Once, We Were Makers

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.

16 thoughts on “Once, We Were Makers

  1. Hardware has become highly specialized. Indeed, Arduino developers are a minority. However, software makers have gone way up. Everyone I know at GMU has taken a Java course, or at least an HTML course.

    Yes, we pull out sealed iPhones from our pockets. But WE build the apps on them, not Apple.

    1. Apple is sort of the antithesis of what I’m talking about. Don’t be too confident about the iPhone. Yes, you can build apps for it, but you have to use the language Apple chooses, you have to use the toolset Apple chooses, the apps have to be serving the purpose that Apple chooses (don’t think you can write a web browser), the apps have to be approved by Apple. The iPhone is a pretty closed platform software-wise, and obviously hardware-wise.

  2. Wow! I had the same exact 160-in-1 kit! I have been searching for its origins for a looooong time. I was only a little kid (6 years old) when we were in the US and my father bought this for me. I think I have built most if not all of the 160 possibilities with it :O I still have the kit somewhere, and I guess it should still work pretty well :)

  3. Sadly, Jabob is going to be very very disappointed when he visits a corporate (non-franchise) radio shack. Actually, Radio Shack is doing their best to 1.) Kill the franchise program and have only corporate stores except in the tiniest market 2.) Force the franchises to be exactly like the standard corporate stores in look, feel and most significantly, product selection. It’s quite sad, really. A “Ham RadioShack”, while awesome, is not going to last much longer with the RadioShack brand.

  4. Radio Shacks death has little to do with people’s loss of tinkering. Radio shack is the worst place to buy anything, except maybe rare batteries you need now. Everything good that they used to carry can be found cheaper online. They usually have pushy staff, and never have what I need. One time I needed some kind of wire terminal they actually had there and they wouldn’t sell it to me because the item’s sku was too old or something and wouldn’t come up. they had a shelf of these with labeled prices. They probably still have them. Terrible. And this was not a one time or one RS incident, just the worst. If I was at all representative of their clientele, if they made a dollar each time a customer walked out in disgust they would probably be in good financial shape. They have just changed their business model. They just want to sell batteries and cellphone plans. Everything else in the store is just a way to get you to buy those things.

    Now as to people losing there desire to tinker. I don’ t think that is completely true. Children are more curious it is easier to get into tinkering as a kid. You have no fear of breaking things and “need” to know how things work.
    Also when you are a kid and you and your best friend tinker that could be a large percentage of your known population. When you get older you just know more of the non-tinkers. You run into more people who are interested in fashion or sports or beer. How many kids do you think actually got and used that 160 in 1 experiment kit in 1988. I’ll tell you I didn’t do all 160 experiments, admittedly I got mine used and dealing with fried components cooled my interest. There is even a model equivalent that puts components on interlocking pieces with a picture of their circuit diagram symbol so that you can build the circuit diagram and the circuit at once. I saw it over on amazon for $75. Maybe it does get less usage than the 1988 model, but that is because tinkering has moved to SW. in the professional would people have moved to more design in SW. you have even indicated that you do more tinkering in SW. it is just a more interesting place to tinker in is the cutting edge. Imagine how dull the modern wire your own device would be. spending all you time wiring up address and data lines for 64-bit wide buses for a BGA packaged IC that’s been soldered to 1000 little springs. and then still having to write
    the software.
    One class of components I always thought was under represented in these kits was logic gates. you could wire up a lot of interesting projects with a handful of TTL gate chips and a couple of input switches and output leds. But it’s time has probably already passed. It would need to integrate with a pc over something like a USB controller, like a phidget, to support projects that would stimulate modern young minds. Maybe a USB connection to a simple programmable FPGA connected to electrically isolated I/O terminal set that could be connected to various sensors or outputs.

    1. Is RadioShack changing because society has changed or are they just doing it of their own volition? I agree that (with the exceptions I mentioned) I am no fan of RadioShack any more. But has RS changed because there aren’t enough people that enjoyed what it was any longer? I think the answer to that is yes.

  5. Nice piece. In America, I think we forget that everything we use is “made” somewhere. We tend to think that “stuff” comes from the store in its most basic form; not from raw materials, assembled by people.

    Now that I live in Mexico, I’ve begun to see more of a “Can we build it? Yes we can!” attitude evident around me. Electronic repair shops are quite common here–a growing rarity in Wichita.

    For a while now I’ve had a growing interest in learning to “make” more of the things I use in daily life. I’ve been “making” fuel (biodiesel and WVO) for my car for several years now. Learning to do my own auto repairs comes out of the same motivation; as does learning to cook more things–and I mean *real* food, *from scratch*.

    I hope I can still find a crystal radio kit for my kids (whenever I have kids)… If not,, maybe I’ll learn how to make my own resistors out of raw materials… :)

    1. I’ve heard stories from relatives about some people being astounded to learn where eggs come from. The mind boggles sometimes at our separation from the source.

  6. As for the discussion on getting too far from the origins, I think it is a valid claim, and I think it makes things less interesting.

    Firstly, the difficult challenges are usually those generated by the environment around us (i.e. Mother Nature) and not those generated by humans — these latter I think are by definition bounded in complexity by the ingenuity of the human mind.

    Secondly (and more importantly), it is difficult to do “hands-on” problem solving with computers. Humans, and especially children, are very good at handicrafts, but less good at more abstract things. I can, for example, understand things much easier once I can _physically_ grab them, or even just draw them. Show someone a graph, explain what connectivity means, and he/she will immediately understand it. Show the same person a proof that infinite number of primes exist. The latter I think is a trivial proof, but most will give up at the definition of a “prime”.

    (PS: I was in the US in 1988, so it makes sense I have that 160-in-1 set ;) )

  7. I was given the same 160 in 1 set for a birthday when I was about 11 (back when RadioShack/Tandy were still in the UK). Incidentally, I too had started programming on my Dad’s TRS-80 a few years earlier.

    I’m not sure that RadioShack’s decline is entirely due to society’s change. All specialised shops have been under pressure from internet mail order. Shop retail has become increasingly about providing customer experience rather than stock, since they can’t possibly compete with the net on range or price.

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