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Widget Of The Week

John Adams Intercom Action Lab, 1995

I am an enthusiastic advocate of any toy, kit or assembly set that encourages children to handle small parts, carry out experiments or make and build things.

Generations of kids -- up until the late 1980s, by my reckoning -- have been inspired to follow careers in engineering, science and technology after playing with the likes like Meccano, Lego, chemistry sets, electronic project kits and even Airfix models. Not so much nowadays though. What are generally known as educational toys have become increasingly bland and painfully ‘safe’.  In fact a lot of them lot of them are no fun whatsoever, and that element is vital if they are to get school students interested and enthused by science and technology, the so-called STEM (science technology engineering and mathematics) subjects. Heaven knows we need a whole lot more scientists to save us from the future we’ve created. But even a really boring science kit would have been better than the John Adams Intercom Action Lab at encouraging future electronic engineers…

 

Intercom Action appeared in the mid 1990s and my personal opinion is that any child unfortunate enough to be given one  would have been put off learning anything about electronics for life! It actually gets off to quite a good start. The two connector ‘consoles’ onto which the projects are mounted, has to be assembled and it provides a good introduction to the layout and function of various parts, like the connectors, speaker and switch. More good news, the kit contains dozens of real wire-ended electronic components, rather than the encapsulated parts or pre-assembled modules that the few remaining electronic kit-makers started using in the 90s. The basic premise is also sound. It is marketed as a build it yourself 2-station Intercom, but you can tear it down and use the two connector consoles and additional components to make nine other electronic projects, including an LED flasher, timer, alarm, sound switch, humidity indicator, a siren, another alarm and a combined sound generator and lie detector. It sounds like hours of fun, and maybe a good introduction to basic electronics but sad to say, it isn’t.

 

Firstly the yellow connector blocks on the top of the two consoles are terrible.The block 

on the right is one of the better ones. They may have worked, briefly, when it was new, but it seems likely they fail after just a few uses. The contact pins inside the blocks are quite fragile and the continued insertion and removal of component leads and connecting cables causes them to deform. The result is connections become intermittent and it gets increasingly difficult to insert components and cables without bending the thin wires. The more distorted they are the harder it is to get wires into the contact holes, and forcing them causes even more deformation. The second and arguably more serious issue is the almost complete lack of an explanation of how the circuits work. A couple of the project descriptions suggest that changing the value of a component will make the circuit work differently, but that’s it. Having built an LED flasher, for example, and on the offchance the LED actually blinks the user will be no wiser as to how or why. Even basic components like resistors and capacitors remain a mystery but there’s no excuse whatsoever for ignoring the function of the LM324 quad op-amp chip that is the heart of every project. Okay, the lower end of the target audience range is only 10, but what resistors, capacitors and LEDs etc. actually do in an electronic circuit can be simply described. The workings of microchips can be a complex subject, but again, this is a simple and highly versatile IC that can be broadly explained in a few short paragraphs. It might even encourage older children and possibly parents and carers to join in and together delve deeper into the subject.  However, that is entirely moot as many projects just won't work and like as not the outfit will be rendered useless by the connector blocks that almost guarantee it will be abandoned after a few outings.

 

That’s was probably the fate of this one and the reason it wound up on a wonky wallpaper table at a local car boot sale a couple of years ago, priced at only £2.00. It was the box that caught my attention, the cheesy graphics and imagery on the top smacked of the seventies or eighties. Closer inspection suggested it had been little used. It was complete and the consoles had been fully assembled by the previous owner. But it became clear that only a few of the parts had ever been used in anger; components that had were easy to spot as the wires were bent and crinkled and would no longer fit into the connector blocks. The diagrams and brief instructions are very easy to follow. I even managed to get a couple of projects up and running using medical forceps to insert component leads into the connector block’s holes but it was a slow and aggravating process, and certainly not something the average 10-year old would be capable of, let alone older users – like me -- who would very quickly become frustrated by it.

 

What Happened To It?

John Adams Ltd is a UK based company specialising in science and crafts and arts themed toys and games. The company's current product range appears to have shifted away from electronics to more messy and goop related wares. There’s still a very distinct nod to science and learning and the emphasis is on having fun but at the time of writing – the midst of the Covid pandemic -- their website was in a poor state making it difficult to get more than very narrow overview of what they are up to nowadays.

 

Back in the 90s, though, the Intercom Lab would have ticked a lot of boxes and must have seemed like a great idea. And it would have been, had the connector blocks had been more robust and the instructions included some easy to follow explanations of what the components do and how the circuits work. If that had happened it may even have rated alongside the all-time classic Philips Electronic Engineer kits that first appeared in the 1960s. I might even have made a small bet that some of today’s scientists and engineers were inspired by it, enough to pursue their current careers. It doesn’t do very well as a collectible either but that has nothing to do with the kit’s contents but it’s age and the fact that it is a bit too recent to warrant vintage status. Give it a few years and with increasing rarity a kit in pristine condition may well be worth more than the couple of quid I paid for this one, but I’m not counting any chickens just yet...


DUSTY DATA

First Seen:                   1995

Original Price:             £20.00?

Value Today:               £5.00 (0821)

Features:                     Intercom plus 9 other electronic projects, LM324 quad op-amp IC, assorted resistors, capacitors, LEDs and LDR (light dependant resistor), built-in 55mm speaker, connector blocks & on-off slider switch

Power req.                      2 x PP3 9 volt batteries

Dimensions:                    16.5 x 10 x 50mm (each console)

Weight:                           100g (each console)

Made (assembled) in:      England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)    7



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