By John Richards
Stripboard is a prototyping board used in electronics with strips of copper foil running in one direction on one side of the board and holes arranged in a grid spaced 0.1 inch apart. It is often referred to as Veroboard after the company that manufactured it. The board is designed to be used with through-hole components. The copper strips make handy busses where multiple signals can be connected. Signals are routed by cutting, breaking the copper strips and by adding jumper wires (wires that connect one strip to another).
Now, I’m not really against stripboard. As a DIYer, stripboard is one of the main ways in which a one-off, custom circuit can be constructed. But what about the ‘aesthetics’ of stripboard? By aesthetics, I mean the way we work with stripboard and how stripboard dictates how a circuit is physically created. Stripboard does yield some advantages to the novel circuit designer: relatively cheap, a well-documented method for circuit construction, standardised hole spacings for components, and lightweight. Yet the strips and resulting grid-like nature of the board essentially ‘quantize’ handwork: straight lines, perpendiculars, right angles, grids. As well as this, stripboard calls for working in two layers: top (jumpers); bottom (copper strips). This brings a level of abstraction to connections. We are no longer dealing with point-to-point connections that are clearly visible to the eye, but with connections that go ‘underground’, to the bottom copper-striped layer. Added to this, we also move from, let’s say, horizontal signal paths of the bottom copper-stripped layer, to vertical signal paths of top layer components and jumper wires. Of course, a jumper wire can jump across strips or to other connecting points on the board, but the very nature of stripboard is to formulise connections in a grid. Left, right, top, bottom, vertical, horizonal – ‘reading’ and thinking in multi-dimensions.
One of the generic themes of the Pop-up was to explore natural forces versus industrial processes, and, in particular, reference to John Ruskin. So how does this relate to working with stripboard? In our quest to find ‘DIYness’, handwork was celebrated. As David Pye points out in The Nature and Art of Workmanship there’s no such thing as good material “… only worked material has quality, and pieces of worked material are made to show their quality by men [woman].” Whilst potter Bernard Leach advocated a holistic approach to craftmanship where the heart, head and hand are used in balance. We looked to wire-wrapping techniques, direct soldering to legs of components, as found in such construction methods as dead-bugging and point-to-point construction. These techniques provided an alternative to the formulaic nature of electronic circuits built using stripboard or other prototyping boards. Freeform wire construction arguably accentuates handwork, being more expressive perhaps than stripboard. We are talking here primarily about visual aesthetics, but as implied earlier, making things and how things are made also relates to a sense of DIYness. And wire-wrapping gives a circuit greater potential to adopt sculptural properties.
During Day 1 and the initial meeting for the Pop-up, I started thinking about a previous workshop and how working with stripboard had been difficult and possible alternatives for building a circuit based on the Radical Chip (a swappable chip for the Mute 4.0 Synth). The Dirty Electronics Bed of Nails built by Emmy Woksepp at a workshop in Sweden back in 2014 also came to mind and how the wire routings and connections took on a distinctive windy form.
These ‘natural’ curves and bends of Woksepp’s construction also prompted a conversation around idea of natural forces versus industrial processes. I drew on some local geography where open fields are intersected by a river, canal, railway and road. The map of the area shows the meandering river Sence juxtaposed against the man-made, ‘straight-line’ of the canal, railway and A6 road. The discussion continued to revolve around the use of materials and the idea ‘resistance’.
The result of our labour was the Radical Nails that adopted wire-wrapping techniques and point-to-point construction methods. See blog for images, recordings and further discussion.