DIYers, Digitial Computers, and today’s musings

Understanding Digital Computers

Understanding Digital Computers

 I snapped a picture of this Amazon page this morning. Is this real? The owner of a copy of Forrest’s paper back has a $55 asking price and he’s rejected four offers and holding fast to the asking price? 

When I read this book, I thought it was a lot like a Popeye experience.. remember, he eats his spinach, and look out!  This book is a little like pouring knowledge out of a can into your head. 

So Forrest, if you stumble onto this page, maybe you buy the rights of this book back from Radio Shack, or make it available in E book, or talk to them at least.

So many of the books I read long ago seem obsolete today, but there are treasures that would be part of a computer science course if I were designing it, and Forrest’s book would be one of  them.  Of course you know I’d be curious enough to ask questions of perspective students and I’d think there were things to learn.  Have you ever pulled a spark plug from a lawn mower or small engine? What color was the plug? Do you like to chop wood?  When you open a faucet, which way do you turn it?

I’d ask a series of questions only because I’m convinced curious people can’t help but do these things and note the results, (unless they are deprived of opportunities being warehoused in the inner city).  And, I’d want to conduct my own little experiment… how did the students answer the questions, and which students did best in the class? You might remember an experience I had years ago, and talked about… eating lunch with a famous guy who made up a series of questions from which he selected candidates to be military pilots in WWII. No, it wasn’t like he called up and invited me to lunch, I was part of a study he was paid to conduct. You normally remember being a rat in a maze, I close my eyes today and remember the room, where I sat, and where he sat at the table. I was careful not to eat like a horse, and grateful they didn’t serve BBQed Ribs. His accounts were so interesting, it was hard to eat at all.   

There’s little doubt in my mind that our Tuskegee Airmen were screened by the same test as white Airmen, and they picked the cream of the crop.  But what I’m curious about is the ratio of those who grew up in the inner city, and those who lived in the country? Are inner city kids denied experiences that are building blocks, and does this inner city upbringing handicap you in measurable ways? 

We get back to that test…the Good Doctor phrased his question “do you like to chop wood?” What amazed him was almost every pilot that did well said he liked to chop wood! And the feed back from instructors in flight school lead to the conclusion that if you answered that one question as a “no”, you were well on your way to being de-selected for flight school.  I’ll let you analyze the why…

I’ve written many times about hands on versus book learning, and I was thinking… there are times when the information in a book paints a much clearer picture of what’s going on.  Even if you pop the top off and stare inside a digital chip, there’s not much to see or learn..  

Fact is, back in the late seventies I knew a few guys that did that as part of their job,  using an electron microscope to read the contents of a masked rom… often from their competition…  It would have been far easier and quicker to read the memory contents on a page along with the remarks.. if only they could..   

One of the most poetic drawings I remember was a detached drawing of a relay logic circuit used to check parity of an originating number in a relay logic telephone switch. Since it could be part of a billing record, they really wanted to get it right, and looking at the drawing was an experience similar to hearing a favorite musical score, it was elegant, it was a form of beauty, but staring at the equipment bay you saw tubes, coils, mercury filled reed relays, cool… but not poetic.

Here’s a page  I found today, and on it is a mention of Forrest Mims, one of my heros.  This page gives him credit for the PIP, and Forrest’s presentation of how the PIP works is like a musical score.  What you walk away with is a vivid picture of how a computer works, you can literally memorize all the op codes, and see the processor working in your head as you read.  The book can NOT be found on line today, the title “Understanding Digital Computers”.

Forrest.. does this mean the book will be copied overseas and made for sale?

Years and years after reading Forrest’s book I told Forrest it was like a secret weapon, I went on to tell him that anyone reading his book right before taking a certain test in Telco would pass! It allowed a few clerical people I knew to move from clerical positions being phased out to good paying entry-level tech jobs. I bought a few of Forrest’s books for people and told a lot of other people to buy them..  

You know what’s coming don’t you? Forrest said.. “George.. I was writing that book as I was doing it.”   the pages Forrest wrote were minutes behind the bread board work, and loading the addresses and executing the contents. Hands on!  (Hands on DIY!) and don’t we know near magic things happen when you put your hands on it..     

If you remember the first time you saw a reduction gear box with one gear in it?


and stuttered “wow!”.

That little book of Forrest’s  is like a spring-board, it may have been written in 1978, but it’s as valid today as it ever was, and he has written a lot of good books on Electrical Devices, it all helps to develop critical thought  in machines and their designs, and it translates over to other things once you see how similar they are.  

Thanks Forrest, thanks Radio Shack..  and Heathkit too 🙂





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8 Responses to DIYers, Digitial Computers, and today’s musings

  1. bob g says:

    boy do i miss the days of heathkit, knightkit, and lafayette.

    i remember dreaming over those catalogs, looking forward to the day i could afford this or that, problem was by the time i got to that point in life, they are all gone!

    i remember buying all of forest’s notebook series, and was always amazed at how he could make thing understandable to just about anyone, even complex things a kid could get his head around with a bit of work.

    btw. some of those heathkits show up on ebay, in sealed boxes and unassembled, they bring serious money!

    bob g

    • George B. says:

      To this day, I still give thanks to my wife. I was a not so highly paid analyst at the time. It was a job that they shamed techs into taking a turn at, a desk job looking at reams of data… but only 10 minutes from home. Everything I did in that job is as obsolete as dialtone and copper wire. How many guys do you know who got a floppy disk drive from there wives that cost $600 at the time? I nearly cried as I opened the box.. the housing was at least 8 times as big as a new laptop, but hey, the box had a hole for a second drive if you could ever afford it…

      Now the good news, I swapped an email with Forrest, asked him if he knew his no longer available books are too costly for us blue color folks. He says he has all the rights to his work, and will make E books of them.. I suggest he give in some priority.

      I was thinking.. here’s the man we need running the DOE/NREL, a highly ethical man that wouldn’t say it if it weren’t soo. Or… how bout we give him NASA to run?

      • bob g says:

        if he is up for the job, or in other words would take it, i would certainly start a letter writing campaign in his support!

        nasa would be a great fit, the doe should be disbanded, and the nrel needs a complete overhaul from the ground up! no since strapping a decent man with that job, maybe give someone like newt the nrel to overhaul, and if the doe must exist let him do that one too. both of those organizations are more political than practical, so newt would be a good fit, nasa on the other hand does some good work, and forest sure could do well there.

        in my opinion anyways.

        actually on second thought, maybe make him a czar, overlord of nasa, doe, and nrel! i like the sound of that!

        ya thats the ticket!

        could you imagine someone of his intellect being in charge of oversight of these entities?

        of course if i were him, i would tell em to go pound sand!

        bob g

  2. George B. says:

    Forrest has it figured.. he’s doing what he likes to do 🙂

  3. SW Lee says:

    Hi George,
    Guess most of us hanging out here belong to the BC generation (before computer) and i have my story to tell.
    back in the late 70s, i inherited a god sent 7 transistor shortwave radio. this was when i scanned the SW2 band one evening and found Radio Netherland giving out electronic lesson thru the air for free.

    weeks later, i got my tuition papers package that include a 45rpm vinyl. if i remember correctly, it was the voice of Mr Edward Stuart that thought me the fundamental of electronic.

    over the months more papers came thru and i become quite competence in electronic field this way.

    as a school kid, i was also broke all the time. i then acquire the reputation of collecting any unwanted electronic gear from my school mates family to built up my components stock for my projects.

    the 12AX pre amp and 7AU final amp valves that i use back in those days are still popular to this day!

    this skill of mine had been put into good use throughout my life. thanks to Radio Natherland and Mr Stuart

    • George B. says:

      Hi Lee,

      Good story! there was a time when I understood exactly how the superhet worked. I learned it from a book written by an Author who wrote in a Forrest Mims Style.

  4. George and Friends,
    Thanks for the very kind comments about the Radio Shack books. Because I have no formal electronics training, those books were my entry into the world of electronics. I had no idea they would become as popular as they did. I am making serious plans to convert many of my books into e-books as soon as a major new project is completed. I may also sign and sell online a few hundred left-over Radio Shack books. Please check out my column in MAKE magazine when you have a chance. MAKE publishes lots of material you might find of interest.

    • bob g says:

      wow, i am truely honored to respond to the “man”!

      i can’t tell you how many of your radio shack books i have bought over the years. the tough thing is finding those books now!

      sadly i have lost those older books and would love to get copies when they are available.

      thank you for posting!

      bob g

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