In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Priority of the Component, or In Praise of Capricious Circuitry
  • John Bowers (bio) and Vanessa Yaremchuk (bio)

Further material, including sound examples, is available at <>.

Before the Ibanez Tube Screamer, there was the JRC4558 chip. Before the smooth sound of germanium fuzz, there had to be germanium, in particular in NKT-275 ("Newmarket") transistors. And further: before there can be circuit bending, there must be circuits, and before circuits, components.

So let your favorite things be components.

The best devices have an ample sufficiency of components to be intriguing and hackable. But let components themselves be your first love. Love the multiplicity of them when you buy in bulk. Love the color codes on resistors. Love the varied shapes of capacitors. The bright colors of wire insulation. The spikiness of transistors. The sleek lines of ICs. And everyone loves blinky LEDs, especially blue ones. Let us love components: before they get fixed in circuitry, their potentiality is still intact, like the wild children who live in the woods.

Let us describe some favorite hacks, ones that stay close to the components and exhibit them freely, unboxed.

First, The Mixing Bowl. Take a kitchen bowl. Pyrex for choice as it is more roadworthy than glass and squeaks nicely when rubbed. Just throw stuff in: cheap microphones, piezo elements, guitar pickups, electric motors, vibrators, maybe some fruit. Connect up, agitate, listen to the mix. The Victorian Synthesizer is an ongoing project to build a synthesizer using techniques that could have been employed by the Victorians if they hadn't been occupied with other things. This is challenging. For example, one cannot create an oscillator with an amplifier feeding back to itself with near unity gain as this was post-Victorian—in 1921, by Heinrich Barkhausen, so a Weimar cultural affair in fact [1]. Instead, take a moving coil loudspeaker (Oliver Lodge, 1898, Victorian [2]), connect a battery directly to its terminals and enjoy the pops and thunks as the diaphragm moves in and out. Then, add in a tilt switch to make and break the circuit, placing the switch on the diaphragm for self-oscillation by Victorian means. Copy the construction and swap switches for cross-modulation. Vary freely.

Let us take these principles further. Let us investigate ad hoc assemblies where chance wiring and promiscuous mixtures of basic components create circuitry before our very eyes and ears. Ohm-My-God (Fig. 11) places a bunch of electrode plates into (again, say) a kitchen bowl with each plate connected to a low-voltage battery terminal. Pour in arbitrary components: resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes, lengths of bare wire. Sample the current at selected spots of the mixture with a conductive knife (or fork or spoon). Stir the mixture (or maybe agitate it with a Victorian Synthesizer beneath). Run the circuit from knife blade to whatever you fancy: to serve as a control voltage for synthesis, to be amplified so that the electricity through the random circuit can be heard direct (electrically buffer to avoid shocks . . . no seriously! Do it!). Try more than one knife (or fork or spoon) to sample from more than one spot. Throw in a magnet or two to create lumps of arbitrary circuitry. Perhaps pour in a little hot wax and leave to set if you especially like what you have and want to keep it. This will probably instructively fail: Let capricious circuitry forever elude you and love it for that (moral).

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Fig. 11.

Components/Ohm-My-God/Components, 2007.

Ohm-My-God © John Bowers. Image triptych © Vanessa Yaremchuk

Another lesson in all this: beyond and before the completed circuit lies the component in all its unruly potentiality as it awaits connection or gently decays away. And perhaps: the Good Device exists at the threshold of order/disorder where components reveal themselves once more in provisional constructions of requisite simplicity yet enigma.

John Bowers
Departments of Design and Computing, Goldsmiths College, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW, U.K. E-mail: <>.
Vanessa Yaremchuk
Biological Computation Project, Department of Psychology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G...


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