I am an artist. My medium is electronics.
I don’t mean to sound ostentatious; it took me a long time to come to this conclusion. I’m 57 now and I’ve been working in electronics for 40 years. It was less than a year ago that I finally realized I was basically making art with it.
Inventing a new paradigm
Usually a person who works in electronics is an engineer or a technician. I was the latter. I worked at this for about 5 years in the late 1970s. For most of that time, I was an “engineering technician.” That means I helped engineers in the lab develop their designs. They have software for that now. I also did testing, calibration and repair. Most of my work involved measurement and control (example: biofeedback equipment).
After leaving the Sea Org in December of 2008, I wanted to get back into electronics. But I couldn’t find a technician job. And I didn’t have any money to re-stock my lab, or even to build equipment myself from scratch. I was looking for an electronics surplus store where I might be able to find cheap old stuff. But all such stores in the Seattle area had closed, and the ones online didn’t seem that cheap. Then I found out about used electronics.
People have been using electronic equipment – computers, audio equipment, commercial equipment – for 30 years since I last worked in the field. And the technology has been upgraded repeatedly during that time. The result: Electronic junk. This isn’t “surplus.” This is stuff destined for the dustbin. Lots of people were just throwing it away. But the environmentalists had a problem with that. Electronic equipment contains hazardous substances like lead and mercury. And it contains all sorts of useful metals, and plastics that should be recycled. So electronics shouldn’t be thrown out; it should be recycled. In the Seattle area, I found two forms of electronics recycling right next to each other on 6th Ave in SODO. One was the Goodwill Outlet, where they attempt to resell thrown out electronics to folks who might have some use for it, and the other was RePC, which specializes in repairing and reselling old computers, and also resells lots of “junk” – mostly computer-related.
I started visiting these places regularly, looking for good deals on used equipment. The best deals were at Goodwill. But they make more money selling used clothes, so they have been getting out of reselling electronics. RePC has become my mainstay. And as I picked out bits that looked interesting or useful, I developed a new way of working with electronics.
One piece I found early on illustrates this. It was an AC power control box. It controlled power to 8 outlets, apparently responding to a radio, or otherwise remote, control signal. This box cost me about $10. It included a beautiful aluminum rackmount chassis, costing about $50 new; the outlets ($1.50 each); a bunch of 12volt relays ($2 each); a power transformer ($5) and a bunch of electronics. I decided to leave the outlets in place, add some switches from Radio Shack, and make myself a deluxe outlet strip with a multi-voltage DC supply in the back.
Exploring the paradigm
My next find was an old Heathkit vacuum tube voltmeter (VTVM – illustrated above) with a damaged meter faceplate. You don’t need vacuum tubes to make a good voltmeter any more, so I took them all out and replaced them with some cheap opamps. It’s not perfect, but it’s part of my bench equipment. It has gone through a variety of design changes since the original modification.
In this way, I acquired many pieces of junk equipment and used panels, controls, and other parts from them, and created new equipment of my own invention. Below is a more recent example using the front panel and mixer from an old PA amplifier plus a lot of other junk parts to put together a box I can use to experiment with resonant circuits (sine wave oscillators).
In doing this work, a few basics became clear:
1. You need an enclosure for your work. If you don’t have that, the project hangs out all over the place, the way this one does. In this case, I wanted the internal parts accessible. But normally, you would not want that.
2. No need to build power supplies. In the resonance project, I cobbled together a power supply out of spare parts I had laying around. But when switching power supplies are available as used power adapters for $3 each, why mess around with power supply design?
3. Scrap plastic works better than scrap metal for secondary structural elements. Scrap aluminum is hard to find, and scrap steel is too hard to work. I found a supplier of scrap plastic (about $3 a pound) which provides a material that is very machinable, a good electrical insulator, and strong enough to use in electronic equipment.
4. Some parts are worth salvaging and some are easier to buy. I buy resistors, transistors, bypass capacitors, project boards, shrink tube, and mounting hardware. I try to salvage the rest from junk equipment. I have gotten most of my power semiconductors, for instance, from old power supplies and audio amplifiers. And I get most of my connectors from junk computers and audio gear.
5. Parts data gotten from the internet is crucial to enable one to design new circuits using used parts. I totally rely on a site called “datasheetcatalog” to find out what the parts I salvage are and what they are capable of.
Can this be art?
The jury is still out on that question.
But it was clear to me that I was basically engaged in an artistic endeavor. Unless you want to dismiss it as a mere “hobby” there was no other way to describe it.
I had started some websites around the concept of me being a web designer and programmer. I extended those to include my work with junk electronics.
Certain basic elements that we think of as “artistic” are present in this work. You have color. The parts and wires come in all sorts of colors. Some are even color-coded.
The little module above is made mostly of LEDs salvaged from a piece of network equipment. The problem color is the project board. It would work better as a dark blue. Instead, I have to live with this ugly color of phenolic board. Sometimes I find glass-epoxy boards that I can re-use. They are green or blue – more aesthetic. However, when this board is lit up, the LED colors become the focal point.
Here is a little project stuffed into a black plastic box. When the cover is on, the LEDs are covered with a blue plastic lens, and you can only see them when they shine. I prefer panels that allow a person to see some of the internal parts.
I found a foam pad a Goodwill Outlet once. I thought maybe I could use the pad. It was a heat/massage pad designed to be sat on and operated using a little hand control. I took all the hardware out of this pad and found a bunch of motors that operate as vibrators. You can see two of them mounted on the back of this project. It’s the first test version of the idea I had for what to do with these motors. They are used here to demonstrate the interaction of two things trying to vibrate the same object at different rates. In this case, the object is a mirror (I had originally envisioned doing this project with sound). The mirror reflects a red laser beam onto a nearby wall. And when the motors are running, that gives you a projected light pattern that shows the interaction between the two frequencies.
In this project, I made the whole frame out of scrap plastic. This is unusual, but I couldn’t find an appropriate used enclosure for it. I had extra mirror plastic, so I made the control panel with it, too.
This project, and some others I was working on, got me interested in the best way to drive small DC motors. I made a little “wand” (below) that uses a simple switching technique that provides somewhat better speed control that a rheostat. This project also illustrates the re-use of a green glass-epoxy board.
Will this type of work become a fad? I’d certainly like to be paid to do it.
But perhaps it lacks that certain flair that people expect from “art.”
We’ll see. Perhaps I will be driven by necessity back into bookkeeping or conventional engineering.
I know my heart will always lie in inventing my own stuff, though. It’s fun.