Electronics-loving orthodontic clinician Dr. Mark Brickley has developed a collection of electronic circuit-building experiments, tested them on unsuspecting colleagues, and then squeezed them into a retro mint tin. After a few refinements, the Minty Geek Electronics Lab 101 kit was recently launched at the Maker Faire in Newcastle, UK. I spent a very productive few hours getting to grips with my inner geek and experiencing a genuine sense of achievement as I managed to create a morse code generator and an alarm that alerts me when someone opens the lid of my cashbox.

"I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the current trend towards extreme electronic gizmos that effectively suck the joy out of exploration and discovery," Dr. Brickley of the Resolution Specialist Treatment Centre and Research Director of Biovital Research told Gizmag. "It's a bit like cars: you can't service them yourself anymore."

After coming up with a few basic circuitry projects, he took his home-built kit into work and challenged his lab assistants to complete them in one afternoon. Despite a number of failed attempts, his colleagues had so much fun learning how to build electronic circuits that it persuaded Dr. Brickley to market the kit. The Electronics Lab 101 kit contains all the components and the know-how to build a number of different electrical projects - in a pocket-friendly Minty Geek tin.

Within the 3.7 x 2.28 x 0.86-inch (94 x 58 x 22 mm) - or thereabouts - metal box sits a plastic tray that's home to a number of different resistors (including a variable resistor and a light dependent resistor), some capacitors, three transistors, a 6 mm on/off push switch, an integrated circuit (chip), a relay, a collection of color-coded connecting wires, a green LED and a small speaker.

There's also a plastic block known as a breadboard (with a peel-off sticky back so that you can mount it on the inside of the lid). The top of this surface is divided into two parts with five rows of 17 holes, and plugging wires or components into any of the five holes in a column connects them up to each other.

Completing the kit are a couple of flexible jumper wires and a battery connector for a 9V battery.

An introduction to building circuits

The Electronics Lab 101 has been designed for the complete beginner, but has enough going on to keep the electronically-minded interested, too. It comes with three easy-to-follow instruction booklets in green, blue and orange, that can also be placed inside the tin.

The green booklet offers a basic introduction to the kit, its components and how everything comes together to make working circuits. There's a guide on how to identify resistors by the color bands - although each one in the kit is labeled - and information on the color coding of the different capacitors.

After that it's straight into the first circuit - Lighting an LED. I tried to approach every challenge from the point of view of someone who knew little about electronics or circuits (not too difficult) and was therefore grateful to see that each circuit/project is accompanied by photos of the components needed, step-by-step build instructions, a breadboard layout diagram and build photos.

"The product was very much intended to get people playing with electronics, taking that first step as it were and I really believe once you have started something at however a basic level then all follows on from there," says Dr. Brickley. "It has amazed me, but the project most people get the biggest thrill from is just making the LED light up ... people who have never done any electronics before just love the fact they can take 'real' components and wires and make them do something."

While I don't have particularly large fingers, I would recommend having a pair of tweezers to hand for placing and retrieving some of the smaller parts. Once all the wires and components are securely in place, there comes that worrying moment as the battery is connected - happily, all was well and in spite of the simplicity of the circuit, I can confirm the genuine feeling of satisfaction (or perhaps relief) when the light came on. The introduction booklet features another circuit where you can alter the brightness of the LED, then it's onto the blue booklet.

A case of the blues

The "Building Blocks" booklet presents some more advanced circuits, which make up essential parts of projects featured in the next stage. There are three circuits in this section and you also get your first taste for some experimental variations. It's also the first time that the
IC555 chip makes an appearance, although there isn't really much to explain what this actually does - Dr. Brickley told me that more detailed information was originally included with the kit "but our testers found it confusing and felt the kit should be simpler, so we simplified it."

Although I worked through all of the blue examples, I found the Morse Code Oscillator to be the most engaging and thankfully didn't need to send out an SOS to complete it. The Morse Code Alphabet is included with the build instructions, to help bring home exactly why the telegrams and coded messages of days gone by were invariably short.

There are three projects contained in the orange booklet - an electronic timer where the time can be altered by varying the value of the resistors; a lie detector test where flexible jumper wires are attached to fingers of the victim and the spacing of the sounds from the small speaker indicate calm or stressed states; and a light-sensitive alarm. The latter I concealed in my cashbox, and challenged family members to steal some hard-earned pennies without my knowledge. Great fun.

The Minty Geek Electronics Lab 101 kit is far from being a detailed technical manual covering the all the intricacies of building circuits. It is an engrossing, educational, practical and fun introduction to producing simple, working electronic devices, and serves to sow the seeds for further investigation and discussion. I can easily imagine father and son sitting down to do these projects together, and its pocket-friendly size makes it a perfect fit for shoolyard experimentation.

The Electronics Lab 101 kit is available now for GBP 27.99 (US$45), and international shipping is available.

Lots more to come

Dr. Brickley told us that Minty Geek is still very much in its infancy, with more content appearing on the website as the project develops - although there are already circuit diagrams to accompany all of the Lab 101 builds and a user forum to ask questions or post custom-built circuits.

The company is currently "working on a range of 'add on' kits which, for example, explore the details of working with the 555 at a more technical level as well as adding other components like motors and more complex LED set ups," he revealed. "We have gone into collaboration with O'Reilly books and will be offering a range of beginner books on our website with suggestions as to which might follow the 101 kit, and we have several new electronic project kits in development which are more advanced both in the circuitry but also in the techniques they require (in particular, several are solder kits)."

I have to say that I enjoyed my Minty Geek experience immensely and, although I haven't gained quite enough technical skill to build a new MP3 player from scratch, I can at least look forward to a future Lab 101 project kit being made available that will help me to build a digital device speaker.

Other extension kits are planned - including an electronic dice kit that's already appearing on the website (although not yet available) which introduces tinkerers to the world of PIC controllers, a range of micro analog synth and audio projects, and the search is on for a good value multimeter. This will be offered through the website "as an 'expansion' type thing, as I think getting a multimeter really opens up understanding electronics," said Dr. Brickley.

The Minty Geek team is also diversifying into tin-based hobby kits, with the recent introduction of a watercolor painting set and the forthcoming release of a build-your-own astronomer's torch kit.

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