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Australian Electronics Nostalgia – “Funway Kits”

Hello readers

After viewing the trailer for Karl von Muller’s upcoming documentary State of Electronics – A discussion on the Electronics Industry in Australia, it brought back some fond memories of bashing about with a range of kits from many years ago. So today we will have a look at a few of them. But first some history (feel free to correct me here)…

In 1968 an enthusiastic man by the name of Dick Smith started a small car radio shop in Neutral Bay, Sydney. Although he had many ups and downs – through extremely hard work, marketing in ways Australia had never seen before (see the bus below), and revolutionising electronics and computer retailing in this country – he built up Dick Smith Electronics to a company so large he sold it for a huge sum and moved on to other successful ventures. You can download his biography from here.

Dick Smith Electronics’ stores were the place to go for components, a huge range of electronic kits, an interesting range of computers (in [earlier] kit and assembled form), amateur and CB radio – all the fun stuff. You would almost need a shotgun to clear the store out on a Thursday night or Saturday afternoon. There were also repair centres in each capital city and head office, that employed people to fix things for warranty service (and they would fix kits for a price as well). Before the internet one would stalk the mailbox waiting for the new catalogue to arrive. I even worked there for four years in the 1990s. Unfortunately due to market changes and carbon-based factors, the stores are now just glorified flat-screen TV and video game outlets.

However, partly to educate people (and probably to make more money), Dick Smith wrote a series of books titled “Fun Way into Electronics”, starting with the first in 1979. This entailed twenty very basic electronic circuits, such as flashing LEDs using a multivibrator, basic transistor amplifiers, and a “beer powered radio” (I wonder how many children tried that fuel cell?). The book had paper overlays which you would glue onto a piece of chipboard, and screw the components down to form a circuit. Later editions would use a plastic board with holes:


The Funway book was very popular (and still is with some schools, Scout groups and so on), so Dick published volume two from 1980. Finally some “real” projects – twenty kits that required soldering and could be of some real use in the world. Items such as a shortwave radio, intercom, timing devices, digital counters, and a mosquito repeller of dubiuos success. However they sold very well, and in 1984 the final volume of the Funway trilogy was published – another ten projects – “each with an integrated circuit!”

The books were illustrated in a very clear, simple way sometimes hand-drawn but very neat. I suspect some women in the books were meant to resemble associates of Dick Smith, and in general the book is a ‘snapshot’ of the times. For example, the transistor radio:


Please note that I will not email you a .pdf of any of the books mentioned, so kindly don’t ask – they’re still Copyright DSE Pty Ltd. Part of my reasoning for this article was the fact that the Funway era has now drawn to a close. Whilst recently wandering about in a Dick Smith store for some reminiscing, I noticed the remaining stock of Funway 2 kits on the clearance bench and the matching volume two books, which compelled me to rescue them.

At the register, the sales clerk asked me “Why would you want to make a radio?” … ugh

So let’s take a trip back to 1980 and see how they perform!

[Update 07/07/2013]

Wow! I found another kit – project seventeen, the LED level display. It was designed to show audio levels in a blinky form – the addition of a pair to your home or car hi-fi would put those analogue VU meters to shame whilst impressing your friends. When fitted inside the optional box and the label applied, you could be as cool as the guy below looking like he’s getting revved up for a night at the discotheque:


So time to give it a whirl. I remember this kit back in 1985 when a friend gave it to me from someone else, he cut off the LEDs for himself, and I ended up with the useless board. Thanks Tony. Well 28 years later here I am with the brand-new version:


Otherwise everything was as expected, all the parts and the poor PCB included:



Construction was relatively simple but tedious, 22 resistors, 10 diodes, 10 LEDs, 11 transistors etc… just careful and steady work to get it done. This would have kept a teenager busy for a good weekend inside. After an hour and an espresso the board was populated:


Not wanting to chop up any audio leads to test the kit, I’ve instead put some pins on the power supply and input pairs for a quick demonstration. For a signal I’ve attached a function generator and fed a sine wave at various low frequencies. Here it is in action:

In hindsight that’s a pretty fun kit, and with some careful work it would have looked good in a contemporary audio system. It probably could have been done a lot easier with an LM3914 however the cost may have been prohibitive at the time.

Next we have Project Sixteen –  the Electronic Siren. This is basically two 555 oscillators, one for the sound, and the other for the duration – which combined with a basic amplifier make a “hee-haw” sound. This kit would have been included as a good sales add-on for the Home and Car alarm kit also described in the book. Typical of the series, when you purchased a kit it would come with the bare minimum, just enough to make it work (excluding the battery):


Naturally a full range of extras would be mentioned in the book, available from the store when required. The PCB looks like it was made at home – examining this one I can now be more grateful than ever for silk-screening and solder-masking on current PCBs:


To make annoying people easier I will add in a SPDT toggle switch, and use some IC sockets for the 555s. Assembling the kit took no time at all, the instructions were clear and easy to follow:


Starting the soldering caused some flashbacks to my childhood, which were interesting. Assembling this at my age was much quicker than as a young lad – my soldering style has changed, and I also have a Fluke 233 to check the resistor and capacitor values. There was one nod to the future in the kit, the polyester capacitor was replaced by an MKT. The only reason to use the IC sockets was so I could reuse the 555s later on. Moving on, here is the finished article:


And did it work? Absolutely – have a listen:

It is really quite loud, that 0.25 watt speaker is being pushed quite hard. According to the book you can connect a horn-speaker directly to the output. Furthermore there are suggestions on how to alter the frequency and duration of the sounds. So overall, this was an easy to assemble kit that was still some fun even to this day.

The next kit to examine is Project Eleven – FM wireless microphone. This consists of an oscillator of around 100 MHz, which receives a signal via the tiny electret microphone. The book illustration shows a Donna Summer lookalike with a guitar, however one could imagine people building these kits and using them as ‘bugs’ and generally getting up to no good:


Again, the clear images and instruction layouts are constant throughout the book. There were two errata sheets included with the components, as the design has been altered a few times. However they were easy enough to follow, and the correct replacement parts had been included:


Once more the PCB was a product of the time. After having issues with the siren kit’s PCB, I gave this one a good squirt with some Servisol PCB cleaner – that made a difference when it was time to solder:


From a beginner’s perspective, this would have been a slightly more difficult kit to assemble, due to the all the vertical resistors and the close spacing between the components. However this was to enable budding ASIO operatives to make their ‘bug’ as small as possible. From memory this is the trickiest of them all, the rest of the Funway 2 kits had generous PCB spacing. I must admit to breaking a 470 pF ceramic capacitor, but that was my own silly fault. However at the end it all came together nicely:


And it worked.  I have a feeling that the variable capacitor was damaged a little from heat due to the soldering process, for some insane reason DSE supplied a plastic-encased version. Later on I will replace it and see how we go. But for the meanwhile, with a 20cm aerial wire, I could get about 5 metres out of it with a brick wall in between. Considering the target market for this, that’s pretty good.

The next kit is Project Seven – Pocket Transistor Radio. This is a basic amplitude-modulation radio receiver making use of the MK484 radio-receiver IC. This is a bog-standard simple AM receiver circuit that dates back to the early 1970s. However, it is simple and uses very few parts. Originally the kit was sold without an earpiece or socket, but the last few batches included everything but the battery and a switch:


Once again there were two errata sheets – one explaining the different pinouts of the MK484/ZN414 radio IC, and another showing the evolution of the radio circuit, a capacitor had been replaced with a resistor. There were a couple of tricks to assembling this kit, some pin spacings were unnecessarily close together, and the leads on the antenna coils were terribly difficult for me to discern. Thankfully the book offered some great advice – use a multimeter to determine the resistance of each coil. The coil with the lower resistance is the aerial coil, and the higher resistance is the main coil. And once again I have added a power switch. After some trepidation, the main board was finished:


Ah – where is the 9V battery? With regards to the circuit, versions as published in the book and the errata sheet are quite inefficient with regards to power usage. Let’s have a look:


As part of my electronics learning process, I like to follow the circuit through to see what is going on. The book has the power being supplied by a 9V battery, then using a 6.8V Zener diode. What was the point of that? Instead, I put a link on the PCB instead of the zener, and now the power is from a single AA cell. Much, much cheaper to run now, the receiver only draws nine milliamps of current:

And to think some people have to recharge their music players every day. The radio worked from the first time the battery was connected, and is working very well. The volume/gain is controlled by the 5k trimpot, I have this set to around half-way to a comfortable volume. The reception is highly relative to the positioning of the ferrite rod aerial, so I have locked it into place using some blutac. It receives local AM stations very well, and also some rural stations from interstate. For the price and the amount of parts, this is a very simple, easy to construct receiver with excellent power consumption – which is begging for a solar panel for daytime use. Maybe next week! So we have another success.

Update! I found another kit – the “Universal Timer”. This is basically an over-engineered 555 timer that controls a simple SPDT relay. The 555 is configured as a monostable timer, and the duration controlled by a 1 mega ohm trimpot. I have a feeling the design brief was for an egg timer, based on the illustrations:


Once again, the illustrations of the final product don’t bear much of a resemblance to the contents of the basic kit:


Again, the PCB was quite basic and needed a good clean:


Construction was quite simple, all of the parts fitted nicely where they were meant to. Not bad considering the PCB was designed around thirty years ago, and the parts are much more recent – especially the relay. To make some sort of demonstration I had to add a few extras – a power switch, the piezo buzzer, IC socket and a potentiometer instead of the trimpot:


Though once again it worked, and I actually have a use for it – a shower timer for an intelligent person who seems to forget the concept of time when in the bathroom. A quick trip to the store for a moisture-proof IP67-rated box and we’ll be set.

Unfortunately with the discontinuation of these Funway kits means another opportunity to teach people has gone. I hope you found this article interesting, and helped motivate you to expand your knowledge and those of others in the STEM (science, technology, electronics and maths) area. If you have any Funway projects to share, please get in touch. Some higher-resolution images available on flickr.

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