Understanding Modern Electronics

Course No. 1162
Professor Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
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Course No. 1162
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover how modern electronics have revolutionized the world over the last 100 years.
  • Explore the easy-to-understand principles that complex modern electronics operate on.
  • Learn how to read a circuit diagram.
  • Grasp how semiconductors make electronics faster, smarter, and more efficient.
  • Learn the basics of creating circuits - and how to build an audio amplifier (complete with volume control).
  • Gain hands-on experience and build your own devices using inexpensive, readily available parts.

Course Overview

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke

In the last 100 years, the world has undergone a tremendous revolution made possible by advances in modern electronics. Electronic devices—which manipulate electrons or their associated fields in fundamental ways to produce a useful effect—have provided us with ubiquitous, massive computational power; allow us to communicate nearly instantly with loved ones across the globe; can flawlessly record, safeguard, and display information; and provide us with tremendously precise control of manufacturing devices and medical instruments. They are fundamental to our global economy, improve our lives immeasurably, and underlie virtually every aspect of modern life. Yet very few of us have any idea of how electronic devices actually work.

In fact, these increasingly complex devices, which seem nearly magical to us, operate on a few basic principles that are both fascinating and easy to understand. Now, in Understanding Modern Electronics, award-winning Professor of Physics Richard Wolfson provides a working explanation of the principles that govern electronic circuits, then shows these principles in action with devices you use every day. In 24 clear and easily accessible lectures, Professor Wolfson combines his academic expertise, including many years of teaching electronics at Middlebury College, and his lifelong avocation as an electronics hobbyist to examine how these remarkable devices work, bypassing much of the higher mathematics without sacrificing functional and theoretical understanding. Whether you're an aspiring engineer, an enthusiastic tinkerer, or simply intellectually curious, this course will demystify the behavior and inner circuitry of electronic devices and inspire you to see technology in a whole new light.

Meet the Usual Suspects

Modern electronics emerged from electro-mechanical technology such as wires, motors, batteries, and switches with the invention of the vacuum tube—a device that made it possible to amplify electrical signals. This spectacularly useful function, which underlies the entire field of electronics, made possible the development of radio technology and long distance telephony. Over the last century, scientific theory and practical engineering have been combined to produce or adapt a host of similarly useful components that are employed in modern electronics. In this course, Professor Wolfson will introduce:

  • the transformer, a component used to transfer energy between two electrical circuits, which can convert high voltage from an electrical outlet to low voltage that can be used in an electronic device;
  • the transistor, which replaced the bulky vacuum tube, and can be used to both amplify and switch electronic signals;
  • the capacitor, a component which stores energy and electric charge;
  • the diode, a component that allows electric current to flow in one direction only; and
  • the resistor, which restricts the flow of current and lowers voltage levels within electronic circuits.

You’ll also learn about the mysterious and highly important physical materials known as semiconductors, so named because their ability to carry electric current is in between a conductor like copper or aluminum and an insulator like glass or paper. Semiconductors are used to make diodes, transistors, and other components. These intriguing materials, like silicon or gallium arsenide, are usually crystalline inorganic solids that can be “doped” with other materials to give engineers precise control over their electrical properties.

The Analog Level

With these basic building blocks and others, electrical engineers can assemble a wide variety of circuits—interconnected groups of electronic components that create devices with specific functions. Professor Wolfson presents live, in-studio demonstrations of many commonly used circuits, teaching you the basics of circuit construction along the way. You’ll

  • learn how to read a circuit diagram, the specialized, yet easy-to-decipher, technical drawings that allow engineers to create a blueprint of a circuit;
  • become familiar with instruments such as voltmeters, multimeters, oscilloscopes, and others that engineers use to measure the three basic properties exhibited by electrons in a circuit—current, voltage, and resistance;
  • learn the role played by transistors in controlling electric currents;
  • understand why and how capacitors can be employed to reduce and filter electronic “noise” in circuits; and much more.

After learning the basics of circuits, you’ll put your newfound knowledge to work as Professor Wolfson walks you through the process of building a basic audio amplifier, complete with volume control! You’ll also be introduced to an important component known as an operational amplifier, understand the math behind electronic feedback, examine the action and importance of comparators, and a whole host of other analog electronic concepts.

The Digital Level

Of course, if analog electronic devices were the only types that existed, we’d still be living with 1950s technology. In the last part of the course you’ll explore how voltages in digital circuits represent just two discrete states: 0 and 1. From this base-2 or “binary” number system, the entire world of computers was born. You’ll discover how logic gates (which are composed of transistors operating as electronic switches) and truth tables (which are mathematical diagrams that show all possible outputs from all possible combinations of inputs) combine to form the basis of computer logic. And you’ll learn of the importance of “flip-flop” circuits—versatile circuits that

  • “remember” their current states and form the basis of computer memory;
  • can be used to count things; and
  • can be used to facilitate communications between computers and other electronic devices.

Electronics Made Accessible
By leaving much of the rigorous mathematics to the textbooks, your education in modern electronics will take a practical approach from the very beginning. Understanding Modern Electronics discusses the subject on a conceptual level of how and why things work. An accomplished physicist, lifelong electronics hobbyist, and a popular Great Courses veteran, Professor Wolfson steadily leads you through these 24 interactive lectures. He starts by introducing the symbols for basic components used in circuits, explores how these components behave, adds the all-important transistor, and then constructs, amplifiers, logic gates, counting circuits, computer memory, and much more. Math is kept to a minimum, and involves at most basic algebra.

Understanding Modern Electronics also provides the tools necessary for ambitious learners to get hands-on experience with the workings of electronics and build their own devices using inexpensive and readily available components. The course uses animated circuit diagrams that add an additional layer of visualization not available in textbooks or even most classrooms. You’ll be provided with example problems and small projects to try, using a pen and paper or online circuit simulators. You’re free to work through the solutions on your own to test your skills, or work alongside Professor Wolfson.

So if you’re a “maker” who’s eager to improve your understanding of electronics, a computer science or engineering buff looking for a new challenge, or one of the many people who use electronic technology every day and want to better understand how these “magical” devices work, Understanding Modern Electronics is the course for you!

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24 lectures
 |  Average 36 minutes each
  • 1
    Electricity and Electronics
    What is the difference between electricity and electronics? Begin your study of modern electronics by examining this distinction, and observe how electronics use the basic properties of electric circuits in a more sophisticated way. Witness firsthand how resistance is described with Ohm’s law, and learn how to measure electric power. x
  • 2
    Circuits and Symbols
    Meet the battery! This lecture marks your introduction to circuit diagrams, displaying the interconnected assemblages of electronic components that make a circuit function. Learn how to decipher these drawings, and see how components assembled in series or in parallel may interact differently depending on their configuration. x
  • 3
    Instruments and Measurement
    As you grow familiar with physical properties of electric circuits, become acquainted with the instruments used to measure these quantities: voltmeters, ammeters, ohmmeters, multimeters, and the oscilloscope. See how each of these instruments interacts with a circuit to test circuit behavior or measure quantities that may vary over time. x
  • 4
    AC versus DC
    Examine the nuances of alternating and direct currents, see how transformers use electromagnetic induction to transform voltage levels in AC circuits, and observe the role of diodes and capacitors in regulating current. See how the DC power supplies that charge our cell phones are constructed so that they convert alternating to direct current. x
  • 5
    Up the Treble, Down the Bass!
    From familiar audio equalizers we use to crank the bass or reduce hiss, to cell phone towers that need to separate calls coming in on adjacent channels, filtering electronic signals is often essential. Dive further into the critical role that capacitors play in electronic filters. x
  • 6
    Semiconductors—The Miracle Material
    Semiconductors make possible the transistors at the heart of electronics, including integrated circuits and computers. Learn how the atomic configuration of semiconductors makes them unique, and how engineers adjust their properties to make two types of semiconductors—P and N. Witness the critical role that PN-junctions play in semiconductor devices. x
  • 7
    Transistors and How They Work
    Transistors in all forms fundamentally do the same thing: they allow one electronic circuit to control another. Review the concept of electronic control, and study field effect transistors (FETs) as well as bipolar junction transistors (BJTs). See how the bipolar junction transistor can be used as a simple switch. x
  • 8
    Transistors as Amplifiers
    Discover how transistors can be used to increase voltage, current, or power of an electronic signal while faithfully reproducing the signal’s time variation. See how biasing and load-line analysis play key roles in amplifiers, and help prevent distortion. Learn to design a simple one-transistor audio amplifier that increases the voltage of audio-frequency signals. x
  • 9
    Building an Audio Amplifier
    Put your knowledge to use by building a complete audio amplifier. First, create a two-stage amplifier, then add capacitors to increase the amplification, or gain. Add a power output stage to drive a loudspeaker. Finally, add a volume control. In addition, learn how biasing with diodes can eliminate a subtle form of distortion. x
  • 10
    The Ideal Amplifier
    Learn why large gain—infinite gain, in fact—as well as low output resistance and high input resistance are characteristics of the ideal amplifier. See how an integrated-circuit operational amplifier, or “op-amp,” puts all these things together and also how the op-amp can be used as a simple comparator. x
  • 11
    Feedback Magic
    Define what “feedback” means in electronics, and how it can be used in a circuit. Learn how negative feedback utilizes communication between the output and input of an amplifier, and how operational amplifiers use this phenomenon to create thought-controlled robotic arms, intelligent light bulbs, and optical tracking systems. x
  • 12
    Electronic Feedback
    Understand the math behind two basic rules that allow op-amps to leverage the magic of negative feedback: no current flows into op-amp inputs, and with negative feedback, V+ = V –. See how these rules allow op-amps to tame near-infinite gain in a circuit down to the exact amplification you want. x
  • 13
    Amplifier Circuits Using Op-Amps
    Now that the versatility of negative feedback has been demonstrated, adjust the strength of negative feedback in op-amp circuits to build amplifiers with whatever gain you choose. Create an amplifier that sums two or more inputs, see a circuit that converts current to voltage, and explore the design and operation of an op-amp-based light meter. x
  • 14
    More Fun with Op-Amps
    Explore peak detectors that “remember” the maximum voltage reached, as well as Schmitt triggers whose output retain their value until the input changes sufficiently to “trigger” a change in the output. Use these concepts to design a practical circuit: an alarm to warn if your freezer’s temperature has been above freezing. x
  • 15
    Using Op-Amps with Capacitors
    By introducing capacitors to op-amp circuits, you will see how feedback capacitors can be used to introduce time-dependent behavior such as gradual voltage increases, and to generate useful waveforms. Learn in the process how op-amp circuits with capacitors can perform the mathematical operation called integration. x
  • 16
    Digital versus Analog
    Explore the difference between the analog and digital realms. Learn how the two states “0” and “1” can be used to represent numbers or textual information. Enter the digital age with binary numbers and operations that are the basis of computer logic, and discover logic gates and their truth tables for common logical operators. x
  • 17
    Electronics Goes Digital
    See how distinctly different electrical circuits can implement basic logic operations, and how simple logic gates come together to form complex logic circuits, ultimately including computers. Return to transistors to see how both BJTs and MOSFETs are used to implement logic gates, the latter in an arrangement called Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS). x
  • 18
    Flip-Flop Circuits
    By combining logic gates and positive feedback, obtain circuits with two stable states. These “flip-flop” circuits “remember” their current states until they are forced into the opposite state. Learn the inner workings of several types of flip-flops as they lay the foundations for memory circuits. x
  • 19
    Shift and Divide—Your USB and Your Watch
    Learn how electronic devices “talk” to each other by using flip-flops to send computer “words” one bit at a time, and observe how recipient devices reassemble incoming bits using serial-to-parallel conversions. See how Universal Serial Bus (USB) connections transmit communications between devices, and how the T flip-flop is utilized as a frequency divider in quartz watches. x
  • 20
    Digital Memory
    Examine the circuits that enable your devices to “remember” everything from contact information to your browsing history to the keystrokes you type on your computer. Compare random-access memory versus sequential memory as well as volatile and non-volatile memory. x
  • 21
    Digital Counters
    Flip-flops can be connected together to create counting circuits. Examine the circuitry behind 2-bit, n-bit, and decade counters, then see how the interruption of a light beam can be used in conjunction with such a circuit to keep count of people walking by or products moving along an assembly line. x
  • 22
    Digital to Analog
    Because we live in an analog world—sound, time, temperature, speed, and light are all analog phenomena—it’s important to be able to convert outputs of digital circuits into analog signals that we can perceive. Discover two digital-to-analog converters (DACs): weighted-resistor DACs, and the delta-sigma DACs that provide high-resolution audio for our smartphones and mp3 players. x
  • 23
    Analog to Digital
    Observe how circuit designers have formulated a wide array of schemes for converting analog signals to digitally encoded information. See how flash converters, integrating converters, and feedback converters use very different methods to accomplish the same goal, and weigh the situational costs and benefits of each. x
  • 24
    Your Future in Electronics
    With some final tips, an introduction to the microcontroller, and a demonstration of an amazing circuit aimed at improving the efficiency of photovoltaic panels, Professor Wolfson leaves you with an enhanced appreciation for the complexity of essential modern electronics. You are now well equipped to embark on your own journey through the fascinating world of electronics! x

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  • 208-page course synopsis
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  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Richard Wolfson

About Your Professor

Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
Dr. Richard Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, where he also teaches Climate Change in Middlebury's Environmental Studies Program. He completed his undergraduate work at MIT and Swarthmore College, graduating from Swarthmore with a double major in Physics and Philosophy. He holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Physics from...
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Reviews

Understanding Modern Electronics is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 111.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and well done. I liked the broad overview of electronics. The instructor made good use of setups and equipment that helped understand the basics.
Date published: 2018-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Truly a great beginning lecture on the history! As a physicist and engineering I loved the familiar everyday examples used to illustrate the theory. His detailed explanation of each working part of developing circuits was clear and exciting, giving life to each circuit.
Date published: 2018-09-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course, beautifully presented. The teacher is obviously very experienced in presenting a complex topic to a broad audience. The many times that a set-up had to be arranged were handled very well. I was very impressed and would recommend this course to anyone interested in learning the basics of electronics, both analog and digital.
Date published: 2018-08-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Perhaps I am missing something I have a Science degree and am pretty handy. I have always felt a bit baffled by electronics and thought this would be a good retirement project for me. It has really not done it for me. The lecture style is rapid paced and I quickly found that Iwas floundering in spite of trying to keep up with the course work. Now, I see the bulk of the reviewers love this course. I am not quite sure why I have been floundering with it. I think perhaps that people who have some electrical engineering in their background are better fitted for this course. So, I don't want to be too hard on the lecturer or the content but I do think that this course is better suited for people with some background in electronics, not the novice.
Date published: 2018-07-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Highly Recommended I will mention some things that are wrong with the course, but don't want this to sound like I am negative on the course. I loved this course, and I hope more like it are provided. Also, I intended this course to be a review of electronics for myself, and it was a good one. I learned some new things(circuit lab) as well as reviewed things that I already knew. First, two mistakes: 1) The professor states that hard drives and optical drives are sequential devices, they are not. Both have slight rotational latencies that add to access time but it is minimal. If such devices were sequential you would not be able to do scene selection on a DVD for example. 2) If you like to build some of the projects like I do then beware the DoCircuits project that drives an LED display, it does not have current limiting resistors, and if you build the circuit as shown you will fry your display. When he shows his actual built up circuit, you will see a yellowish 16 pin IC near the display. This is a resistor pack. So his built-up circuit has those current limiting resistors that were not in the DoCircuits schematic. Missing: 1) Inductors. I am not sure why the professor did not do a lecture on inductors, like he did for capacitors. This also means no discussion of LC oscillators, resonance and impedance. As a simplification he mentioned amplifiers have input and output resistance, when in reality it is input and output impedance. Once again, don't let these nitpicks put you off. If you like electronics like I do, then this course will be enjoyable for you.
Date published: 2018-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fits well It sure jogged the old memory. I really enjoyed the course.
Date published: 2018-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An engineer's practical overview Just what the Doctor ordered! Exactly at the level of what was needed for some upcoming projects without going overboard, or tripping up, on theory. Nicely done practical, hands on, exercises at the end of each lecture reinforce all concepts.
Date published: 2018-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding Modern Electronics I learned quite a bit about modern electronics. I understand what my husband says when he is explaining something to me about electronics.
Date published: 2018-02-21
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