In 1954, an Industrial Arts teacher from Long Island came to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about his new invention: a breadboarding system that he proposed could be used to teach electronics. Arthur Jubenville had patented this system and started a company called Science Electronics, Inc. (SEI). During the conference, he was introduced to a Cambridge-based electronics company by the name of General Electronic Labs(GEL), which was developing RADAR countermeasure technologies for the Department of Defense. In this chance meeting, SEI became a wholly-owned subsidiary of GEL and with funding, SEI went began marketing Jubenville’s invention.
The breadboarding system was unique because it allowed students to assemble electronic circuits without the use of solder. The kit came with various electrical components, such as resistors, capacitors, diodes, vacuum tubes, loudspeakers, transformers, each mounted onto a module. The bottom of these modules contained evenly spaced “pegs” that fit nicely onto a supplied pegboard. After the student had placed the components onto the pegboard, the next part was to hook them up, with these clever little “Jiffy Clips,” wires with simple clips on either end that snapped onto module posts.
Not only was SEI looking to get this system into schools, but it also felt that there was a home market for it. “We all grew up on Erector Sets,” Arthur Nelson, co-founder of GEL said, “so we decided to set up a meeting with the AC Gilbert company.” A contingent from SEI went to “Erector Square” and left with an agreement. SEI licensed the system to AC Gilbert for marketing to the home user, and the “Erectronic” (Sometimes called “Erec-tronic”) was born.
Since that time, many companies have built upon the original idea of the Erectronic. I remember getting my Radio Shack Electronic Lab, where I built crystal radios, motor control circuits, and sound effects generators that chirped with the sounds of phasors, machine guns, and explosions. I’d follow instructions to build circuits that came with the set, or try to invent new ones myself — with most of those experiments leading to smoke.
Although I never bought anything from it, I’d spend hours looking over the HeathKit catalog, filled with all sorts of projects to build using nothing but patience and a soldering iron. I played around with the Basic Stamp microcontroller and then in 1998, another toy manufacturer jumped into the game. Lego released its Mindstorms product, where not only did they place a microcontroller into a Lego Brick, but they packaged it with other special bricks that contained sensors, motors, and stuff. During the past fifty years, there have been leaps and bounds in the sophistication of Mr. Jubenville’s idea. And they are just about to take a quantum leap again.
As a hardware guy, I’ve always been a little jealous of the software guys. I mean, all software folks need is computer, a compiler and a six pack of Red Bull to start creating stuff. Hardware guys on the other hand? We have to set aside a space for test equipment and power supplies and all sorts of components to build anything beyond the toy-level stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love Lego Mindstorms, but if I have an idea that’s worthy of investment, I don’t want to go traipsing into a VC’s office with an assortment of interconnected red, blue and yellow plastic bricks.
But what if I offered you a breadboarding system like the Erec-tronic, but instead of a just a pegboard, we embedded an ARM11 processor into it? Heck, since we’re just dreaming, what if instead of a pegboard with an ARM11 processor, the pegboard was transformed into a palm-sized breadboarding system that contained a Linux-based computer, complete with WiFi, Ethernet, USB, USB-OTG, and a slew of others? And imagine that instead of simple components like a resistor or diode mounted onto a little module, we add some pizazz — like a GPS module, a touchscreen module, a 3G module or a digital camera module? What if the platform was totally open, such that users around the world are not only free to hack it, but they are encouraged to do so through open APIs. And lastly, imagine that through the use of New Media tools, a community could be built around it, to collaborate with one another, to share ideas, to invent new things? How cool would THAT be?
Well, I need to tell you that this isn’t a dream. It is a reality and the company, Bug Labs is about to release pricing on its Bug Product Line [consisting of it’s Bug Base (Linux Computer/Breadboard) and its Bug Modules] before the end of the year. I’m going to be watching this release very closely because it has the potential to change hardware design as we know it, through the combinatorial use of New Media and Open Source.
This product has the potential to drop the barrier of entry for hardware development to that which is closer to software development. Imagine if a Venture Capitalist walked into a struggling startup with ten Bug Bases, dumped them and a plethora of modules onto the table, and told them to start developing? Imagine the devices that’ll emerge.
If you wanna see the Bug in action, checkout the following video interviews by Robert Scoble, where the BugLabs CEO, Peter Semmelhack, demonstrates the device and a few modules.