Electricity for Beginners

By on 7 June, 2019 in Fun, Kate and Stephen, Shopping with 0 Comments

Editor’s note: Although this post has two bylines, it is written in first person. In this case, the author is Kate.

If you live in Midtown Montgomery, you probably purchase electricity from Alabama Power. But this isn’t a post about utilities and the energy they sell us. Although it is about electricity, this post is about what happens when idle curiosity becomes a hobby. For me, this process has meant that the contraption depicted here now lives on my desk. Also I now regularly melt metal in my home. I’ll tell this story in three parts.

1. Some background

What happens when you turn on a power switch? If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with reliable electrical service, the switch activates some domestic events: a light comes on, the garbage disposal whirs, a ceiling fan militates against summer’s heat.

Until recently, I hadn’t thought much about this matter. I mean, I kind of knew that electrons came from somewhere to make the switch go, but not much else. Then three things happened. First, I started to think more critically about where these electrons come from. Turns out, a sizable volume of ours here in Montgomery come from coal. Thinking about childhood asthma and the global climate crisis will sure make you think twice about switching on ambient household lights.

Second, I read a gigantic book about geology. I definitely will not try to summarize it here. The most relevant bit is this: Oil only forms if organic matter is kept at the temperature of, basically, a cup of coffee, for at least one million years. More or less than that results in some kind of combustible that isn’t quite oil. Think about that. One million years of slow percolation within plus or minus 5 degrees. Most of us have ovens that won’t conform to these restraints when baking a loaf of bread. So, I was thinking a lot about fossil fuels and where they come from, and how easily we burn them up after an unfathomable amount of time.

Third, and more relevant to this particular post, I decided to learn how to make electronic circuits. This was basically because I decided that one of my projects would look a lot cooler if it had blinking lights. And also because, evidently, I can’t do anything part of the way.

2. How hard can this be?

A cursory look on Amazon revealed many inexpensive and well-reviewed starter kits for children. I thought: “If a middle school student can do this, then I can too.” The box contained a soldering iron, something called a “multimeter,” a confusing array of unfamiliar (and tiny) parts, a starter project, and some poorly-written directions.

It turns out that soldering is extremely difficult. This was compounded by my terrible eyesight and notoriously poor hand-eye coordination. Also, the universe of YouTube videos in this area (not just soldering, but circuit-building in general) mostly take technical knowledge for granted while making things look infuriatingly easy.

Starter solder

I did not let ignorance or incompetence stand in the way of my quest to enable the blinking of a tiny LED. But just as I was about to finish the circuit, I made a terrible error that ruined one of the tiny and delicate parts. It was a resistor. These come in a startling variety of types distinguished only by microscopic and incomprehensible color codes. The kit contained no replacement parts.

No problem. Surely I’d be able to just pick up a replacement at a local shop. Perhaps I’d be able to get some advice for fixing the circuit while I was at it. And my overly liberal application methods meant I’d run out of solder, so I needed that too.

The next time I take up a hobby, I want it to be something with local retail and logistical support. Last year, my thing was knitting. But Montgomery has no yarn store.

And as far as I can tell, our city also lacks a shop for consumer electronics supplies. I have learned that an “electric supply” shop is for electricians – the kind who fix your outlets. I did buy many things online, including several small DIY kits and the “helping hands” workstand pictured above. One day while trying to build a pointlessly elaborate circuit whose outputs included an annoying speaker and a LED, I ran out of solder.

People in retail outlets look at you pretty strangely when you ask where the solder is. At the Ann Street Wal-Mart, several employees worked together to find it (auto repair section). At Home Depot, an ancient man seemed incredibly happy that I was interested in soldering. I took a chance and showed him the circuit board I’d had in my purse for weeks. Did they have resistors for sale? He got a far-off look and told me that the last store in town that sold such things closed years ago.

In any case, besides complaining about the lack of local retail, here are a few things I’ve learned up front:

  • You should choose between leaded and unleaded solder. The people who post online about this sort of thing complain a lot about how hard it is to work with unleaded solder. On the other hand, it’s kind of gross to think you might be touching and inhaling lead. Home Depot only sells unleaded solder in sizes inappropriate for circuit boards (as I’ve learned recently). Wal-Mart only sells one kind. It is labeled “solder.” I’m pretty sure it has lead.
  • New technology is probably better. These days, children and adults alike are using “breadboards,” “Raspberry Pi,” and “Arduino” to make things wayyyy more advanced than the simple stuff I’ve been working on. For right now, I’m interested in the old technology. Otherwise I’d absolutely pick up something that didn’t require me to be good at soldering.

3. What the point is.

My father built electronics, including the computer I took to college. He taught me some of the basics long ago enough that I’ve forgotten everything. One of the things I may have inherited from him is a tremendous joy in figuring out how things work. The building process isn’t easy at first, but it’s very meditative. And the payoff when you can transform a battery into some kind of operation is absolutely wonderful.

We went to see the astounding new Apollo 11 documentary at The Capri last week. I marveled at the technological wonder of the moon landing. This wasn’t just because it’s pretty awesome that people went to the moon (it is), or because the technology we used was so primitive compared to our smartphones (ditto), but because I now know how difficult it is just to get some small lights to blink.

I know I’ve been dabbling in a skill that’s pretty obsolete – at least in the richer parts of the world. We don’t really fix consumer electronics any more. Most people just buy a new TV when theirs breaks. They definitely don’t know how to fix it, and it might be pretty expensive to pay for repairs, so the TV goes into the landfill. But this practice, while understandable, has global consequences.

I’m not saying that everyone should learn Ohm’s Law or play with superheated liquid metal. But I do think that there’s something useful in examining the leads and nodes that we take for granted, even as they increasingly surround us. Slowing down and paying attention to detail is important. And whether we plant a seed, make a soup, or light an LED, there’s special joy in learning how things work.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, fifteen fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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