Electronics as a hobby in the 21st century.

In Australia, like everywhere else, the start of the hobby came from radio in the 1920’s. It was radio based through the 1930’s and 1940’s, and then television appeared in the 1950’s. The term “electronics” took over in the 1960’s when transistors became available to the hobbyist, and were being used for many other circuits, besides those associated with radio.

For its small population, Australia had a very large following of the hobby, and probably had more parts retailers per head of population than anywhere else in the world. This may well come from the DIY culture of Australians – our isolation forcing us to come up with innovative ways of making do with what we had.
Electronics as a hobby in Australia has always, up until the prevalence of the internet, been associated with the magazines and parts retailers.

Australian Magazines.
Radio magazines containing constructional articles were very popular and widely available. The take up of radio in this country was rapid because of our isolation from the rest of the world, and the large distance between communities.
In the 1920’s there was the “Wireless Weekly” magazine which probably gave more encouragement to the hobby than anything else. By 1939 “Wireless Weekly” had metamorphosed into “Radio and Hobbies in Australia”. This new magazine dealt with the technical side of radio only, and was a monthly publication. It also included some non-radio related “hobby” articles which became less and less as time went on.

Radio and Hobbies in Australia.


The first issue of Radio and Hobbies. This magazine in was probably the most influential driver of the radio hobby in the valve era.

Radio and Hobbies was the bible for Australians interested in radio.  Its popularity soared and the constructional articles were highly regarded. There were other magazines which came and went, such as the “Australian Wireless Review” and while they were good publications, they did not have volume of material presented in R&H.
Besides locally published magazines, those from the U.S. and England were also available here, the U.S. "Radio News" and England's "Wireless World" being typical.

During the 1950’s, Radio and Hobbies became "Radio Television and Hobbies", as TV was now the “in thing”, and constructional articles issued forth, as did various technical articles on the subject. As well as TV, home hi-fi was beginning to take off in this era, with stereo and microgroove records being recent technology. For the next few years, articles were based largely around radio, television, hi-fi, and the occasional test instrument.
Then, in the late 1950's, constructional articles using transistors started to appear. Initially these were for radio receivers, but then audio and test instrument based projects appeared, as did all manner of gadgets, from power supplies to burglar alarms. The transistor was responsible for this because it allowed so many circuit configurations that just did not suit valves at a practical level.
In 1965, "Radio Television and Hobbies" renamed itself "Electronics Australia", in view of the fact that radio and television was no longer the dominant force of the technology. This was the era when the first integrated circuits became available, which happened to spur on the next big thing; digital electronics.


The changing face of Electronics Australia.

By the mid 1970's, radio projects were starting to drop off, and more and more digital projects appeared. From now on, most projects were digital, audio, gadget, or test instrument based. It was also the era of build your own amplifier and speakers.

Electronics Today International.


The first real competitor for the established monopoly of Electronics Australia.

Another magazine appeared in 1971, "Electronics Today International". It was seen as a fresh change, from the often seen as conservative EA. It was very successful, and so we now had two competing magazines. The initial concept was to set up ETI in other countries besides Australia, which did happen, but eventually these overseas branches went their own way, and were no longer associated with the Australian parent company.
Like EA, ETI was largely project based, and the parts retailers provided kits for most of the projects in both magazines. "Hobby Electronics" was a short lived ETI spin-off from the early 80's.
The 1980's magazine "Australian Electronics Monthly" was good quality but short lived. "Talking Electronics" was another 80's magazine which was best known for its FM "bug" projects. It was a small magazine produced by one person, Colin Mitchell, and was sporadic in frequency of publishing. It still exists, but now only on the internet.

Silicon Chip.


Most of the EA staff defected to create Silicon Chip after a change of management.

The final magazine to appear was Silicon Chip in 1987. This magazine came about because the original publisher of EA had been taken over by another who wanted to change the direction of the magazine (i.e. effectively dumbing it down). Most of the EA staff left to set up Silicon Chip independently, and it became very successful. In the mean time EA and ETI which now had the same publisher were combined into one magazine.
By 2000, "Electronics Australia with Professional Electronics and ETI" had rapidly gone downhill. It was then given the unfortunate name of "EAT" (Electronics Australia Today). Just before its final death in 2001, the last few issues were nothing like what the magazine once was. Now totally devoid of projects, it was simply a review magazine of commercially made consumer equipment.
Silicon Chip is the only surviving electronics magazine in Australia, and one of few left in the world. Even the British "Everyday Practical Electronics" now simply publishes projects from Silicon Chip - no doubt assisting with the survival of SC.

What has been unique about Australian electronics magazines is the personal and informal nature in which they have been written, but yet retaining a very high technical standard. Australians relate to this, and to a lesser or greater degree, all the Australian magazines have followed this format.
Contrast this with overseas magazines which nothing was known about the editor or the project contributors. Many don't even provide their first names. Unlike in Australia, overseas magazines had their project articles provided by random contributors. In Australia, the articles were authored by the magazine staff. It was like a family that one grew to know; each having their own individual style and particular interest. Another thing that stands out with Australian magazines is amount of detail given to constructing the project, and the reasons behind the design.

The Electronics Stores.
Australia had always been well served by radio parts retailers. Radio House, Radio Despatch Service, Levenson's Radio, McGrath's, Waltham Dan, Ace Radio, just to name a few from the valve era.
This suddenly changed around 1973 with Dick Smith Electronics. Now, components were even more easy to get at cheaper prices, since they were being directly imported. For those outside Sydney, a very fast mail order service operated. As time went on, stores started appearing in other cities and country towns and it eventually became Australia wide and then set up in NZ.


Dick Smith was the most significant change for electronics hobbyists in Australia. Dick Smith, himself, is pictured on the front cover of this catalog.

Tandy Electronics appeared on the scene in 1975. Based on the U.S. Radio Shack, they did things very differently to how it had always been done in Australia. Tandy stores popped up everywhere where electronics stores had never been seen before, such as in shopping plazas. It was a franchise operation where just about anyone could set up shop. While their prolific outlets were convenient, what they sold was generally more expensive than Dick Smith. They did not have any connection to the electronics magazines and did not sell any kits, except their own U.S. designs. As time went on, their range of components gradually dropped, and it became merely a consumer electronics store.


Tandy was expensive, but the products were good quality..and the catalogs were free.

Both Tandy and Dick Smith rode upon the CB boom of the late 1970's to their considerable advantage. In fact, Dick Smith himself, was a leading force in getting CB legalised in Australia.
There were a few small retailers who were obviously operating on the Dick Smith model; Bill Edge, Altronics, John Carr (Jaycar), Rod Irving, and Geoff Wood come to mind.

Dick Smith got out of electronic components altogether around 2008, and was then only a consumer electronics retailer. Dick Smith, himself, had sold the business to Woolworths in 1982. Tandy ceased to exist in Australia in the early 90's and was absorbed by Dick Smith. For a short time there was this strange situation of seeing Tandy branded items in DSE stores.

Since the mid 2000's there have been only two major retailers for hobbyists; Jaycar and Altronics. Both seem to be doing quite well given that the number of stores is increasing. Both have a good range of components and still support Silicon Chip kits.

The New Era.
So what happened? Well, until the early 2000's electronics was a popular hobby, although there had been a drift more to computers and  microprocessor based projects
Radio projects were now extremely rare. Amateur radio is now almost dead as the internet has taken over the same function, and domestic radios have been uneconomic to build since the 1960's. Therefore, magazines think it's not worthwhile publishing such projects. In fact I would say that radio is just seen as "old fashioned".

As I write this in March 2018, the changes are becoming more rapid and as a mainstream hobby, electronics is now dead. It is a niche interest. Looking at this month's Silicon Chip, the magazine might as well rename itself "Arduino Monthly". Plugging together Arduino and other microprocessor modules, and then programming them does not actually constitute "electronics". Where does one learn about ohm's law or semiconductor biassing for example?
Most projects in SC now contain a microprocessor with some kind of readout. If it's not an LCD or LED display, the said microprocessor drives a power semiconductor for some kind of power control.
The problem here is simple. I can build just about any project out of a magazine going back to the late 1920's, if I want to. Introduce a microprocessor or obscure IC, and one can forget about building it in the future. It's a case of build it now and hope nothing goes wrong with the micro in the future. Yet, a PCB full of BC548's and CMOS IC's will always be serviceable, and is not reliant on a code and means to program it, which may be very difficult in the future. There is a lifetime supply of valves out there, so valve projects are quite viable for the foreseeable future. Transformers for valves, and associated parts like tagstrips and valve sockets are being made again..

It is well known that SC's circulation is falling. Many newsagents don't even stock it now. That's not to say the quality has dropped, which it hasn't, but is merely a reflection of society in the present day. People would rather spend time on a computer clicking a mouse or tapping on a smartphone screen and interacting with virtual "friends", than actually building something as simple as a crystal radio.
Radio projects have been uneconomic since the 1960's, unless it's for something specialised, or is being presented as a "learning" type of project. The modern generation tends to listen less to the radio anyway due to internet availability. The rash of inverter projects through the 1980's and 1990's ceased long ago once these devices became very cheap already made.

On a positive note, there has been a revival of valve electronics since the 1990's. This was until recently, vehemently resisted by SC, but realising that it's the Vintage Radio column that is responsible for many readers continuing to buy the magazine, they have been forced to relent, and subscribe to reader's wishes for projects, such as valve amplifiers.
Younger enthusiasts have suddenly discovered valve electronics, and there is a now whole new niche interest. Unfortunately, a lot of this interest has been spurred on by various internet sites of questionable technical quality, and forums full of personal insults and more misinformation. Still, for a generation that no longer reads printed magazines and books, they have to learn somewhere, and learn the hard way if necessary...

Surface mount components are becoming common for "modern projects" simply because that's what the manufacturers are providing, and magazines want to be seen as keeping up with the times. The video modulator project in SC from March 2018 is a good example. It could have been designed with all conventional components - which incidentally I already have, but no, the designer decided to use SMD where possible. I would have to order virtually all the parts to make this project, despite already having most of the components in their standard, non SMD form.
I notice a reduction in the amount of available kits for sale too. Once the pages of the Jaycar catalog would be full of magazine kits. In fact, you could assume that each project, presented each month, would appear as a kit and be in the catalog for several years. Now this is the exception. The new 2018 Jaycar catalog shows just 16 kits from EA/ETI/SC, and this going back to the 1980's. The rest of their kits are in-house or third party. Virtually none of the other "kits" are component level, but are instead pluggable modules.

Where is it all headed? My guess is the niche interest in valve electronics will continue to be popular, helped along by things "retro" being in vogue. Solid state projects that don't use a microprocessor will become less and less common. I don't expect printed magazines to be around much longer, especially once the baby boomer generation dies off. Certainly, Silicon Chip has been on the internet for some time - they have had to have that presence to keep readers. The amount of young people that read printed material is too small to keep them viable otherwise. In the future just about all information will come from the internet.
The interest in real, component level, electronics will still be there, but just shared amongst a few.



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