July 21st, 2010
I saw an article on Wired today: The Lost Tribes of RadioShack. It is well worth the read even if you’re not into electronics. A key quote:
[H]is shop is a lone outpost; in a single generation, the American who built, repaired, and tinkered with technology has evolved into an entirely new species: the American who prefers to slip that technology out of his pocket and show off its killer apps. Once, we were makers. Now most of us are users.
I remember as a kid eagerly awaiting each year’s new RadioShack catalog. I’d read them pretty much cover to cover for fun. And who wouldn’t? The catalogs had fun things like radios, telephone gadgets, calculators, tape recorders, electronic “lab kits”, books, components, LEDs… I loved the catalogs and loved the store.
My parents bought me a electronic kit (if memory serves 20 years later, it’s the “deluxe 160-project electronic kit” from page 156 of the 1988 catalog, though it may have been purchased a different year). I had endless fun with that thing. It had resistors, diode, capacitors, oscillator, speaker, LED, relay, etc — plenty to make a bunch of kid-friendly projects.
Just looking at the catalog makes me excited even today. On the next page from the kit I had is a $5 crystal radio kit which needs no power source — “Solderless. With earphone, instructions, theory.” On page 28 there was a revolving red light, and some microcassette recorders on p. 36 (I had one of those for awhile).
I had enthusiasm for building and figuring out things for a long time. My dad let me take apart an old lawn mower for fun once — I’m sure he knew ahead of time it would never be back together. One of his friends from work built homemade contraptions out of things like an old vacuum cleaner (attach a cardboard tube to the exhaust and you get a great tennis ball shooter). And there was always all sorts of fun junk to discover up in the barn.
I eventually shifted to a different sort of “making things”: programming. It has kept me busy for quite a number of years.
But the Wired article has a point. RadioShack is struggling. Many people have no interest in making or fixing things anymore. The best-selling smartphone in the world comes sealed in a metal case where not even the battery can be replaced, the software is dictated by a company in California, and good luck trying to program for it without signing your life away first. A far cry from the first computer I used, a TRS-80 Color Computer II, bought, yes, at RadioShack. Turn it on, and in a few seconds you get a BASIC prompt. Can’t really use it without programming. Being able to read its manual was an early motivation for me to work at learning to read.
It is sad that so many devices can’t be worked on anymore, and that so many people don’t care. It is difficult for me to give Jacob (and later, Oliver) the sort of experience I had as a child. Companies would love to sell us $50 DVD sets, $300 “educational” game systems, $40 educational games, and any number of $30 plastic toys (some of which we have and the boys enjoy).
I’d rather give him a $10 bag of resistors, capacitors, wire, battery holders, LEDs, and a book, and see what he can come up with (when he’s a bit older, of course). And, in fact, he and I built his first computer together. We installed the ultimate in operating systems for tinkering: Linux.
This all brings me back to RadioShack. I’ve been working on ham radio lately, with an eye to that being a project for Jacob (age 3.5), Oliver (just turned 1), and me to enjoy in the future. I needed some cable, and had been told by many people to visit the RadioShack in Derby, KS. It’s like the one mentioned in the Wired article: huge, selling everything from washing machines to bulk cable, except this one specializes in amateur radio.
I asked Jacob if he would like to come with me to a radio store. “Dad, I would LOVE that!” He brought his little semi-broken walkie-talkies with him to use during the hour drive there. At one point, he was concerned that a radio store is like a library and he might have to leave them on a shelf. I assured him he could keep them.
We got to the RadioShack and he loved it. He couldn’t even really contain his excitement. He ran back and forth along the bright green stripe running down the middle of the carpet. He excitedly watched them measure out 60ft of RG-8 coax for me. He pushed buttons on the demo clothes dryer, looked at all the antennas, and just had a great time.
And he’s been interested in my radio, too. When I was talking to somebody on it the other day, he said, “I think he is at the radio store. He is having fun there.” Right now, everybody I talk to on the radio is at the radio store to him. Jacob loves the fact that the backlight on my FT-857D can change colors, and often comes into the office just so I can put it into setup mode and let him spin the big wheel to change the colors. He enjoys opening boxes of components, and came out to help (and run around) while I suspended a dipole from some trees last Friday.
I had told Jacob when we got to the store that “This radio store is called RadioShack.” He obviously took that to heart, because now if he hears me talking about “a radio store”, he will say, “Dad, actually it is radio SHACK.”
So I say thank you to the Derby RadioShack for keeping the magic of making things with your dad alive for another generation.