Three Electronics Thrills
It's time to reflect a bit about our motivations for being in electronics. Why are we doing electronics and not law or medicine, plumbing or heat treating? And once into it, what keeps us improving in our knowledge and skills? What maintains our interest? What are the thrills that keep us excited about electronics?
I was surprised to discover upon entering college that not everyone majored in engineering for the same reason I did: because it was at the center of my attention and the focus of my interest. I wanted to be the best electronics engineer around. I wanted to know how to design circuits. I learned in high-school which circuits did what but I didn't know how to determine the parts values. Entering engineering school, there were a few other freshmen who were starry-eyed about electronics too. But to my disappointment, I learned that many of the entering students happened to put their finger down in the E.E. part of the catalog and went with it. Or they were in it for a job or for social reasons. Or there might have been other reasons not directly related to a personal passion for the subject. That cheapened electronics, made it mundane, I thought. The uninspired who made it through either did so by sheer brain-power or else developed an interest while in school. The most common interest-generator is involvement. But for others, like Audio Precision's analog circuits founder, Bruce Hofer, it was a matter of pure inspiration from the start. Bruce had more brains than I but we had an equal love of the subject. And such people tend to concentrate in centers of interesting electronics activity. Ours was in instrument design at Tektronix, a truly inspiring place to be.
Earlier in the 1960s, as a formative 12-year-old, I was fascinated by the adventure of space travel, which was very much in the news then. My science buddy, Steve, also built and studied rockets and science projects. We wanted to not only be regarded by others as scientific, but we wanted to achieve big technical goals. At that age, one does not make a strong distinction between science fantasy and reality. We fed off Andre Norton, Poul Anderson and Tom Swift sci-fi books. We lived out these adventures in laboratories integrated into our respective bedrooms. We raised funds for lab equipment (chemistry back then) by delivering the San Gabriel Valley Daily Tribune. One day, I realized while walking home from 8th grade, that my spacecraft would require electronics - panel after panel of it. So I started working on that and - well, here I am, 35 years later! So then: thrill number one is that of scientific adventure - or in '90s language, it's a techno-thrill - whether real, fantasized, or somewhere in between.
Phase-two thrills involve the subject-matter more directly. Due to a lack of available explanatory material, I would spend hours in high-school and early college trying to work out an understanding of basic electronics concepts. For instance, I had a hard time understanding the dynamic behavior of emitter-coupled (actually cathode-coupled) pairs - diff-amps - especially as dynamic emitter (or cathode) resistance affects gain calculations. It's all somewhat trivial now, but there came a day when the "elemental insight" (as Bruce Hofer used to call them) occurred. I was ecstatic. A persistent and annoying sense of puzzlement dissipated, leaving clarity and simplicity. I had gained some control over circuitry. As each new "elemental insight" occurred, I could do more, design more, and make it work right in less time. I could think bigger and bigger about what I could design. I was gaining new-found powers that brought the earlier motivating fantasies closer to reality. The acquisition of foundational, enabling electronics concepts is the thrill of this phase.
In the third phase of thrills, acquiring new concepts is not the driving factor, for by this phase you have mastered the principles of electronics - at least the areas of electronics that interest you. You are keen to discover "holes" in your knowledge - any basic ideas that slipped by unnoticed through all those years - but the new and enduring thrill is in creating new circuits, techniques, and concepts. This stage of inventiveness emerges after having traveled through the well-established to the frontiers of electronics knowledge. With a creative mind, knowing what exists, you are better prepared to seek that which does not. And having mastered the field, you have a better intuitive sense of its shape and where new roads might be cut, to go where electronics has not gone before.
Perhaps there is a phase four: the thrill of retaining one's competence in one's waning years? The thrill of merely reminiscing about previous phases? I don't know. I still create more than I reminisce, but it's starting to happen, as evidenced by this article. Perhaps phase four includes the more general thrill of helping others in earlier phases to bootstrap their way to greater competence and creativity. I hope that, in some small way, these Design Center articles help you with that. And my CD-book, a four-volume work on Analog Circuit Design, might be my biggest contribution (and thrill) of this kind - a phase-four thrill for me and a phase-two thrill for you? (Click here for the CD.) But I hope I'm still in phase three.
Ó Dennis L. Feucht, 2001