There have been several recent letters to Crosstalk regarding a lack of interest in engineering as a career (see June 19, page 28). Many of the really good engineers I have known got their first taste of electronics by building their first crystal set or regenerative short-wave receiver. The thrill of hearing those voices and visualizing scenes from faraway places, and the "kudos" from adults, ignited an excitement about creating things new that has never been quenched.
Kids nowadays aren't interested in crystal sets or short-wave receivers, or even home-built door chimes, amplifiers or Tesla coils. Today there is the Internet, cell phones with cameras and weird ring tones, digital TV with graphic presentation, and handheld videogames. And even though most of today's technology is well out of the range of the average youngster, tinkerer or hobbyist, this is not where the problem lies. The real culprit is this: There is little in technology or education today to spark the imagination and train the mind to visualize and imagine. Oh for the days of radio drama!
In today's media culture, I do not know what can be done to spark the imagination and the drive to create. However, I encourage all young engineers to make an effort to understand a little bit of the fascinating history of electronics. When you think that most design work was done with only rudimentary test equipment, the design of television is nothing short of ingenious. I suggest that they seek out an antique-radio club in their area. An antique car might be out of the price range of most of us, but anybody can own a working antique radio, feel the excitement of separating weak signals from atmospheric noise and bask in the interest his or her radio generates at the office. This kind of excitement is contagious.
There are still a few of us old-timers around--experimenters, tinkerers and engineers for life, who still can take soldering iron in hand and build something (from the seat of our pants, and not from a book or calculations) that in some regard works better than anything you can buy. And some of us still believe that real radios glow in the dark.
Ed Mustoe, Engineer, Ed Mustoe Engineering
Being in my mid-40s, I was at the crossroads of witnessing both the old-guard inventors (ham operators and tinkerers, mostly) as well as pure hobbyists (readers of Radio-Electronics, customers of surplus houses, etc.). The common tie that binds is that there are outlets for those inclined to tinker and discover by crafting. Granted, there are not as many opportunities as when we were actually a manufacturing nation and had much of the discards of an industrious nation to spark our imaginations and curiosity. It seemed robotics was destined to be a replacement, but it is too complex for a novice to get his arms around.
Maybe what we need to do is be more of an example to those coming up. I wish I had more of the people like me around when I was a wide-eyed kid.
Jon Kalfus, PE
Senior Design Engineer
ID Systems Inc.
Kids aren't the only ones being discouraged [from engineering]--it affects professionals, design and prototyping too. Having spent most of the past 15 years or so in management, I became disconnected from hands-on prototyping and watched the shrinking of componentry from the sidelines. Now I'm back to solo consulting and see with a shock that through-hole components of humanly handle-able size are becoming more and more scarce. My design decisions must now be determined in part by packaging options. There's no way I'm going to solder a 100-pin QFP part to a board or adapter, and wire-wrappable sockets don't exist for most of the new miniaturized packages. How the heck is anyone supposed to prototype anything? I learned electronics by building things and, yes, I worry about the next generation of engineers.
Julia D. Truchsess
Pragmatic Designs Inc.
Sandy Hook, Conn.