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Project Tinkertoy
May 1955 Popular Electronics

May 1955 Popular Electronics

May 1955 Popular Electronics Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Electronics, published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

I find it interesting that "Project Tinkertoy," so dubbed by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS - now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST), does not contain a trademark to acknowledge the ownership of the Tinkertoy™ name. This 1955 Popular Electronics story doesn't mention it, either. Tinkertoy has been around since 1914 and every boy I knew in my neighborhood had at least one set - usually received as a Christmas gift. I had a couple of them, as well as an Erector Set or two. That said, I believe that a more appropriate name for the endeavor would have been "Project Lego™" because of the way component blocks snap and stack together (with the help of a little solder). Legos entered the toy realm in 1949. Various incarnations of the Tinkertoy or Lego concept for modular electronics has been tried over the years, but none have really become popular from a commercial perspective other than as components of experimenter prototyping sets. In fact, the current Maker rage using Arduino kits with their associated functional blocks can be considered such a concept.

Project Tinkertoy

Project Tinkertoy, May 1955 Popular Electronics - RF Cafe

Basic concept of the new method of fabrication and assembly. See text for details.

Modular units, machine made and automatically assembled, may revolutionize electronics.

"Project Tinkertoy" - the revolutionary modular design and mechanized production of electronic parts - may well comprise the building blocks of the electronic world of the future.

Developed by the National Bureau of Standards, Washington, D. C., this new approach to electronic fabrication involves the "modular design concept" of mounting adhesive carbon resistors, printed circuits, and other miniaturized components on standard, uniform steatite (ceramic) wafers. The wafers are then stacked together, like building blocks, to form a "module." This module will perform all the functions of one or more electronic stages. It is a standardized, interchangeable subassembly with all the requirements of an electronic circuit, plus the factors of ruggedness, reliability, and compactness.

Individual modules may be combined to form major electronic subassemblies.

Until recently, the modules were assembled by hand. In fact, several private industrial plants are experimenting with this method. But recently, scientists at the National Bureau of Standards have enhanced this approach to electronic manufacture by setting up a completely mechanized production line not only for making the small parts and the wafers, but for putting them together to form the modules. A machine has been developed which stamps out 2800 wafers every hour. The wafers then receive the prefabricated parts automatically. Resistors, capacitors, etc., are being made by completely new methods, involving special chemicals and ingenious mass-production techniques. For example, resistors are made by coating a long roll of paper tape with a special adhesive powder. After further processing, the tape is slit and cut to produce desired resistances of from 10 ohms to 10 megohms. A 75-foot roll of tape will produce over 10,000 resistors!

Photo above compares conventionally made piece of equipment (upper unit) with same piece made by "Tinkertoy" methods. Latter was made in less time at lower cost. Resultant savings can be passed on to public.

Module consists of wafers bearing miniaturized parts and printed conducting circuits.

During the automatic mounting of resistors, capacitors, coils, tube sockets, etc., onto the wafers, photo-electric devices along the line control flow and assembly.

Tubes are mounted in their sockets by a machine which places the tube pins in their correct holes. A wafer is then riveted to the socket. Automatic soldering of all parts requiring solder is provided.

Uniform wafer-mounted parts are then combined into a functional electronic unit, or module, by a single machine, which automatically wires and solders the wafer units into a complete module. These module assemblies are then hand-mounted on base plates to form different types of radio and other electronic equipment. One base plate with six modules, for instance, contains all the circuitry needed for a 6-tube radio receiver.


Machines make ceramics, process and apply parts to wafers, assemble modules, and perform complete inspection.

Studies of these methods made by private industry indicate that the "Project Tinkertoy" approach may prove to be cheaper and superior in many other ways to existing production methods. Originally developed for U. S. Navy equipment, these new methods may result in better built, less expensive consumer goods for all.



Posted August 21, 2019

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