What got you into this field? Was it a random choice on entering college, or something more primal?
I used to pound nails into boards, attaching all sorts of random debris in an attempt to create something ephemeral, something vaguely technical. Then, around age 8, a wonderful thing happened. My dad, a very frugal man, for reasons unknown bought himself a new Sears Craftsman electric drill. It was a marvelous thing, in a very robust aluminum housing. Last year we moved my folks into a retirement facility and had to dispose of his tools (as well as tons of other things). After well over half a century that was still his one and only drill, a drill that still worked. I passed it on to an acquaintance who is just starting his own family, and hope it sees those young folks through many years of happy home improvements.
That purchase was wonderful because it meant his older Sears drill (also in an aluminum housing) was now redundant. I became the proud owner, and learned to make holes in addition to pounding nails. It became my one and only drill for the next fifteen years till losing it in a shipwreck.
Learning to make holes and pound nails led to building a number of forts with piles of wood scavenged by my grandfather. The biggest lesson from all of this was that I loved to build things.
Around age 10 I got a book or pamphlet about building a crystal radio. You know – the Quaker Oats box wound with wires and a diode and headset. It actually picked up AM broadcasts and I was stunned. One could make something electronic? Astounding.
We moved to Maryland about that time as my Dad was involved in a startup in the space business. I prowled Radio Shack for parts and built many things that mostly didn’t work. But soldering was fun and the library had books about the mysteries of electronics. A couple of years later he got into another startup, woefully underfunded, and we kids were shanghaied as unpaid weekend janitors, which was incredibly annoying till one of the rules became apparent: anything we swept up went into the trash. Or our pockets. The EEs seemed to dribble components onto the lab floor. Resistors. Caps. Transistors. Even an occasional IC, back when ICs were expensive and unknown at Radio Shack.
My first friend in Maryland was equally geeky. We pooled our parts, found homes of EEs who tossed parts in their curbside bins, and eventually navigated a government surplus center that sold WWII parts, radios, and the like for pennies on the kilobuck.
Upon graduating from 8th grade (a milestone in the Catholic school system) Dad gave me an old Devry oscilloscope/vacuum-tube voltmeter combo he had assembled years earlier in a failed attempt to learn electronics. I had worked all of the previous summer mowing lawns to save $26 to buy a Heathkit voltmeter, and he had to spoil the surprise of that gift to keep me from buying the meter. But I was elated.
Transistors were baffling and scarce, but vacuum tubes abundant and several of us starting building, and later designing, amplifiers, ham radio gear, TV jammers (kids!) and the like. What incredible fun it all was! Neighbors came to us to repair their TVs and those few bucks fed our collecting. A ham license soon followed, and then wonder of wonders – the startup needed someone to assemble a Heathkit signal generator and I got the $20 job. It took three days, but the real reward was a minimum-wage ($1.60/hour) job at age 16 as an electronics technician. No pusher could have fed me a better dope.
Intel came out with the microprocessor a few years later and through luck I was promoted to engineer while still in college.
Forty-some years later my first-Maryland pal has retired from his software engineering job. And I am still fascinated by this field. A childhood obsession morphed into a fantastic career.
Today there are more ways than ever to get into electronics. Kits, prototyping boards, and educational material abounds. What would you recommend for a young person wanting to get into this field? And how did you get into this industry? Do you have any regrets? Share your stories!
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness on embedded issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.ganssle.com.