Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Besides model railroading, my Dad had a few other hobbies - model building, model rockets, woodworking, and electronics - sensing a generational pattern in my family?  Well some families hand down spousal abuse, alcoholism and depression, so I guess I'm lucky.  And not to get too wacky, but I also just remembered my Dad was into paper models too ----  He built a 3'x5' HO scale diorama of Mystic Seaport.  All the buildings were made from heavy paper from what I believe was a kit or kits commercially produced.  Ensconced in a plexiglass case, it slid out from under the model railroad bench work and two legs dropped down to support the cantilevered display.   Despite his untimely death when I was 11 years old, his modeling legacy lived on - from the large model railroad, to the 4' high Saturn V rocket in my room, to the many models on my bookshelves, the two level Aurora Model Dinosaur diorama in the guest room,  the paper Mystic Seaport, and much more.  And then there were the Heathkit Electronics throughout the house.

For those of you unfamiliar, Heathkit was a manufacturer of a vast array of electronics kits and for several decades, almost an American institution.  Yes, there was actually a time when there was an economic advantage to building your own television.  Well economic in terms of cost, not factoring in your time, but it was a hobby and it was fun.  I used to help my dad sort out the thousand of components that would come in a kit for say a large console TV.  I remember maybe 8 or 9 thick instruction manuals with a box to check for each resistor, capacitor,...etc. that you soldered to the many circuit boards.  We had a Heathkit TV, Organ, Stereo, Weathers station, electric garage door opener, at least one radio, and other things.  Later on I built a few kits myself and then started to dabble in electronic circuits.  This dabbling continued for years, well into adulthood, but my problem was that I either was unable to, or didn't devote enough time to understanding how transistors and integrated circuits processed electrical signals.   So I was ultimately unable to craft raw electrical components into circuits that would perform whatever function I was looking for at that time, and pretty much had given up on this hobby until the emergence of small, inexpensive micro controllers a few years ago.  A micro controller is essentially a small circuit board with a number of digital and analog inputs and outputs controlled by a programable processor.  This was key as I am fairly able in writing programs.
Arduino Uno
There are a number of micro controllers available, however, I primarily work with the Arduino.  There are others that are probably faster and more powerful, however, there is a mountain of available online support and tutorials out there for this open source platform.  The Arduino can be purchased assembled or you can build it yourself - remember since it's open source, the circuit board information and schematics are available to anyone.  Shown in the photo is the latest version of the base Arduino - the Uno.  There are larger and smaller ones (more or less i/o capacity) and also the older versions are still out there and usually pretty cheap.  Radio Shack, formerly a go to place for the electronics hobbiest, has even gotten back in the game and they sell these assembled for a little over $30.  The silver box on the left side is a USB plug to connect with your PC, Mac or whatever.  The black round box is for a 9v plug in wall transformer power source.  Once you load the program onto the Arduino it can be powered independently and run the program stored in it's processor.  If you want to tweak something or change the program entirely - just plug in a laptop and upload a new or revised program.  Everything you need to compile and write programs are free downloads and there are thousands of programs online written by others available for free too.

The Arduino on the right and a "Shield" on the left.  This is specifically a RGB Backlit LCD Display Shield
Now you can wire everything directly to the input and output plugs on the board, or you can use what is called a "Shield".  A shield is basically a circuit designed to use the Arduino inputs and or outputs that plugs directly ontop of the Arduino Board.   Shown is an RGB Backlit LCD Display Shield that I bought as a kit from Adafruit Industries.  I can't say enough good things about this company.  Started by a young MIT grad named Limor Fried, or "LadyAda", Adafruit Industries is the hipster version of Heathkit.  Besides designing and selling kits, including a variety of Arduino related ones, Ms. Fried, provides support, tutorials, online troubleshooting and feedback, to the nth degree.  She also posts programs (known as "Sketches" on Arduino) to download for free to use with her devices.   The shield kit shown was a little over $20 and took me about an hour to solder all the components on.
Soldered up - note the pins that will plug directly into the opposing pins on the Arduino Uno
The shield connected and also note the USB cable (will still run without this using 9v transformer)  Running my Bessemer Plant program
I am using the shield as a test bed to develop the program to use this type of display as part of my model railroad operations.  Ultimately the Arduino will be directly wired to the independent display, and also to lights, sounds, and motor animations on the layout.  The photo shows the "Bessemer Plant" sequence running.  By the way the LCD I am using has five  backlight colors - red, green, purple, yellow, and blue.

The MintyBoost
Just for kicks - another Adafruit Kit - MintyBoost.  This ingenious little circuit fits into an Altoids tin and uses two AA to charge Iphones and whatever via a USB port.  Somehow it boosts the 3v output of two AA alkaline batteries into the 5v needed for a USB charger.  It burns through batteries fast, especially with my iphone 4, so it is only really practical where there is no way to plug a charger in, like my upcoming backpacking trip in the Adirondacks.

Power in a can


Steve Watson said...

sensing a generational pattern in my family?

Heh. My dad was a EE (mostly high-power stuff, but he had to work with control and instrumentation electronics too), and I became a EE, and married a EE who's the daughter of a EE, and our older son is an electronics technician who plays with Arduinos etc on the side (he's got lots of suggestions for off-the-shelf gizmos like that to use in model RR projects).

The genes are strong in this one ;-)

I built one of those Heathkit TVs in 1974 -- the first colour set my family had.

Stan Knotts said...

Jim, the Mystic seaport paper buildings were from a cut-out book published by Dover Publications in 1984. I have that book - never used it.

Jim Musser said...

Steve - I think that was about the era of the last TV my dad built - lasted into the early 90s

Stan - Thanks for the info, wonder if Dover still prints it, not that I'm going to build it either. I wish I had a photo of my dad's diorama.