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A Tribute To Popular Electronics Magazine

By: Bob Morrisson  

PC Magazine is published by Ziff-Davis. It's roots go back to Popular Electronics, which ran from the 1950s into the late 1970s. This magazine started in the days of the "glass transistor", commonly called the vacuum tube, and continued right into the microchip revolution.

As a boy I was a fan of Popular Electronics, which was the hottest thing in town for the electronics hobbyist. I subscribed in the early 1960s and saved every issues. One day I stumbled upon a treasure trove of magazines in a used book store. When all was said and done I had amassed every issue from #1 on to the latest. Needless to say, I was one happy kid!

Every month Popular Electronics had a featured project, complete with parts list and sources for obtaining them. For some of the more complex projects the magazine staff arranged to make a kit of parts available through a vendor. I would often take the streetcar to Sherman Avenue in Washington, DC, where a number of electronic wholesale stores were located. If I couldn't find the parts in one store I could walk to several others that were close by. There I would pick through the bargain tables or negotiate with the salesman to find the parts I needed at the best price possible.

Even with a kit of special parts, the reader had to find sources for many of the other parts. This often involved scrounging things such as a Skippy peanut butter jar, for winding a coil, or Plexiglas, for making a faceplate. These projects required quite a bit of work, including drilling and sawing a metal chassis. They also evoked a sense of much pleasure when they worked. This was nothing like ordering a self-assembly kit from Heathkit, Allied Radio, or Lafayette Radio. When you finished a Popular Electronics project you knew you had accomplished something!

The value in these projects was as much in the instruction process as in creating the finished product. Concepts were explained. Differing points of view were presented, along with the reasoning behind the final selection. Some projects built upon others, enhancing earlier knowledge. One of their more interesting projects was the "Sweet Sixteen" loudspeaker. It used sixteen cheap 5" speakers to move a mass of air as if it was one huge cone. The cost savings was immense and the sound was reported to be fantastic, although I never built one. Next came the "Sweeter with a Tweeter", using a horn tweeter for purer high notes. One of their strangest projects featured a speaker turned upside down inside a sewer pipe.

As with PC Magazine, much of the value of Popular Electronics was in the monthly columns. There was plenty of news. There were product reviews. There was advice. There were also ads for the latest and greatest new things. The Raytheon CK722 transistor, now only $35!!! Later it was only $7.50 and now you can get a bag of 100 at Radio Shack for a buck. I still have one of the royal blue ones.

There was also The Adventures of Carl and Jerry, by John T. Frye. This was a series about two neighbors, Carl Anderson and Jerry Bishop, who used technology to get out of all sorts of scrapes, and to get into a few of them as well.

The series began in October 1954 and ran through December 1964. The continuity between stories was excellent, with older adventures referenced in newer ones.

Our "404 error" page was created to honor Carl and Jerry and their creator, John T. Frye.

In one of my favorite stories Carl and Jerry put a microphone in a sealed glass jar to listen to underwater sounds. They kept hearing a cat crying. Eventually they located a cat that had been thrown in the water to drown, and found a place with an air pocket. They adopted the cat and named it Eight-To-Go, since they figured one of its nine lives had already been expended. The cat was featured in many subsequent tales

Another featured writer was Karl Kohler, who was a combination of Tim Allen and Dave Barry coupled with the sometimes mischievous style of PC Magazine's John Dvorak. Karl Kohler used eloquent language to describe his exploits and his magnificent electronics projects, adding all sorts of asides and notes and embellishments. As the story would develop the reader would soon realize that things were starting to go terribly wrong. The stories always ended with an unusual twist, with Mr. Kohler being thoroughly chastened. I have often used one of his phrases to describe someone who is not quite understanding a situation: "He is as bewildered as a starfish in the Gobi Desert."

There was a cooperative spirit at work in Popular Electronics, one that has always been a part of the amateur radio scene. Radio amateurs (HAMs) were some of the early adopters of PC technology, using it to simplify life in the radio shack. A PC could be used to send or receive International Morse Code, or to help maintain the radio station, or to take care of any number of tasks. Many of the early computer shows started as Hamfests.

Hams are engineers by nature and as amateur engineers they often assist other Hams. Their cooperative spirit is found in computer user groups, freeware, and even the Linux operating system. It was in evidence in Popular Electronics and it lives on in PC Magazine today.

The monthly projects in Popular Electronics and the monthly free utilities in PC Magazine are very similar in nature. As with the construction projects, the accompanying text for the computer utilities explains the underlying logic of the utility. There is as much value in learning how the utility works as there is in using it.

Give a man a utility and he will fix his computer. Teach a man how to program and he will design utilities to do everything imaginable, and some things unimaginable.
  -  New old proverb just created at Eagle-Wing.Net.

One of the later issues of Popular Electronics featured an article on building a computer using a micro-processor chip. Just what one was supposed to with this thing was never explained but the plans were there. This was in the days before you could buy floppy drives, ROM chips, or cheap memory. It was also a day in which a 5 meg hard drives was only a dream.

I have recently found a publication called Poptronics, which was the "street" name for Popular Electronics. It claims to be a combination of Popular Electronics and Electronics Now and is currently available by subscription. A Google search will turn up any number of articles from Poptronics and its predecessor magazines, including Popular Electronics.


The Neil J. Rubenking credit line, sometimes shown as N.J.R., appears on some of the most useful information in PC Magazine, not to mention a number of handy utilities. Mr. Rubenking has been cranking out those utilities since the early days of the magazine. Before the advent of the utility suites I used many of his programs for servicing computers. I used others to make my daily chores much easier to manage.

There are many other excellent writers on the staff but this one stands out in my mind, both for his excellence and for his longevity at the magazine. Many thanks, Neil J. Rubenking, for your spirit of cooperation and sharing and for your quest for excellence. You are an excellent example to all of us. Thanks for a job well done!



PC Magazine features reviews, articles, product comparisons, hints, tips and techniques, free utilities, and much more. ZD Net offers a number of additional on-line resources including forums.

Poptronics magazine is the combination of Popular Electronics and Electronics Now. In addition, do a Google search for articles of interest.

The Theremin construction article from the original Popular Electronics is typical of their early features. A theremin is a musical instrument with two loops of wire, played by moving the hands between the loops.

Articles from the old Popular Electronics magazine are available on line. The second item listed is an index of Carl and Jerry articles.

Hugo Gernsback is the current owner of Popular Electronics. His Website is currently being rebuilt.

You can search for any number of articles and authors from the original Popular Electronics on Google.

Jeff Duntemann, a radio amateur (K7JPD) and another fan of Popular Electronics, remembers Carl and Jerry well. In fact, he has assembled an index of all of the stories and he is releasing them in book form.

RF Cafe has articles from a number of vintage magazines.

The link below is to their Popular Electronics section. The second link is to a rather amusing article.