Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Ah! Dween-O!

The stand up bench -woodworking mainly
For the past couple of weeks I have not been doing much in the workshop that justified a post. In fact I have been involved in a right-Royal sort out. I got to the stage where I was spending more time looking for stuff than actually doing anything - you know how it is. In a perfect world there is a place for everything and everything in it's place. Well, that's the plan and I think I have more or less got there. The trouble is, my workshop has to accommodate woodworking, model making, photography as well as anything else that needs fixing, modifying or investigating. Now it is all ship-shape I can actually find things and I have space to do things - a job well done and worth the interlude in proceedings...

The sit down bench - mainly modelling and a bit of electronics
What started this long overdue penance, was the realisation that I could not find some electronic components I wanted in order to build a simple voltage regulator to power a motor at a constant voltage less than the available supply. OK let's step back a bit. A while ago, Sue and I purchased a very large collection of Meccano. There was so much of it that we had to make two trips in Sue's Swedish estate car (you know the one, made from recycled fridges!) As this collection was purchased for a fellow Meccano enthusiast in Stoke, we really did try to get it all in one load as it is a 270mile round trip to Stoke from sunny South East London. There was so much that it took two trips!

I digress, amongst this lot was a MotorVator. For those who are not familiar with the said item please take a look HERE. This is a bespoke device aimed at the Meccano enthusiast. Although the MotorVator is rather dated it has a very attractive Meccano interface being painted in Meccano colours (either Red or Yellow) and the metal case is punched with holes that are compatible with Meccano making it easy to incorporate it into a model. After several attempts at getting it going I finally recruited the help of my pet programing Nerd, and good friend, Tim Surtell (It's OK, I am not being rude, he calls me a Geek - but I can't understand why!) after a few minutes of bashing code and muttering he made it do what it was told.

Tim was here discussing another project and the subject of the MotorVator had come up in passing. This prompted Tim to encourage me to take a look at the Arduino. "The what?" I said. Tim went on to explain what it was, I was none the wiser. After he left I took a look at some of the online tutorials and was hooked. There is no better way to learn something new than to get stuck in and have a go. Arduino is an open source enterprise meaning that the whole thing is available online for free - you only have to buy the hardware and this you can build yourself as the information is all out there on-line. However, buying the official Arduino boards does supply some funding for the project. Prices are low enough to make it not worth building your own. You can buy the basic board, the Arduino Uno, for less than £20.00 post free, here in the UK. Mine came with a USB lead and a few LEDs for the princely sum of £18.49 from . I placed my order in the afternoon and the Arduino arrived the next day in the post - Brilliant!

This is it, the Arduino Uno board - small and compact
That was Saturday morning. Sue and I were off to The Magic of Meccano show at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum for the day so It was not until that evening that I could get around to having look at what I had.The first thing to strike me was the size - or lack of it. It is really compact, making use of  Surface-Mount Device (SMD) technology (these micro components, especially the LEDs have lots of potential in the world or modelling, especially Model railways). The instructions and software is available for free download from the Arduino official website: . Within a few minutes I had downloaded the software to the trusty laptop and after following the online instructions had the drivers down loaded and installed. The Arduino software defalts to port COM3. This proved to be 'inconvenient' on my laptop so after a bit of Googleing the error message I discovered that this is not an unusual problem and the answer is to reset the upload to another port. COM 9 worked for me.

I am now at the stage where I can make it do what it is supposed to do and I have even written and modified my own lump of code. This may not seem like much to some of you reading this but for me this is a big leap into the world of digital electronics and microprocessors - something I didn't think I would ever entertain. Mind you, what do I know? I used to think digital photography would never catch on...


  1. I recently purchased a Smartfun Inventor's Kit (Version 3) with all sorts of stuff including a LED display panel and lots of other pieces including a 'breadboard' (toast, anyone?); besides the Arduino printed circuit board itself.

    I made the purchase to try to learn more about basic electronics, and hopefully apply my newly-found knowledge to the improvement of my Meccano models. The Meccano electronic control kit was a start, (we all have to start somewhere!) but in my view Meccano Ltd. never fully exploited
    the potential on offer.

    Well, the good news is that Ralph of Laughton Towers has got involved too, so it is my hope that I can follow your progress as you gain in expertise, as no doubt you will, and very quickly too.

    Michael Walker

  2. Hi Michael,

    It has been a bit of a slow start here, but stick with it things are starting to happen here at Laughton Towers...