Opposable Thumbs Episode 3: Found Electronics

Only 90's kids will understand!

Only 90’s kids will understand! via

Listen to Episode 3 here.

At the suggestion of my main man Audrey Peiper, I based this project on a Girl Talk telephone handset that I had laying around the studio. I fear this will only embolden my mother-in-law, who exploits my penchant for hoarding electronics ruthlessly.

Given the ridiculously gendered nature of my starting point, I decided to reengineer the phone’s components to make a positive statement about women and technology. This got me thinking about how some of the original “computers” were women, back when the term described people who performed mathematical calculations. Ada Lovelace is another great example of a woman who contributed significantly to early computing with her work on Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

With these ideas in mind, I desoldered all of the components from my handset. This yielded a pile of simple parts, artificially limiting the potential complexity of my project. Working within this structure, I soon settled on the concept of the multivibrator, a simple circuit that can be switched between two states. The first multivibrators were astable, switching back and forth between states at a regular interval. Mono and bistable vibrators came next, and these circuits formed the foundation of modern computer memory (due to their ability to “remember” one bit worth of information). I didn’t quite have enough components to make my vibrator stable, so here’s a demo of an astable multivibrator or “flip-flop.”

From a 2017 perspective, this circuit is not that impressive! I dig it though, because it shows what complexity you can reach in the absence of integrated circuits. To change the timing of the circuit, you can substitute different capacitor values – larger Farad ratings will take longer to drain, resulting in a slower oscillation. No coding here, just good ole’ math (or blind experimentation). See this page for the diagram I followed and build your own.

Full disclosure: The red LED didn’t come from the phone. There, I said it!


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