I was part of the “original” Maker revolution. This was years ago, in the late 1980’s, and I was a latecomer. We used to make our own circuit boards, but slightly different from the ones today.
There was a 386 computer on my desk. My trusty 386 had ISA ports, extension card space, that most of us used as a basis for our designs. The ISA bus was easy to use, and the connector was large, meaning we could use simple, basic, cheap equipment to make our boards. What did we make? Everything! Digital IO, radio, remote control systems, everything. When I was a student, my flat was controlled entirely by one of these cards. Of course, the brain of my invention was the computer itself, it wasn’t easy to create a computer system.
A computer system requires several components. It requires a processor, and there were quite a few on the market at the time. It also requires memory, but two kinds; random access memory, RAM for short, is where variables are stored, and is the memory that a program uses to copy, calculate and modify data. A computer also requires read-only memory, ROM for short, and this is where the program is placed. Even that was tricky. You see, at the time, in order to “flash” a new program, we had to remove the EPROM device (short for Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory) and place it in ultraviolet light for up to 30 minutes. That was only the beginning. In order to flash a new program, you had to put it into a programmer, a device attached to the computer that wrote data into the device. Once that was done (it took a few minutes), then you could put the chip back onto the circuit board, and away you went. If you made a mistake, or if your program didn’t work, then you had to redo everything, which took over half an hour.
All of this was complicated, and required multiple components. The processor was one component. The RAM was another. So was the ROM. Interrupt controllers? Digital IO? PWM? They were all external components too. There was a reason why computers used to be that big. So we simplified things. The processor was the PC, and we just made extension boards. Of course, this made making things like robots difficult, but we had lots of fun.
The ISA bus was slow, and users wanted PCs to become faster and faster. The ISA bus was soon replaced by VLB, short for VESA Local Bus. It added an extension to the ISA bus, allowing for faster memory transfers. We had faster computers, better graphics, and we could still use our boards. However, it also sent a clear message; we were soon to find a new way of doing things. VLB was replaced by PCI, which was replaced by PCI Express. This bus is lightning fast, but requires complex electronics, and very good equipment to make boards with connectors that fine. Our trusty ISA cards soon ended up in the dustbin. We could still use the serial port or the parallel port, but it wasn’t the same. Most of us stopped.
It was depressing. We tried making our own computers, but they were complicated. External components, long flash times, prohibitive prices… One company was listening.
In 1996, Atmel shipped the AVR processor. It was an 8-bit processor, with a twist. It had internal RAM, and internal flash. No more external components. It could be flashed within seconds, and reflashed. You didn’t even need to take it off the breadboard to reflash it. Founded in 1984, Atmel had already made semiconductor devices for the professional market, but was also very close to Makers. They heard our cry for help, and they delivered. The AVR changed everything.
The AVR chip was an 8-bit device (32-bit devices also exist), but the computer we used to control our ISA cards was 32-bit. The thing is, we didn’t need 32-bits, and an 8-bit microcontroller was perfect for our needs. The AVR was small, cheap, reliable, and really, really easy to use. We flooded back, we redesigned our boards, and we made. We made everything. How good were the AVR chips? By 2003, Atmel had shipped 500 million devices.
Fast forward a few years, and here we are today. Makers are everywhere. We are back. We are making more than ever. And with awesome sponsors like Atmel, we are here to stay. 2013 was the year of 100 Maker Faires, and they were full of Arduinos.
What is on the Arduino? Well, most of them have an AVR. The Arduino Due isn’t an AVR-based device, it is an ARM device, but even that is made by Atmel too, and is just as easy to use. 2014 promises to be even more exciting!
With Atmel as a sponsor, Makers are here to stay. If you haven’t tried to make your own device yet, try it! It doesn’t cost a lot, and you don’t need all the complicated hardware we used to have. You will be up and running in mere minutes, and believe me, it is fun! If you have any questions, go and see Atmel at one of the Maker Faires. If you come by the Maker Faire Rome, come say hello, I’ll be there with Atmel to show you just how much this technology has changed my life, and show you how to start.