclined.  For a mere $20 U.S. any project designer in the world can try out Silicon Lab’s new USB to SPI interface chip.  Perhaps gone forever are the days of mooning over the latest and greatest device, finding out that the manufacturer has made a handy evaluation board available and then having your dreams dashed when it turns out the price of the board runs upwards of $500.  For the mere pittance that Silicon Labs is charging, the industrious builder gets the evaluation board shown here, a mini USB extension cable, the CP2130 Quick start guide, and a CP21xx kit installation DVD!  I’ve ordered mine.  I’ll keep you posted!


One Response to “Is the Golden Age of Builders Returning?”

  1. Low Power News, December 27, 2013 | Low-Power Engineering Says:

    [...] here are two suggestions.  First, I found a new maker toy.  A few weeks ago, I blogged about the Silicon Labs USB to SPI development kit.  This week I came across the Atmel AVRDragon development board.  I don’t know much about [...]

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