back to article How the tech toy century has troubled Santa's sack

It is, as the more observant may have noticed, Christmas time again. In all decent households, this marks the traditional giving and receiving of tech toys, many millions of which will have been hauled around the world by Santa and his reindeer. The very best aspect of such a magical supply chain is that it eases the …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Phillips Radionics kits ...

    in the 1970s UK. I started high school knowing more about electronics than the teachers.

    Then building a ZX80 ...

  2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "what Santa might be bringing 20 years from now"

    A bottle of mineral water, a solar charger and iodine pills ?

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Don't forget the other invention that made our times what they are: the lightweight rechargeable battery. And I don't mean for all those electronic gadgets.

    Right now I've got one battery recharging and another to follow it. They're for the cordless pruner that I'm going to need to trim the branches the gales have partly blown out of a conifer. They also power a few other cordless gardening tools and a drills. There's another charger and battery, almost but not quite interchangeable for other cordless tools and a third almost but not quite identical battery for the cordless vacuum cleaner. I can't imagine why the EU spent so long faffing about a standard for phone chargers while ignoring the heavy stuff.

    And a merry Christmas to you all (Where's the Santa icon?)

    1. JimmyPage Silver badge

      the lightweight rechargeable battery.

      so close, but missed at the last with the multitude of various chargers.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I can't imagine why the EU spent so long faffing about a standard for phone chargers while ignoring the heavy stuff.

      Low-hanging fruit. Legislating for stuff people actually care about takes more work, and risks upsetting the voters.

    3. PB90210

      The EU faffed around with a standard for chargers because so many devices have built-in battery packs.

      Doing the same for removable battery packs... first pick a voltage...

  4. DJV Silver badge

    "the microscopic memory of a politician's WhatsApp message cache"

    Thanks for that - gave me a big Christmas Guffaw*!

    (* which is less painful than a Gruffalo after the Christmas sprouts!)

  5. abend0c4 Silver badge

    The creative maker ... has never had it so good

    I fear that may be coming to an end. With the transition to surface-mount components and more custom silicon, the casual hobbyist is finding some of the options are closing off. It's true that you can get any number of cheap, poorly-documented modules that suit the use cases that allow them to be made in millions, but, if you're after a niche solution, you may not be so lucky.

    Having said that, a lot of old electronics enthusiasts, accustomed to octal valve bases and tag strip, found the first ICs far too fiddly. But things move on, a new year is on the horizon, people find interests that suit their skills.

    And it could be worse. I smell sprouts...

    1. Henry Hallan

      Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

      I disagree. The maker movement is active and growing and feeding into the amateur radio community. Yes, you can build using modules, or you can combine software with Pi or Arduino, or even construct with discrete components.

      Thanks to Internet, webpages, YouTube and social media, constructor knowledge and knowledgeable advice is easy to access, and projects on GitHub and the like allow makers to cooperate on things far outside the scope of one hobbyist.

      We literally have never had it so good

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

        Both views are OK. The Pi and the like are fine at a higher level of integration but being able to fangle things at a lower level is something to be treasured too. I suppose it's a bit like software. High level abstractions such as SQL and assembler both have their place. OTOH the Z80 was the last assembly language I wrote in.

        1. Henry Hallan
          Thumb Up

          Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

          The Arduino chips are programmed in C, but PIC devices are in assembler. If you really want to go low level, gadgets like PAL/GAL devices are still available.

          The larger SMD packages (I use 2512 resistors, for example) are really no harder to solder than through-wire components - but they give significantly better RF performance. As I approach my 6th decade, my hands and eyes seem to still be managing

          The last assembler I used was Blackfin - and I was paid to do it.

          1. HuBo

            Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

            I love ARM assembly myself, from ARMv4T onwards, it is clean, elegant, and featureful, and programmed through the GNU Assembler (binutil's gas, no sprouts required) allows for register aliasing (renaming), and very nice macros. A thing of beauty, I highly recommend it.

            1. druck Silver badge

              Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

              The old 26 bit ARMs with the processor status flags in to top bits of the program counter were even nicer to program, 32 bit is a bit boring by comparison, and 64 bit ARM without conditional instructions could be any old RISC.

              1. HuBo

                Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

                Eh-eh! I must say that I've somewhat disliked every new assembly they've developed (ARMv6/Cortex, Aarch64), until I got more used to it. In Aarch64, there are CSEL and CSINC instructions that can replace some conditional MOVEQ/MOVNE, ADDPL/ADDMI. But yeah the potential was greater earlier (then again, recent branch predictors likely provide some good support for jumpy code perf ).

          2. Mage Silver badge

            Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

            PICs can be programmed in C (poor, because no HW stack for parameters), Basic or JAL (best). No need for assembler even on 16Fxxx family PIC.

          3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

            I have to say that my daily Hackaday feed ranges from people doing high-level stuff with RPis and 3D printers, to folks building their own CPUs from discrete logic. There are plenty of folks grinding the tops off those SMT chips to peer inside. I'd agree the makers are still going strong.

    2. Mage Silver badge

      Re: Surface Mount

      On mil-spec stuff and Alumina substrates in late 1960s. I worked on 1" x 2" alumina wafers in early 1970s with SMD devices and printed resistors.

      On industrial consumer electronics since late 1980s.

      Soldering or reworking BGAs needs specialist gear, but a regular 3mm tip soldering iron and stripboard can be used for SMD. Solder to track side. Split a track to two with craft knife either side of holes. Solder up to 64 pin SMD ICs via DIL adaptors.

      Octal bases obsoleted by 1945 and tag strips during 1950s. PCBs are since mid 1950s. ICs only widely used from early 1970s and stripboard AKA Veroboard old hat by then. That's 50 years ago.

    3. David Hicklin Bronze badge

      Re: The creative maker ... has never had it so good

      > the casual hobbyist is finding some of the options are closing off.

      This is so true, many modern devices are available in surface mount only and if you have older eyes and hands (like me), well just forget surface mount - too small, too fiddly.

      Having stated my hobby in the late 70's I have seen lots of change, usually for the better but for the hobbyist I fear SM will be the death knell and we will just be left connecting pre-made modules and programming a few PICs...

      ps I love PICs, so not intending to put them down here!

  6. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Satan Klaus

    Satan Klaus said:

    You will own nothing and you will be happy.

    Despite the naughty list (sorry, social credit score) showing you in the clear.

  7. Bebu Silver badge


    The lead ore was galena (a lead sulphide mineral.) If you still have AM broadcasts you can still build a crystal set. I remember as a kid borrowing (1/2 inching) a bit of galena from parent's mineral collection and a ferrite coil, tuning capacitor and earphones recovered from a defunct transister radio in late 60s. Worked fine in the evening but with only one local radio station the program was usually "Garner Ted Armstrong - The World Tomorrow" but sometimes you scored some vintage BBC radio (wireless) comedy or extremely vintaged australian Greenbottle ("Yes, what?") episodes.

    At the time I thought thermionic valves were the bee's knees but I wasn't allowed to muck about with the required voltages and HT batteries were already history :( The circuits were really simple - more like plumbing than electronics ;)

    A few years later I remember you could buy a small toy crystal set pretty much as above but with a germanium(?) signal diode, in a small plastic box about the sized of a Camels softpack :) - about the same price too I think but unfortunately not always a different market.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      long wire antennas, coils, capacitors, headphones, and the crystal detector

      Exactly as I started out in the sixties, but moving rapidly to transistors. I bounced off valve amplifiers but the parents were a lot happier with 9v batteries for transistor circuits.

      When I started work in the late seventies, our technical training included both valve circuit design and microprocessors... and these days I amuse myself designing 1970s processors.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Galena

      "I wasn't allowed to muck about with the required voltages"

      Sad when parents take that attitude. There's nothing like the warm glow of a row of heaters. The rather hotter glow from the anode of one of a pair of 807s that had gone unstable was a different matter. The solution to that was a spare, swap them round to find a stable combination. Repeat every few months as required.

    4. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Galena

      If you still have AM broadcasts you can still build a crystal set. [Snip] A few years later I remember you could buy a small toy crystal set pretty much as above but with a germanium(?) signal diode

      It's worth remembering that cat's whisker detectors were primitive Schottky diodes, so if you want to play about with a crystal radio but don't want the faff of getting the crystal to detect, just grab a 1N5817.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Galena

        The 1N60 is from 1950s and still made (though different case & recipe). Outperforms all Schottky diodes for sensitivity, at least up to 30 MHz.

        Copper Oxide detectors can be made at home.

    5. kennethrc

      Re: Galena

      > but with a germanium(?) signal diode,

      Yeah, as the then-newish silicon diodes had a higher forward(?) voltage so were less sensitive, IIRC

  8. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    Ahhh the memories

    Of dusty old factories where 100s would toil away at manual capstan lathes/ copy mills with a pipe smoking foreman lurking between the machines looking for faults while the inspectors glowered in their caves and high above the time and motion people look down upon the mere manual workers while trying to decide if the workers were slacking on the job or working fast as possible while the pay office wondered if the Kray brothers would turn up when the truck carrying the pay cash did.

    All those memories, lost like tears in the oil.

    Meanwhile in the 6 unit factory I attend 7 robotic cells , 6 CNC lathes and a 5 CNC 5 axis mills pump out far more than the factory of memory using 22 people and not a single Kray brother in sight(or any cash for that matter)

    Thats what the electronics/computer revolution has done to my line of business. no more sweating over a hot machine tool spinning handles.... nope I sit in an office sweating over crummy CAD models trying to turn them in solid metal while the production manager glowers at me going "Is it done yet?" ... not THAT much has changed

    Merry xmas and have one of these >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge

      Re: Ahhh the memories

      And soon you will be replaced by an AI!

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

        Re: Ahhh the memories

        And soon you will be replaced by an AI!

        Which will promptly design teapots with the spout on the same side as the handle and the lid on the bottom.

        1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

          Re: Ahhh the memories

          We dont need AI for that, some of our customer's designs have been worse.....

          1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

            Re: Ahhh the memories

            Are there any you can talk about?

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Ahhh the memories

      Weaving sheds are reputedly a lot quieter than they were not heavy shuttles aren't being knocked back & forth. And safer when the flying shuttle actually does go flying. Unfortunately there are very few left in these parts.

  9. Gene Cash Silver badge

    I got my TRS-80 Model I 44 years ago today

    Tomorrow when my SparkFun stuff gets here, I'll be teaching the Raspberry Pi how to tell me if the garage light is on. It already knows how to turn it off.

    When I ride home, the phone tells the Pi to open the garage door when I enter the geofence. Then it gets the odometer from the bike via Bluetooth. (except for the bike built before Bluetooth was invented) Then it sends the odometer to the desktop, which puts it in a maintenance spreadsheet. It looks that that spreadsheet and determines if there's upcoming/missed maintenance, and sends me an email about it. It waits 30 seconds after the beam breaks and closes the garage door.

    And it all started with that little machine with 4K RAM, 2 string variables, and 26 single-letter numeric variables, a 64x16 screen, and write-maybe tape.

    1. I could be a dog really Bronze badge

      Re: I got my TRS-80 Model I 44 years ago today

      4k RAM, now that's just bragging. When I started out, I'd have given my eye teeth - or at least, a LOT of saved up pocket money - for 4k of RAM. My first computer came with 1K, and the extra 6 chips to get to 4K cost a fair bit IIRC. I recall eventually maxing out the board at 8k (16 chips - 1kx4bits, static) and eventually bought the add on board to enable up to 24k - though I couldn't afford to fill that.

      Cue regulation comedy classic

    2. stiine Silver badge

      Re: I got my TRS-80 Model I 44 years ago today

      A write-maybe oh-please-read-this-time tape...

      We had an Altair...

  10. Gene Cash Silver badge

    54 year old DC power supply

    So I needed something more useful than my cheap Chinese POS.

    I stopped at SkyCraft and bought a Hewlett-Packard Harrison 6291A DC power supply for $50.

    Imagine my surprise upon discovering it was designed in July 1966 according to the manual, and the PCB is stamped 13 May 1969.

    And it still works, except the meter reads half the real reading.

    Now that's a true Christmas miracle.

    1. Yet Another Hierachial Anonynmous Coward

      Re: 54 year old DC power supply

      Ah, proper H(ewlett) P(ackard) engineering. Note Hewlett-Packard, not consumer HP.

      Wait until it nags you to update it's drivers, bricks itself, insists on a subscription to keep running, then declares itself obsolete and in need of replacement.

      There's a reason why HP gained a worldwide reputation for quality, and it had nothing to do with inkjet printers.

      Your PSU will still be working fine when everything that leaves HP's warehouses today is decomposing landfill.

      Look after it. It was around when men walked on the moon.

  11. Pete 2 Silver badge


    > what Santa might be bringing 20 years from now

    Well, it could be a neural link pleasure generator or it could be a loaf of bread. It's difficult to know which way the world will go.

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Crossroads

      A box of paperclips, delivered to your house already full of nothing but paperclips.

  12. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Mobile devices do everything analogue gadgets ever did

    "Mobile devices do everything analogue gadgets ever did"

    ...except volume controls! They could act more like analogue volume controls, but no, almost every "device" out there with a digital volume control uses very few discreet steps such that you can never get it set just right. Always a little too loud or a little too quiet because they cheaped out on the design :-/

    1. HuBo

      Re: Mobile devices do everything analogue gadgets ever did

      Could be that analog audio kit volume control knobs were log-scaled (to fit our hearing) while digital audio volume control is linear-scaled (to fit the hearing of space aliens).

  13. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

    Etymology of "television set"

    The electronic gadget as a gift option first crawled onto land a hundred years ago.... You had to collect the set to make it all work, hence the name that adheres to tellies to this day.

    I was curious whether this was just a folk etymology or actually supported by evidence. It appears that "set" in this usage is indeed synechdochal for "a collection of components", though not necessarily collected in stages nor assembled by the end user; more likely simply in the sense that a complete, working television or other similar apparatus involved a number of discrete components visible to the end user.

    The usage is somewhat more than a century old; that post cites an 1891 example from the OED, for "telegraph set". Google Books claims hits back as far as 1835, though with older documents in GB you have to be careful, and I haven't tried to verify any older than the 1880s.

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