I was fortunate to have a large, OLD style erector set back in the late 70's/early 80's. It was heavy duty and probably came from the 50's. Actually, it was 3-4 sets combined.
With help from my Dad, I built various transmissions, a hammer mill for grinding crackers, toy cars, a stimulated steam engine, and many other things. The most exciting project was an overhead hoist complete with a block and tackle setup and trolleys which could move in x-y directions to pick up anything beneath it's 12" x 18" frame. It was was completely operated through a series of strings from one electric motor and transmission at one end of the frame.
My dad would also give me many things to tear apart after they stopped functioning. As a kid, I tore into TVs, radios, washing machines, small engines, copy machines and anything else I could find.
Sidewalk fun? Reminds me of when I built my oldest son a mini-bike when he was the same age. A couple of months worth of work. He painted it rattle can bright red. The big day came and out of the driveway he went. I could hear him all over the neighborhood as we paid little attention to the muffler. Twenty minutes later he came back down the street with the cops in low speed pursuit with lights flashing. Underage, with no drivers license, no plates, and no muffler! Bad ju-ju, and not street legal. My son sold it to a friend of his who had the same outcome. He in turn sold it to another kid and on it went for months going from one kid to the next. I think all the local parents hated me as a result. Twenty years later I was in the old neighborhood south of Colorado Springs and I was sure I could hear the putt-putt of that little Briggs engine off in the distance. Cops probably chasing the newest owner.
Those were the days when you could by the kits from Heathkit and Radio Shack. As a junior in high school I purchased a Radio Shack Model 1 computer with money I had been saving for an Altair 8080. Thanks for the wonderful inspiration of Popular Electronics, I caught the computer fever at an early age. Two weeks had not went by when I started working on a voice synthesizer for my Model 1 using a chip that was sold by Radio Shack. Had a lot of fun with the system when I went off to college. Wasn't long after that I tackled a Heath Kit GR-2000.
Had not thought about this in years. I built a crystal radio receiver (galena crystal/cat wisker) in 1954 from general instructions in a Boy Scout book, even winding the coil on an empty toilet paper roll. I had to pester my dad for weeks to get an earphone set, but spent many nights listening to it as a young kid. I also made several magnets using a 6 volt car battery, burning myself several times in the process of making coils with insufficient windings. When I was 12 (1958) I assembled a HeathKit 75w tube transmitter. The same year (International Geophysical Year) I built a rocket using blackpowder. Must not have packed it correctly as it exploded, but as I used an electric wire igniter no damage was done except to my parents nerves. Found only small metal parts around our barn. I promised them "no more rockets". At 14 I built an electric guitar, but getting the tube power amp, made from junk parts took months to get working right. It took lots of reading from ARRL books on the subject. I think this stuff is part and parcel of our being for the most part. Today I work on far more lethal stuff, to my staff and myself anyway, using high power (100KVA+) power sources. Still its all pretty cool and my boss pays for all my "techie toys" (as he call them) and I have a nice research budget. I have been getting paid to have fun for years!
One of my first engineering projects was a strobe light circuit from an electronics magazine. At the time I lived in Huntsville, AL and we had both Allied and Lafayette electronics stores. I bought all the parts listed in the parts list and cobbled it together with my crude soldering skills. I even bought the plastic box, but was so anxious to blink that strobe light that I never put all the components in the box. I got it to strobe just like a disco! I still have all the connected parts and they're still not installed in the box.
I don't remember my first, but the most memorable, and nearly fatal was when I was around 12 and discovered my neighbor had an old make and break engine with a belt connecting it to a generator. The engine didn't run but the generator seemed ok. Inside the generator house were many old 1.5V lantern batteries all in series. There was so much mass in the generator armature that a hard spin would cause it to turn for a few seconds. I found a few 6V lantern batteries, hooked them up and gave the generator a spin. WOW, I got a shock that sent me across the room and out the door. It was a 110V DC Edison Generator and I was able to excite the field enough to get about 100V out. I freed-up the brushes, cleaned the commutator, found another small gas motor and with much careful experimentation was able to heat and light that and one other building. Between 110V DC and carbon monoxide, I'm amazed I survived but I learned a lot about basic electricity. The original Edison handbook for the generator operation was there and taught me a great deal.
Mine was a go-cart. At 9 years old, I was a bookworm, used to spend summer days at the local library. I came across a book on building your own go-cart. I must've checked out that book a dozen times that summer. Dad found an old lawnmower with a Briggs & Stratton model 5 engine. He and I bolted together an angle iron frame with a plywood floor. We loosely followed the plans in the book and built the cart, including a real rack & pinion style steering system, hand throttle, office chair seat, rear tire-rubbing brake, and centrifugal clutch transmission. I drove that cart for several summers, tweaking and improving it, making it handle better and go faster. Finally I outgrew it and that little Briggs couldn't push my weight any longer. Several run-ins with local law enforcement also eventually put a stop to my sidewalk fun. I kept the engine another 40 years until I sold it just last summer as an antique!
This is a very interesting subject. My first project was to make a AM radio way back in the 1985. It was a pocket radio which works on two pen torch cells. I was just starting to learn some electronics and was not so good at soldering. After assembling the kit, with all eagerness to hear the local radio station, I switched it on only to find that it was receiving some walkie talkie communication and not the radio station. I thought it was a good start and proceeded to slowly tune the IF transfomers and was receiving some telegraph noises ( you know.. those kat... kata code).
It took me almost 18 months to learn that it is not a plug-n-play kit and needs proper tuning of the antenna coil and subsequently the IF transformers. Quite an experience, though.
So I found a little FM transmitter project in Radio Electronics and decided to build it. Remember the days you could go to Radio Shack and get the stuff to etch your own board? I didn't know enough to solder in all of my components as close to the board as possible so I had everything with the leads up high hanging in the air...fortunately when I was talking to a friend about it and that I was puzzled that it wouldn't work, they pointed out the problem. After resoldering my components I got it to work - and I have it to this day!
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Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.