That’s a big transistor

As promised last time, a fun-for-Friday rerun from the early days of FAIC. But before we get started, a quick physics refresher.

Force is the ability to change the velocity of an object by a certain amount in a given amount of time. One newton (N) of force is the ability to change the velocity of a one kilogram object by one meter per second, in one second. The earth applies a force of gravity of 9.8N on every 1kg mass near it.

Work is the application of a force to an object as it moves a certain distance. Energy is the ability to do work. One joule (J) of energy is the ability to apply a force of one newton to an object as it moves one meter. [1. Note that the force has to be applied in the direction of the motion for it to count as work; the earth’s gravitational force does no work on a sideways-moving object. This should jibe with your intuitive understanding of work; it is a lot harder to raise an object by 1 meter than it is to slide it 1 meter, where the work is done by the force overcoming friction.]

Power is the rate at which energy is consumed in time. One watt (W) of power is the consumption of one joule of energy per second.

Charge is, like mass, a fundamental property of matter. The easiest way to manipulate charge is by manipulating electrons. Charge is measured in coulombs (C). Current is the movement of charge and is measured in amperes (A); one ampere is one coulomb of charge moving past a given point in one second.

Electric potential, better known as voltage, is to charge as gravity is to mass, and is measured in volts. Applying a potential of one volt to one coulomb of moving charge consumes one joule of energy. A better way to think about it though is to divide both sides of that equation by time and get that one volt times one amp is one watt.[2. volts times amps equals watts is one of the funamental equations you have to know in order to wire a house safely. If your house power is providing a potential of 120V and your light bulb is consuming 120W of power then the current on the wire supplying the bulb is 1A. Since lighting circuits typically use wires that are safe for up to 15A, this puts a limitation on how many bulbs you can have on one circuit.]

Resistance is the tendancy of an electric conductor to resist the movement of charge, and is measured in ohms (Ω). If there is a conductor where the difference in voltage between the two ends is one volt, and the resistance is one ohm, then there will be a one amp current in the conductor.


A few years back a bunch of my coworkers and I got to discussing the space program over lunch. Someone asked why it is that we continue to launch devices into orbit by strapping a big old tank full of liquid oxygen to the device and then set it on fire. Why haven’t we developed better technology using magnets or something?

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Building a tabletop coilgun

coilgunAs you probably know, I’ve been re-running some of my fun non-computer posts from the last decade. This Friday I’m going to rerun my post on the impracticalities of large-scale coilguns, and I thought that as a precursor to that I might talk a bit about tabletop coilguns. So, no programming language design this week.

A couple years ago my friend Morgan expressed an interest in learning about electronics so I thought that a homemade coilgun would of course be a perfect gift for a ten year old. Yes, I am that awesome avuncular figure who gets kids pocket knives and drum sets and coilguns for their birthdays. Parents, you’re welcome!

This is a great project to teach kids about circuits because it has all of the basic parts except transistors, and each part has a clear purpose. I’ve deliberately left the voltages, capacitances, resistances and inductances I chose off the circuit diagram above. Better to work them out for yourselves on the basis of what kinds of voltages sources and what capacitors you’ve got available, and what your appetite for destruction is.

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