Ohm, I Can’t Resist: My Secret Life as a Circuit Bender

An inventory of electronics projects — past, present and future.

I’m not an engineer, nor am I a scientist (not by definition, at least). However, one thing is for sure: I can’t help myself when it comes to building things. I love it! Here are some projects I’ve built and am building.

Mini-theremin

My latest Tuesday night project was a theremin, built from a kit that Joe got me from Hacker Space Seoul, South Korea. (Granted, it’s been sitting in my bin of rogue electronics parts for two years, but better late than never, right?) This model uses photoresistors/photocells to sense light vs. shadow. You can change the pitch and wave shape of the sound by changing up your motions. If you’d like to build it yourself, here’s the schematic. 10341874_10102534470971711_4143363418536678271_n   And here’s a brief demo of what it sounded like:

FM Transmitter + AM Transmitter

For me, my love of electronics stems from radio. In 2012 at the Allied Media Projects Conference (AMP) in Detroit, Michigan, I went to a workshop that taught folks how to build low-power FM transmitters. I had no idea what I was doing — the solder points were messy and I had to ask for help multiple times. Yet, I ended up building something that worked! I still keep this janky project around as a reminder that 1) progress takes time and 2) everyone starts somewhere.

Then, of course, there’s the AM transmitter that Joe made for me to go along with the FM transmitter.

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Ham Radio (in progress)

Speaking of radio, I got my ham radio license last year (CQ, CQ…KC1AJN!) and decided to fix up a vintage Heathkit ham radio that I bought from a yard sale. The parts are ancient and some aren’t even manufactured anymore, but I’m up for the challenge. (Joe even found the original owners’ manual on eBay and snagged it for me!)

TARDIS outfit

For my inner Whovian two Halloweens ago, I made a TARDIS dress and blue-lit headpiece that consisted of a simple LED and coin battery.

Kissing Robots

Nothing says “Happy Valentine’s Day” like some kissing robots, right? This was my gift to Joe back in February 2013. I used a basic reed switch to create a circuit actuated by magnets (on both ends) so that the robots would light up when they kissed. They had red LEDs to simulate a heart beating.

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Here’s a video of how they work:

MakeyMakey

Admittedly, this is something I bought for Joe so that I could play with it myself. The MakeyMakey is a “musical invention kit” that I heard about at a music hack day at MIT and knew would be a lot of fun. With a simple circuit, you can turn anything into an instrument — including bananas, grapes, pencil lead…the list goes on. Here are our fruit bongos:

LED sound sensor

This was my first project on an actual circuit board! It came in a hobby kit from RadioShack, which is unfortunately no longer available. Basically, it’s a switch-operated circuit that uses a microphone to detect sound and causes the LEDs to blink along with the sound. 1496657_10102208226438371_120641353_n

Curiously Strong Altoids flashlight 

A rite of passage for electronics geeks. Using this as a bike light!

Sun Logger (in progress)

My goal this summer is to start an indoor garden. Our tiny Somerville abode doesn’t fit much beyond the bare necessities and could definitely use more windows, so Joe and I are coming up with some hacks to get around that. With a brand spankin’ new Arduino UNO, we’re hoping to build a sun logger that tells us how much sunlight we’re getting in certain parts of the apartment (and perhaps even text/tweet the data!) so we can optimize plant placement.

Wearable bike turn signal (in progress)

Eventually, when I graduate to the LilyPad Arduino, this is something I’m hoping to build for biking at night, which can be terrifying in Boston traffic.

Image: Instructables

One of the best musicians I know once told me he didn’t know how to read sheet music. It took me aback — not because I had any expectation that one should be able to read music to play music but rather because it had never occurred to me that you didn’t have to. I approach electronics in a similar way. I look at a schematic and I see sheet music that doesn’t completely make sense to me the same way it would to an engineer. However, that doesn’t stop me from extracting pure delight from engaging with projects like these (even the more challenging ones) and improvising along the way.

What’s more, I’m extremely interested in how low cost DIY sensors/electronics can be applied toward social good and increased civic engagement with science. These projects are a way of working on my chops so I can be better equipped and better poised to contribute to community-based sensor projects in a more meaningful way.

While I don’t have any aspirations of designing skyscrapers or inventing the next big gadget, I do plan to geek out and make things at every opportunity I get.

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