From Scientific American, May 2002, used by permission.Several years ago I walked into Fry's Electronics in Palo Alto, Calif., and asked for an inductor. It is hardly an unusual electronic component; every radio project needs one. Yet the store clerks looked at me blankly. Fry's once had a reputation as the first stop for young engineers stocking a garage workshop. But in its components aisle, I found just a few bags of parts.
"The art of home-brewing one's own electronic equipment is pretty much a lost one," says Chuck Penson, a radio ham in Tucson, Ariz. The D.I.Y. movement that spawned the computer revolution--and inspired untold numbers of tinkerers to pursue careers in science--has stopped moving. Heathkit ceased making its electronic kits 10 years ago. Popular Electronics and Byte magazines have hung up their soldering irons. Meccano, the maker of Erector sets, went bankrupt in 2000. Last year Scientific American dropped the Amateur Scientist column, citing a long decline in readership, and Edmund Scientific sold off its consumer catalogue and shut its famous retail store in Barrington, N.J.
"It was a Mecca for the science enthusiast," recalls Nicole Edmund, vice president of marketing and sales at Edmund Industrial Optics and granddaughter of the company's founder. But the store's sales had been drooping for most of the past decade, she says, and the company wanted to focus on its more profitable optics business.
What we seem to have witnessed is the fragmentation of amateur science. Heathkit, for example, appealed to a broad range of people. Some built kits for kits' sake. Others just wanted to save money: Heathkits were usually cheaper and better than store-bought radios or TVs. As manufacturing costs went down and quality went up, though, off-the-shelf products gained the advantage. The same went for telescopes and most other gizmos. "When I got started, I could not have purchased what I could have built," says Dennis DiCicco, an editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. "Today if you want a telescope, you can afford one. You're not going to save much money if you build one."
As the market split between craftsmen and appliance owners, magazines had to adapt or die. In the late 1970s computer hobbyists of all ability levels devoured Byte. As PCs went mainstream, the magazine played down home-brew projects. Advanced amateurs, meanwhile, outgrew the projects and gravitated to niche publications. Circuit Cellar, started by ex-Byte columnist Steve Ciarcia, succeeded with a new publishing model: as its readers became more sophisticated, so did the articles. "I saw that you had to move upscale with them, or they'd move away from you," Ciarcia says.
Indeed, dedicated amateurs are now quasi-professionals. The Society for Amateur Scientists conference taking place next month in Philadelphia will have sessions on how to publish your research and how to claim a tax deduction for your basement lab. Discoveries by amateur astronomers have made headlines. At the other end of the market, people with an occasional science craving can satisfy it at, say, the Nature Company. And for those who fall in the middle, a few kit suppliers (especially in robotics and music production) and magazines (such as Nuts & Volts and Poptronics, formerly Radio Electronics) carry on.
Of course, market fragmentation is not the only trend affecting amateur science. There are more leisure activities than ever to choose from and less time to pursue them. For electronics retailers, the general decline of D.I.Y. is merely one among many changes in the industry. Brad Jonas of Green Brook Electronics in Green Brook, N.J., one of the few mom-and-pop electronics shops left in the greater New York area, talks about death by a thousand cuts. People who need parts now get them by mail-order (although they come to the store for advice), small companies buy equipment rather than build it in-house, and repair stores swap out whole modules rather than replace individual components. Even Radio Shack has had financial troubles, although the restructuring it announced last December does not affect electronic parts.
Evidently, the something-for-everyone model epitomized by Heathkit and the Amateur Scientist column can't compete anymore. Specialized sources and Internet newsgroups cater to each skill level. But much of the mentoring and serendipity that the diverse community of amateurs offered has been lost. It is hard not to regret its passing.
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