Electronics Hobbyists (1)

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While Nelson blamed the shortsighted industry giant IBM for never attempting to “develop personal luxury computer systems for the very rich,” some people took this matter into their own hands.[58] They were not rich families that pooled money together to buy computers for kids, as Nelson had expected, but a “peculiar breed” of engineers whose hobby was playing with any available and affordable electronic hardware.[59] Without doubt, many of these hobbyists must have read Nelson’s Computer Lib and would have been influenced by his vision. However, what connected the electronics hobbyist community was electronics magazines such as Popular Electronics, Radio Electronics, and Electronics World, which Nelson did not mention in his recommended resource list.

Fig. 5. A typical article from Radio Electronics, March 1974. Its logic and circuit diagrams occupied more space then the textual description.

Such hobby electronics magazines, indeed, have their peculiar tradition. Radio Electronics and Electronics World, for example, were first published in the 1950s. Hobby electronics magazines were highly hardware-oriented. Diagrams of electronic logic accompanied most of their articles. Moreover, these magazines appreciated innovations and experiments. Fig. 5 above is a typical article that appeared in Radio Electronics in the 1970s. Besides the huge diagrams that occupied more space than its textual description, the editor of Radio Electronics inserted a note to readers:

This is not a construction article! We have not seen an assembled version of the Electronic Casino. However, this story does contain enough information to enable a reader who expects to do a bit of experimenting to build the unit. If you do build your own version of the Electronic Casino, we’d appreciate receiving a glossy photo of the assembled unit and will publish it in our Letters column. —Editor[60]

Hobby electronics magazines encouraged readers to share their experiences. They were not only one-directional information distributors, but also open discussion forums for hobbyists. Hobbyists looked for interesting electronics projects in these magazines, and they worked together to produce more projects. When a hobbyist needed more parts or instruments for expanding a particular project, he or she could easily collect them from advertisements in electronics magazines.

Indeed, the minicomputers that appeared in the July 1974 issue of Radio Electronics and the Altair 8800 featured in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics were just some of the diverse topics that electronics magazines covered. A quick examination of the magazines from 1973 to 1975 showed that although a large proportion of the articles were related to Hi-Fi sound systems or radios—then the most popular electronics—their topics actually ranged from automobile tape players to home electronic security alarms and to color televisions. Probably the most interesting was the cover story of the January 1975 issue of Radio Electronics: “Build a Brainwave Monitor and Turn-Up Your Mind,” which appeared exactly when the first affordable personal computer was shown on the cover of Popular Electronics.

Assembling one’s own computer did not seem an unusual practice to hobbyists. Unlike Computer Lib, which gave a survey about how to buy computers, the articles in hobby electronics magazines discussed how to build appliances. Radio Electronics, for instance, showed the picture of a Brainwave Monitor as a hand-assembled circuit board directly attached to a person’s head by some wires. Similar to the Altar 8800 and many of the earliest personal computers, the Brainwave Monitor did not have an attractive appearance. It was not enclosed in a case and literally was a board with a number of chips and wires. In fact, this is one of the characteristics that distinguish an electronics hobbyist from a general consumer. Hobbyists enjoy the assembly process and innovation. Their productions are always works in progress, because hobbyists always want to add new ideas and additional parts to their projects. Therefore, there was no need to put a hobbyist’s on-going production into an inaccessible box. Consumers, however, want workable products that are self-contained. When there is a need to perform some repair or to add new parts, many of them will choose an official repair services rather than doing the work themselves.

58. Nelson, The Home Computer Revolution, 44.
59. Ibid., 51.
60. Waller M. Scott, “Electronic Casino,” Radio Electronics, March 1974.