I was about David’s age when I got my first electronics kit for Christmas. It was made by Philips and all the components were discrete. Most of them were provided loose but the transistors were soldered onto a small square circuit board for ease of handling.
The chassis of the kit was two hardboard rectangles, pre-punched with holes and assembled at right angles. The bracing was in the form of brackets that also formed handles so it looked something like a pro radio set. The front panel had a printed paper overlay and you permanently mounted a speaker, a switch or two, a light and a couple of potentiometers. There was also a battery holder also I don’t recall if it fixed to the back or the base.
The base panel consisted of a hole grid and a big bang of springs. For each project you did, a base sheet showed you where everything went. You pushed spring mounting posts through holes then popped springs over them. When you wanted to fit a component you pushed down on a spring forming a loop through the top and pushed the component wire through. It took ages and got very tedious to assemble (& eventually dismantle).
There were lots of projects to assemble but some of them were rather lame. (For example, the morse key sounder project was basically the oscillator project but using the non-latching switch). It did involve careful thought though and an understanding of component identification to assemble the right bits in the right place. All projects also included a circuit diagram in the manual and a basic explanation of how it worked. You also needed to know about the resistor colour code (e.g. a 10k Ohm resistor being brown black orange) which ISTR was illustrated in black and white in the manual!
Moving on from this kit, we had to learn the art of soldering, using tag strips or Veroboard and getting components from Aitken Brothers in High Bridge or pay silly money to the newly opened Tandy Electronics shop. The other alternative was mail order from the adverts in the back of Practical Wireless, Practical Electronics and the then new Elektor (apparently still going). In amongst those adverts was one for a new start-up company in Rayleigh, Essex called Maplin Electronics and I distinctly remember their first mail order component catalogue, about 30 pages with a buff cover sheet illustrated with Concorde. (Rayleigh was going to be near London’s fourth airport at one point).
Flash forward 40 years and how things have changed with David’s new Santa Gift. All the components are pre-formed onto mounting plastics with poppers to link together using a stacking arrangement onto a plastic baseboard. All the parts are numbered and each project is illustrated in colour so assembly is a case of matching the photo with the result. There were no flying wires required (despite the product name!), just bridging rods with between two and seven poppers. It is pretty straight-forward to assemble and shedloads faster than my Philips one of 1970.Of course, it requires thought to work out which components are at base board level to speed assembly and check none of them are in backwards. (Some don’t matter, but many do).
Our first project was a lie detector and it was fast to assemble. On turning it on and touching the pad, we were rewarded by a low purr from the speaker and a damp finger produced a high squeal. My first inquisition question- “Is there really a Santa Claus?”
The second project was simply batteries and a motor, propelling a helicopter blade type disk ferociously up to the ceiling, hitting the plasterwork with an alarming clunk. This amused him for a while, particularly when I howled with anguish when it clouted my hand with a surprisingly painful momentum transfer. OUCH!
We then built an FM radio, one of several radio projects in the book (which used a couple of integrated circuits whilst the others used discrete components). That worked fine and was both load & clear.
The fourth one we tried supposedly made bird type noises but we couldn’t get a peep out of it, I couldn’t see anything wrong so there might be a faulty component, time will tell.
David then returned to the spinner project and we discussed why it worked the way it did. He managed to fool me into thinking the batteries were starting to go when he had sneakily reversed the polarity so that it was blowing upwards instead of down. He also inadvertently discovered gyroscopic properties by tilting the board whilst it was running and having the motor & popper links go flying all over.
So, better or worse than my childhood toy? Both really. Much better to assemble but more about outcomes than methods. The integrated circuits supplied result in some more sophisticated projects but the explanations are rather more simplistic. It certainly sows the seeds of enquiry and this was after all a mass market toy for children 8+. It seems to have lept up from sub £40 to sub £60 recently though, I don’t think it is worth that.