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Interview: Ask Forrest Mims About Rockets, Electronics, and Engineering 120

With his popular Getting Started in Electronics, and Engineer's Mini-Notebook series and a number of different electronics kits sold at Radio Shack, Forrest Mims inspired countless scientists and engineers. Even though he received no formal academic training in science, Forrest has appeared in 70 magazines and scientific journals. He has worked as a consultant for the National Geographic Society, the National Science Teachers Association, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Today, Mims works on many scientific projects including climate change research. He's agreed to answer all your questions about science and engineering. As usual, ask as many as you'd like, but please, one question per post.
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Interview: Ask Forrest Mims About Rockets, Electronics, and Engineering

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  • by lyapunov ( 241045 ) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @01:14PM (#45715783)

    You are the quintessential tinkerer with a non-standard education. What was the key inspiration that started you on this path?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      As a follow up, what was the key endorsement/position/connection that allowed you to become respected (or even allowed seriously) in your field?

  • inspiration - others (Score:4, Interesting)

    by lyapunov ( 241045 ) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @01:17PM (#45715825)

    What do you feel provides the most inspiration in others, in particular kids, to learn and do hands on tasks?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Just THANK YOU!

    • Re:No Question (Score:5, Insightful)

      by lord_mike ( 567148 ) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @01:59PM (#45716377)

      Second that. I was introduced to Forrest's work back in the TRS-80 days, but his quintessential work for me was the Radio Shack publication, "Getting Started in Electronics." Handwritten on graph paper and printed on 8.5" by 11" newsprint with a soft cover, this was the ultimate intro guide for anyone who had any interest in electronics. Many years ago, I worked at Radio Shack as a summer and holiday job, and every time my manager was away, I'd sneak away the a copy and read it (along with some ham radio books as well). One time a customer came in asking about a fake car alarm box, and I grabbed out the book and we used that to build one. He bought dozens of parts that day (oddly enough, I got in trouble with my manager for that, despite really cleaning house). An original copy of that book still sits prominently on my shelf--one of the biggest influences in my life. So, yes, thank you very much Mr. Mims!

      • I'm curious. On what grounds did your manager complain about this? Was it to the exclusion of other customers or something? Seems to me like that's pretty good customer service--something you can't get in a Radio Shack these days unless you're buying the latest GizmoWidget 3000. I've searched high and low--you can't even buy a variable capacitor in any of the stores around here.
        • I don't know why he gave me a hard time. There was no one else in the store at the time. I did everything right, I think. I got a customer who came in buying a battery or something, and after he mentioned this fake car alarm he wanted for his car, my eyes lit up and I told him we could build one. We spend maybe 15 minutes at most, but I ended up selling him $27 worth of high markup parts (The exact amount was burned in my brain, it probably would be like $60 today) with many lines per ticket (corporate wa

          • I would have guessed it was because he expected you to sell the guy a multi-hundred dollar real alarm system instead. But then.. why claim it was about cleanup time?

      • by tibit ( 1762298 )

        Ah, I have another Radio Shack story from 1989. I went to a store with my dad, and there was another customer with a question that my dad, as an EE, was able to answer. He then asked the clerk, perhaps a tad naively, something along the lines of why didn't he know this or that about the products he sold. The answer was "If I knew it, I wouldn't be working here now, would I?". Still gives me a chuckle, but there's a lesson there: ultimately, corporations are keeping their employees just passably able to do t

        • It is still just a retail job. Are they going to pay the same for their employees as a company would pay a qualified engineer? If not then why WOULD someone who 'knew that' work there?

      • Thirded! I also have "Getting Started in Electronics" and a couple of "Engineer's Mini-Notebooks" still on my shelf, with the intention of giving them to my kids one day.

        Question for Mr. Mims: what was it like getting a completely handwritten book published? Did you approach RadioShack with the idea? Given all the modern publication options (self-pub, iBooks, etc.) and software to help, how would you go about it today? (I know, that's three questions...)
    • by mlts ( 1038732 )


      The books were excellent when I was in high school and learning the basics.

      Thank you for making such clear books for an absolute beginner to even get near grokking basic electronics.

      Of course, I still suck at soldering (last time I inadvertently made a solder bridge on a 741, and had a prompt magic smoke exit, so I leave that to people with steadier hands.) However, this knowledge helps later on, be it with a solar charging system or other projects.

  • by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @01:23PM (#45715931)

    What's your opinion on the old ways, i.e. buying parts locally from Radio Shack and meeting people in local clubs compared to the new online way of buying parts and kits, publishing tutorials and forums full of people helping each other?

    More to the point, what do you think has been lost from the old way and what has been gained from the new way?

    • For one, you can't buy a variable capacitor from Radio Shack anymore (at least, around here). Kinda hard to build a useful radio without one.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        I had to repair my television the other day. Literally all I needed were some capacitors (to replace some electrolytic ones which had popped) and a blown fuse. The selection was so dismal at radioshack that I ended up having to order the parts online.

        Oddly enough, it was the fuse I couldn't find (I needed something mostly standard, like 12A slow-blow 20mm or something). However, if I was going to have to order online anyway, I wasn't going to bother paying Radio Shack $4 for 2 capacitors. I mean, not h

      • by tibit ( 1762298 )

        These days you buy a radio on a chip, who cares about variable caps? It's digitally tuned. If you really insist, use a varicap.

        • I'm more interested in doing things the hard way first, to really grok what's going on. Also, last I checked, you can't buy varicaps either. Femtobyte's comment above is also why I wind up at Radio Shack more often than I'd like.
          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward
            Ah, of course, so you make foxhole radios from locally-sourced blue steel and galena crystals you mine from your own garden? Perhaps you build your own carbon-arc transmitters or make your own vacuum tubes? The problem with "doing things the hard way" is there's almost no end to how hard you can make it. So are you more interested in the destination or the journey? If it's the journey, read this:

            http://tinyurl.com/oaaktbc [tinyurl.com]

            That links to an awesome PDF.

            Of course you can still buy Varicaps. When did you chec

          • by tibit ( 1762298 )

            If you want to do things hard way first, you might as well do SDR. The hard part then is the software. Or use a voltage controlled oscillator, and use a potentiometer as your input element - there's plenty of both of those. Heck, be fancy and noncontacty and use an eccentric on the shaft and a light-based angle sensor to derive the tuning voltage. I don't think there's much reason to use variable capacitors for across-the-band tuning in any modern circuit, even if doing it just for kicks. There's a whole bu

      • One day I remember going in to my Radio Shack to get a counter IC and found the whole area gone, and the manager (Steve) told me that they were clearing everything out, and not replacing it. It was all in a big octagonal cardboard clearance bin. I offered him $20 for the whole bin, and took the bin and everything home. I still have it, It's not used as much any more, but when you are thinking dang, where am I gonna find one of those nowadays, it is sure handy.

    • Well, as a socially isolated nerd in the 1970s, I never got much help from local people even when I shopped at Radio Shack. Those Mims project books, though, bootstrapped me to a point where I could get into Don Lancaster's books. It was enough to let me design and build a high-res video display system for my TRS-80, fifty-odd packages of SS and MS TTL.

      I still have all the Mims project books, though, and I'm hanging on to them.

  • This isn't really a question.

    I'd just like to extend a note of appreciation for those books. They were amazingly clear and well written and I learned a great deal from them. I still have my copies (purchased for me by my grandmother) and I still find them useful as a handy reference.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Mims is well known as a creationist. Ask him why he trusts science when it comes to electronics, but not when it comes to biology.

    • Why don't you man up, log in, and ask him yourself?
  • Model Rocketry (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @01:30PM (#45716015)

    Please retell the story of how you got started in Model Rocketry and some of your earlier projects, successes, and of course failures. Be sure to name names and clubs!


    • by Anonymous Coward

      And I'd like to ask, are you still active in model rocketry?

      modern high powered rocketry is a fantastic sport, from innovations in simulation, electronics payloads include cameras, altimeter controlled recovery deployment, sensors, beacon and APRS tracking, and much more. doing any of that?

  • projects (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Of all the projects you have worked on, what has been your favorite? Personal or professional. (I would like to express my gratitude, getting started with electronics, got me started in electronics and I am now an engineer. I also have a "non-standard" education as they say, having mostly taught myself from reading and taking online free courses.

  • "Today, Mims works on many scientific projects including climate change research."

    To learn whatever's there to learn or to seek evidence to support a previously reached conclusion or opinion?

    I forget if you were in PE or R-E or both (and the back issues are in boxes on a high shelf), but I used to enjoy reading your stuff back in the '70s.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    You inspired me to try and learn electronics on my own, but above the basic concepts (what components (resistors, capacitors, transistors, etc...) do and basic circuit analysis), I get lost. For example, for the life of me, I cannot understand how to design a filter. I know what components to use but which values? No idea and I am having a lot of trouble understanding it. There are more examples using OP Amps and transistors other than for basic digital circuits.

    So the question: if there are times when yo

  • by swschrad ( 312009 ) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @01:59PM (#45716363) Homepage Journal

    grew up on your Popular Electronics crew, all those soldering wizards who educated us all. like to hear the back-story of how you and AT&T got into a cage battle over optoelectronics.

  • Has science or technology revealed any secrets recently that would change how you teach these topics? For example, when I studied electronics as a kid, the theory was that electrons travelled through conductors at almost the speed of light. I think it's now well know that individual electrons actually travel through conductors quite slowly.

    • by tibit ( 1762298 )

      the theory was that electrons travelled through conductors at almost the speed of light

      I don't know when did you learn that, but no physicist worth their salt would say that by mid 1930s at the latest, I'd hope.

  • What single book are you the most proud of, and see as your best work? Or which one have you had the most people tell you was _the_ book they use/recommend the most?
  • I still have my original Blue and Yellow RadioShack Notebooks that I purchased when I was 12. As a practicing professional Engineer now I want to say thanks for that leg up.

    For all the kiddies reading this, realize that back in the 80's there were no readily available resource other than small electronic stores and mail order catalogs for young people to feed their interest in electronics. The material that Forrest Mims wrote was an invaluable resource into learning how design digital circuits using the
  • Sir, you were very instrumental in getting me excited and motivated to study electronics as a child, and largely why I am here now.

    I have just had a child myself recently. Given the opportunity to motivate and influence a new generation of children, how would you communicate to them differently now?

  • Thank you, Forrest! You are the best. I am a fanboi. I own all of your electronics mini-notebooks and your _Getting Started in Electronics_. Over the last 15 years they are usually the first place I turn to when I need to make a circuit in support of one of my hobbies. I don't have a question. I just want to say thanks and keep doing what you're doing! And keep those books in RadioShack!

    I guess I have one question: How did you get so awesome?


  • by cowtamer ( 311087 ) on Tuesday December 17, 2013 @03:07PM (#45717245) Journal

    What do you feel about the Maker movement and Makerspaces in general?

    It seems to me as the Maker/tinkerer is the new equivalent to the electronics hobbyist. Do you believe new project designs need to keep this in mind? (i.e, present the design of an entire gadget instead of just the electronics)?

  • Forrest, in what ways did your mother and father contribute, indirectly or directly, to your eventual success in science and technology?
  • You've written hobbyist-targetting books with Radio Shack that work through hands on projects hobbyists can do themselves. My question is, for those seeking to carry your mission in writing those books over to computer-aided or simulation based learning, what things of value did you create that will be the hardest to carry forwards and what are the greatest things of value that computer-assistance will uniquely be able to take & make it's own & go furthest with?

  • What's next? Any new books?

    Also, I've noticed that the mini-notebooks seem to have changed. I have what I think is a complete set of the older ones. The new ones appear to be the old ones combined into fewer but larger books. Is that all they are? Or is there new material? I'd like to verify that I have them all or buy any that I am missing but it looks like simply comparing titles will not do the trick and I don't think I want to bring in my collection to compare page by page!

  • On behalf of myself, and I am guessing, many others here, a heartfelt thank you. I am an Electrical Engineer and am enjoying a great career that has opened many opportunities and let me see the world - largely because of a green, hand-printed, "Getting Started in Electronics" book I noticed in a Radio Shack a very long time ago.

    I still reference your books from time to time, and I look forward to sharing them with my kids someday.

    Thank you.

    73 de VE1SFM.

    • I still have the copies I bought in the 80s. I learned more from these books than from the EE course (the intro EE course all engineers have to take).

  • How do we promote electrical engineering when we're surrounded by an increasingly software & solution based world? Microcontrollers and increasingly so, full-blown microprocessor system-on-chip designs integrate a bedazzling array of top-notch analog and digital peripherals. Watching electronics parts catalogs, there's an ever growing profusion of special-purpose ICs, a low cost on hand solution to every problem. And in this state of being well served, I'm curious how we maintain proficiency, expertise,

    • The other AC commenter is mostly right. EE is dead in the western world, for the most part. You can still make a career there, but it's not easy, because most of the work is being outsourced to Asia now. When companies design products using those microcontrollers and SoCs you talk about, these days they usually send them over to an ODM in Taiwan to be both designed and manufactured there, with the software part being considered the "trade secret" part, and kept in-house here in the US. There's still sma

  • Just tossing out a thank you to a wonderful author. I am pleased to hear that you are still alive and kicking! I wish you and yours happy holidays.

  • I loved your books back in the 80's; my allowance went to buying them and then to the bits required to make things go beep. Money well spent.

    What I loved with the handwritten style and the funky pictures was that they made the subject so accessible as opposed to the extremely dry material generally available. I was watching a video for an EE course the other day and they sucked every bit of fun out of the subject. So again thanks?
    Any new books about Arduino (the 555 chip of 2013) or something 21st centu
  • .

    How does one adequately thank a person who provided exactly the right help and encouragement at exactly the right time in a young man's life resulting in a family supporting career and income? Even two wives (nobody's perfect) and daughter owe you a thank you.

    While I have fond memories of a few key teachers in some classroom settings, I can firmly point to that Radio Shack purchase of my copy of your "Engineer's Notebook" in 1977 as the real start of my career in Electronics-to-Computers-to-SoftwareEngine

  • Hello Mr. Mims! First of all, thank you for the chance to speak with you. You have inspired so many people, and I for one can say that if it wasn't for your "Getting Started in Electronics" I would never had done so. The handwritten style that you wrote the Getting Started book along with the hand written graph paper style of the mini notebooks made it so appealing and unintimidating. The cartoon drawings of components were very much appreciated! My question is this: Why did you decide to do it in that form
  • Why not use a dirigible (zeplin) for space launch? 17,500mph at 99 kilometers up is considered orbitable. Why not use use a dirigible in these stages for cheap, heavy lift into orbit: (1) hydrogen lift until the air density is low enough to make pushing a balloon energy efficient (perhaps 60 kilometers); (2) vacuum out the hydrogen as the balance between air density and structural integrate allow and heat it for rocket thrust. Use a large aerodynamic shape such that this thrust pushes the ever lighter v

  • Pneumatic cylinders are stronger per volume but vacuum can be immensely strong, regardless of volume. So if a cylinder is made very tiny but geared up massively then the same pneumatic air tank could give hugely more energy for its volume and structural integrity--right? Some day, building, filling, and dropping cylinders of space vacuum to Earth could therefore be the only truly infinite source of renewable energy. Perhaps vacuum cylinders could even be used to blow back captured air (a vacuum jet) to s

  • I had this idea for an FPGA design back in 1981... after reading Gilder's call to waste transistors... and I wonder if you think it might be worth doing even today? I believe that the design space for FPGAs may not have been adequately explored, and as a result we're all living with sub-optimal solutions.

    It's very simple.. an orthogonal grid of 4 input, 4 output look up tables, wired to look like RAM to a host, and connect such that each output bit goes to one neighbor, and each input comes from a neighbor.

  • I was just today having the almost-annual conversation with some electronics hobbyists about this. Where do you see their business going? Have you ever been involved in their business other than as an author? (Sorry, two questions in one post.) And, as so many others have said: thank you for the education and also VERY much for the graph-paper!
  • I'm curious what projects you've done around your own home that you think are especially interesting or clever, whether they're ones you'd recommend to a beginner in electronics or not ;) Do you have sensors everywhere? Have you kept a childhood train set alive? Do you have an impressive Christmas display ala the family Grizwold (or Alek's famous lights for charity -- http://www.komar.org/christmas/ [komar.org])?

  • Dear Mr Mims, In your interview on The Amp Hour podcast, you mention having super high gain circuitry for some of your detectors and using feedback resistors in the gig ohm range. Are these off the shelf parts or do you fabricate these yourself? What part number op-amps are your favorite for the high performance circuits? Thanks for your time. Chris

I've noticed several design suggestions in your code.