Magnetics, for the most part, make life easier. Consider what we’d do without the solenoids that actuate electric garage door motors, the rare-earth magnets embedded in iPad covers, magnetized tools, and the ubiquitous kitchen refrigerator magnets. However, the magnetic fields associated with magnets can be problematic.
With Amazon’s general release of the Echo home automation controller, it may be time to take a second look at the home automation market. I first took the plunge into commercial home automation several years ago with X10-compatible hardware (http://www.x10.com).
I’m in the middle of overhauling a vintage Singer 201-2 sewing machine, manufactured in the US in 1940. As I expected, the motor brushes need replacing, the oldfashioned leaf switch controlling the light is — at best — intermittent and needs a good cleaning, and the cottoninsulated wire is begging to be updated to fireproof silicon insulated wire. Old appliances — void of microcontrollers or even simple semiconductors — are a pleasure to tear down and rebuild. They’re fun as a solo weekend project, or, if you have someone you want to teach basic mechanics and electricity to, they make a good two or three weekend project. Even bringing an old toaster back to life can provide a sense of satisfaction.
While there’s satisfaction from getting an LED to blink five times in a row in response to a button press, it isn’t going to change the world — that is, unless you set your goals higher. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that electronics have changed human existence in only a few decades. Computers, TV, satellites, space exploration, drones, cell phones, robots, aviation, and modern automobiles are but a few examples. Against that backdrop, there’s a vast vacuum for experimentalists and engineers to fill. What I’m suggesting is that you take your knowledge of electronics — whatever your level of expertise — and focus it towards solving a meaningful problem.
Thanks to readily available kits, DIY articles, and web resources, it’s a simple matter to cobble together a functional circuit with little real understanding of the underlying electronics. The circuit description for an audible siren kit might read something like “Q1 and Q2 form an astable multivibrator.” At some level, this may be adequate. However, if you’re interested in truly understanding an astable multivibrator — or any other circuit for that matter — you have to dig deeper.
Online sourcing from China is a real boon to electronics experimenters on a budget. Akin to flying on standby, if you're willing to wait anywhere from a week to a month for delivery, components and circuit modules can be had for less than the cost of shipping alone of similar items from domestic sources.