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Practical Electronics: Components and Techniques by John M. Hughes

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So, how much electronics do you need to know to be able to create something interesting, or creatively modify something that already exists? Well, that depends on where you start in the creative process. It also depends on your willingness to seek out new knowledge and acquire new skills as you go along.

The primary purpose of this book is to give you a reference for some of the more arcane (and possibly mundane) but essential aspects of electronics. These include things you would typically learn on the job and from years of experience, such as how to read the datasheet for an electronic component, determining how many things can be connected to an interface pin on a microcontroller, how to assemble various types of connectors, how to minimize noise and interference on a signal interface circuit, how to determine the resolution of an analog-to-digital converter, how various types of serial and network interfaces work, and how to use open source tools for schematic capture and PCB layout. And, of course, we will also cover the tools used in electronics work and how they are used, and we’ll examine what’s available in terms of test equipment beyond the garden-variety digital multimeter.

We’ll start off with an introduction to the underlying physics of electricity that dispenses with the water-flowing-in-a-pipe analogy and gets right to the heart of the matter with a look at how atoms pass electrons around. We’ll then examine the basic concepts of voltage and current. For those readers who might need or want a more detailed discussion of basic electrical theory, it can be found in Appendix A.

I should point out that this book is not intended to be an in-depth tutorial on electronics theory. There are already many excellent books on that topic, and to repeat that here would just be a pointless exercise in killing trees. So, while there is some introductory material to set the stage, so to speak, the primary intent of this book is to provide you with a reference for topics that aren’t usually covered in an electronics text or a step-by-step project book.

With this book, perhaps one or two of the suggested reference works in Appendix C, and your own enthusiasm and ambition, you should be able to create that gadget or system you’ve been wanting to build and have it work as you intended. And remember, it’s not the end of the world if you accidentally convert an electronic component into charcoal. It happens all the time; it’s called learning.

Who This Book Is For

This book is for anyone with a desire to build an electronic device of some sort, but, to the maximum extent possible, I have made no assumptions about your skill level. What I have assumed is that you might not be familiar with the hardware, components, tools, and techniques that are used in electronics, or perhaps you already know something about electronics but could use some help with some of the more arcane aspects of the craft.

With this book as a workbench reference and guide to more detailed sources of information, you should be able to get started on building a nifty gadget and avoid some (hopefully, most) of the pitfalls that await the unwary. I’ve made the assumption that you will follow the pointers given to learn more about the various topics this book covers, and it covers a lot. It’s simply not possible to cover all the topics presented in this book at more than just a surface level; the resulting tome would be huge. In lieu of a lot of details, I’ve tried to provide enough information to give you a basic understanding of the topics and a foundation to build upon.

So, if you’ve been thinking about something you’d like to build but aren’t sure how to go about it, or you already know a fair amount about electronics but perhaps need some help putting it all together, then this book is for you.

How This Book Is Organized

Each chapter is devoted to a specific topic, ranging from hardware (screws, nuts, and bolts) to tools, and from switches, relays, and passive components to active solid-state parts. Each chapter is designed to allow you to easily find a specific subject and get quick answers to your questions:

Chapter 1: Electrons in Motion

The first chapter provides a high-level “top-of-the-waves” look at electronics, using the notion of electrons in motion as the key to concepts such as voltage, current, and power.

Chapter 2: Fasteners and Adhesives

Often overlooked or taken for granted, fasteners and fastening methods are essential to a successful project. The choice of fasteners can also have a major effect on the aesthetics of a project, so getting the right parts for the job can make the difference between elegant and clunky.

Chapter 3: Tools

This chapter describes the basic tools needed to work with electronics (diagonal cutters, flush cutters, pliers, screwdrivers, etc.), along with some tools not commonly discussed in other texts, including things like crimp tools, rotary tools, step drills, professional grade soldering stations, and magnifiers and microscopes for surface-mount work.

Chapter 4: Tool Techniques

Short sections for each tool discuss its uses and applications, including the correct use of sockets, wrenches, and screwdrivers; how to solder various component types, including surface-mounted components; and how to correctly size the holes needed to mount components like switches, lamps, or printed circuit boards in a chassis or panel.

Chapter 5: Power Sources

An overview of power supplies for both DC and AC current, ranging from batteries to Variac-type devices, this chapter gives special attention to inexpensive DC power supplies in the form of plug-in modules (so-called wall warts). It also presents a discussion of fuses and circuit breakers and offers guidance on how to select an appropriate rating for these essential protection devices.

Chapter 6: Switches

This chapter is a survey of the types of switches available and where they are typically used. This covers conventional switches, such as toggles and panel-mount pushbuttons, along with other types, such as PCB-mounted pushbuttons and membrane-type switches.

Chapter 7: Connectors and Wiring

In electronics, almost everything connects to something, somewhere. This chapter describes the various types of connectors available, where they are commonly used, and how to assemble some of the more common types, such as DB-9, DB-25, high-density terminal blocks, and the 0.1-inch grid pin connectors found on Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and BeagleBone boards. It also covers related topics, such as soldering, crimping, and insulation displacement (IDC) techniques for connector assembly. This chapter deals mostly with those connectors that a typical human being can easily assemble without resorting to a microscope and tweezers, or a special tool that costs hundreds of dollars.

Chapter 8: Passive Components

Passive components are the framework on which circuits are built. This chapter describes commonly encountered passive components such as resistors, capacitors, and inductors, including both through-hole and surface-mounted types. It also describes how to read component markings and how to understand component ratings for power, temperature, and tolerance.

Chapter 9: Active Components

This chapter covers various types of active components, from diodes to ICs, with photos and package outline drawings to illustrate the various types. It also discusses key points to bear in mind when working with active components, such as static sensitivity, heat damage from soldering, and some of the package types available for surface-mount components.

Chapter 10: Relays

Relays might be an old technology, but they are still essential in electronics. This chapter covers the various types of relays available and their typical applications. It describes types ranging from low-current, TTL-compatible reed relays to high-power types used to control AC current. It also covers techniques for controlling a relay from a low-voltage circuit.

Chapter 11: Logic

Along with a condensed description of basic logic components (OR, NOR, AND, NAND, etc.), logic families (TTL, CMOS), and some examples of combinatorial logic circuits, this chapter also presents an introduction to microprocessors and microcontrollers, in terms of what is currently available and what you might need or encounter in your own activities.

Chapter 12: Discrete Control Interfaces

This chapter covers the basics of using a discrete signal (a single logic I/O port) to control things in the physical world. It also includes a discussion on the use of buffers, using both individual transistors and ICs, along with a discussion of current sink and sourcing considerations.

Chapter 13: Analog Interfaces

This chapter describes the basics of analog interfaces, both input and output, and includes discussions on resolution, speed, and the effects of quantization. It also covers aspects of analog I/O, such as voltage range, buffering, and circuit design considerations to reduce noise and improve performance.

Chapter 14: Data Communication Interfaces

Topics include common interfaces, from board-level SPI and I2C to RS-232, RS-485, USB, and Ethernet. This chapter also covers wireless interfaces, such as generic 2.45 GHz devices, 802.11 wireless networking, ZigBee, and Bluetooth. Serial and parallel, the two primary interface families, are introduced, followed by a discussion of synchronous and asynchronous modes of operation. The remainder of the chapter is organized into sections that cover each topic with a high-level technical discussion, and representative component part numbers are provided where applicable.

Chapter 15: Printed Circuit Boards

This chapter is an overview of PCB design and layout, with a focus on technique rather than specific tools. The chapter starts off with an introduction to PCB technology and concepts, including circuit board substrate materials and circuit trace (or track, if you will) pattern etching and plating techniques. An example from a real project is used to demonstrate the basic steps involved in creating a double-sided PCB layout. The chapter wraps up with a collection of general guidelines and tips.

Chapter 16: Packaging

A guide to the various options available for physically housing electronics, this chapter includes a discussion of plastic versus metal, sources for chassis components, and the use of unconventional enclosures to create unique packaging prototypes. Examples are given for commercial off-the-shelf packages in the form of small plastic enclosures, metal enclosures using both aluminum and steel sheet metal, extruded aluminum packages, and heavy-gauge kits for more demanding applications.

Chapter 17: Test Equipment

A short tour of inexpensive test equipment, this chapter starts with the ubiquitous digital multimeter and moves on to oscilloscopes, signal generators, and logic analyzers. The examples include readily available, low-cost devices such as single- and dual-channel pocket digital oscilloscopes from China, and a multi-waveform signal generator module for the Arduino. The intent is to give you some suggestions that don’t involve breaking the bank to purchase high-end test equipment (not that there’s anything wrong with high-end gear—it’s generally excellent; it just happens to be rather expensive).

Appendix A: Essential Electronics and AC Circuits

For anyone interested, or anyone who could benefit from it for their projects, this appendix presents a terse, high-level overview of basic electronics theory beyond what Chapter 1 provides. Topics covered include capacitance, series and parallel resistor and capacitor circuits, basic AC circuit theory, inductance, noise, impedance, and grounding techniques.

Appendix B: Schematics

This appendix defines the basics of schematic drawings, with examples of commonly encountered symbols. Light on text but heavy on graphics, this appendix is intended to be a place where you can quickly find the definition for a particular symbol. It also describes some available open source tools for creating schematic diagrams.


The glossary provides definitions of many key terms and acronyms used in this book.

Appendix C: Bibliography

This appendix provides a bibliography of the suggested reference texts presented throughout the book, organized by topic.

Appendix D: Resources

This appendix includes URLs for electronics distributors, sources for mechanical components, and vendors of surplus components of various types, as well as a brief discussion of buying electronics components and other items from vendors on eBay, with some guidance and caveats.

Appendix E: Components Lists

This appendix lists most all of the IC components and modules mentioned in this book. While this collection is by no means comprehensive, it does contain enough representative parts from each category to provide a solid starting point for a new design.

Conventions Used in This Book

The following typographical conventions are used in this book:


Indicates new terms, URLs, email addresses, filenames, and file extensions.

Constant width

Used for program listings, as well as within paragraphs to refer to program elements such as variable or function names, databases, data types, environment variables, statements, and keywords.

Constant width bold

Shows commands or other text that should be typed literally by the user.

Constant width italic

Shows text that should be replaced with user-supplied values or by values determined by context.

This element signifies a tip or suggestion.

This element indicates a warning or caution.

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There aren’t any endorsements in this book, at least not intentionally. I’ve made reference to many different component manufacturers, suppliers, and authors, but I’ve tried to be evenhanded about it. Any trademarks mentioned are the property of their respective owners and appear here solely for reference. As for the photography, I tried to use my own tools and other items as much as possible, and although an image may show a particular brand or model, that doesn’t mean it’s the only type available. It just happens to be the one that I own and use in my own shop. In some cases, I’ve used images with permission or from sources such as the Library of Congress, and this is noted as appropriate.


This book would not have been possible without the enduring patience and support of my family. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the photography and organizational assistance of my daughter, Seren, who put up with my fussiness and took yet another picture of something or other in the light tent for me when I didn’t like the pose or lighting of the first (or second, or third) attempt. And, of course, my lovely wife, Carol, who would bring me things to eat in my shop and fret about me losing sleep.

Special thanks to Mike Westerfield for his technical review and input. It’s always good to have more than one pair of eyes on the details, and Mike pointed out some rough spots that needed some editing and clarification. The end result is a better book, and it just goes to show why review is a crucial part of any development process.

The feedback from readers of the early release has been invaluable. Special thanks to those who suggested additions for the bibliography in Appendix D (you know who you are) and for the many helpful comments and constructive criticisms.

I would also like to thank the editorial staff at O’Reilly for the opportunity to work with them once again, especially Brian Sawyer for his willingness to put up with me in general, Mike Loukides for giving me this opportunity to write another book for O’Reilly, and the Atlas team for responding to my technical issues in a timely and helpful manner.

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