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Introduction to the Arduino...

... a great, inexpensive microcontroller system

Hardware and IDE software: Open Source!

Not my finest hour as a technical illustrator, but here are pictures of two "ancient" Arduino clones from Modern Device. I still (Feb 2016) like both of them! Shrink the width of your browser window until the boards are shown life-sized. These ARE seriously cool! Admittedly, they were more cool when they first came out. In some ways I am sorry for people new to microcontrollers, because today's fancy devices with SMT, multi-layer boards, etc, make it easy to miss how very, VERY cool things are in 2016.

Images of Modern Device clones.

I think the following people may be interested in what's on this page:

People interested in low cost electronics project development. Relatively "beginner-friendly"... though you will possibly be a little daunted if you have no background in programming or electronics. But: You Can Do It!!

People interested in microcontrollers.

People interested in any of the following: the Dallas 1-wire product line, the I2C bus, data logging, process control systems, alarm systems (burglar or other), weather monitoring, putting servers onto the internet without needing a "big" Windows or Linux PC.... and, not least: having fun with electronics (without spending tons of money)!!

Nothing to buy!

You can "play" with an Arduino (if you have a Windows computer) 10 minutes from now, without spending any money at all. There is an Arduino Simulator available! Stan Simmons' free simulator of Arduino Uno. It works just fine. Great for getting a taste, great for demos in schools. (Of course, it won't do "all" that a "real" Arduino will do... but it will do an amazing lot. And it doesn't entail the frustrations of getting to grips with the physical tasks of hooking up circuits. (Nor the nuisance of buying components!)

Teachers and the like may be interested in my NoviceGuard initiative- a full Arduino, but with some of the challenges of "hooking stuff up" minimized for novices.


The Arduino is a neat little microprocessor-based device that can do more than some of the "full" computers I worked with in the 1980s. The project is not so old as to be hampered by ancient chips, nor so new that I fear it may only be a "flash in the pan". It does seem to have momentum and a dedicated following. The software and the hardware are Open Source, which, as all Right Thinking People know, is The Way to Go!

These are seriously cool "proper" computers, programmable in a C-like language, with many bits of digital I/O, some analogue I/O and a serial port. You don't need a QWERTY keyboard, a disk drive and a 1280 x 1024 LCD monitor to do useful computing! (And while the basic Arduino doesn't have even close equivalents, it IS possible, if your application needs them, to hook keyboards, backing store (USB thumbdrive being my choice), and alphanumeric displays to Arduinos.)

There are the "official" Arduinos, and a number of clones.

I have some of both. They work. They rock!

They offer a great deal, for not very much money! All you need besides the Arduino or clone is a power supply (cheap "wall wart"), a USB interface (more on this in a moment) and the free software. A prototyping board will make connecting LEDs, switches, potentiometers, etc. easier.) (You also need a "proper" computer, but only for the programming of your Arduino. Windoze, or Linux or Mac. Once the Arduino is programmed, it will run independently of the big computer. The programming is easy, both in terms of the intellectual issues, and the "doing it" issues. The Arduino has flash memory to which you write the program, a bit like storing data in a thumbdrive.)

I've been using Arduino clones from Modern Device and Wulfden (see below) but they are not the only sources.... which is, I think, one of the strengths of the product. I also use Sparkfun. They are rarely the least expensive source.. but they offer a wide range of goods, and professional service. You order. Easily. You pay. The goods come. Promptly. Modern Device and Wulfden score as highly in every area except wide range of goods. There are other good sources... and there are the sources where there is a reason for the bargain you may be getting, if you have patience.

The USB interface:

To program your Arduino, you need a way for your big computer to talk to the Arduino. The free development software for your big computer sends the program out via one of it's ports. Typically, people plug in a USB device for these comms. Often, in 2016, people use and Arduino with the USB interface "built in". There are pros and cons to that. I've done a separate page about your choices for connecting the Arduino for programming.

N.B.: If you have one of the old cables, but have moved to the 3.3v Arduinos, you may have issues. More on this at the page cited above.

For many years, the RBBB from Modern Device.com (Not Modern Device**S**, note.) was my favorite "Arduino". It remains at the heart of several systems which "just work", 24x7, in my life. ($11 in kit form at 6/08... and still $11 at 2/16, but you now have a choice of 3v3 or 5v. PayPal accepted. See: Easy! I told you!) (Although the Arduino project is open source, technically... registered trademark (on an open source product(?Duh?))... only some boards made to the design can be called "Arduino"s.) My first Arduino was an assembled "Diecimilo": $40 when I bought mine. (There are much less expensive alternatives... see below.)

Both of the Arduinos in the photo at the top of the page were from Modern Device. The lower one is the RBBB. Not only do I like the device, but I've also had excellent customer support from Modern Device.com and Wulfden.

In the past few years, I've mostly used the Arduino Pro Mini. I've become lazy about assembling things myself. (Very lazy... the "assembly" for an RBBB is minimal.)

There are, today, more "powerful" Arduinos. The Mega. The Teensy. But if you are just getting started, a Pro Mini, or a Teensy is hard to beat. They are only smaller, not "small"!

(I first came across the Teensy in October 2014. It is a splendid "super Arduino". If you are one for jumping in at the deep end (not a great deal deeper), you might want to glance at my short page about the Teensy... but if you are completely new to Arduino, perhaps better to learn to "walk" before you try to "run". There will be little wasted money or effort. Beginners can just stay here, instead of going off to the Teensy page.)

Further comment on the support at ModernDevice: Look at documentation links on their page for the RBBB.

Other good instructions relating to the RBBB can be found in the PDF from Wulfden, and a photo guide at Instructables. If using the guide: Be careful when you install the resistors. R1 (the board is clearly marked) is 1k: brn-blk-RED. R2 is 10k: brn-blk-ORANGE.

There are good prices and all sorts of Neat Stuff at the Wulfden site. The mini-prototyping breadboards are great for use with RBBBs. ($13 for 3, including p&p, at 7/09.) And, besides Things To Buy, you will also find useful tutorial material.

This isn't the place for the next item... I'll try to move it one day... but while I have this page open for editing, let me mention that when you first fire up your Arduino, two little "gotchas" to watch out for are: You need to set your development software to talk to the Arduino on the right port, and you need to tell the software what sort of Arduino you have. You "tell it" via its Tools | Settings, or some such. (The "development software" is free stuff that you download. It is high quality. Don't be fooled by the price.)

In a similar vein: If you have a new Arduino on the way, or have just started with one, read my cables page for a warning about reversing a connection. It is at the bottom of the page, under "Whichever you use...".

I've written a little page about my first steps with my Arduino. My hope is that it will answer any questions you may have, and encourage you to try one. I've written some tutorials to help you master the Arduino and its programming language.

Even before I had explored it in depth, having looked at a number of such devices over the years, I was very enthusiastic... and experience has only increased my enthusiasm. They seem to have got many things "right". Long ago, they said they've produced 10,000 of them, so this isn't a limited product with a bleak future. The hardware and essential software is open source; you'll find legal clones available. (The "BoArdino" is one that appealed to me before I became "hooked" on the ModernDevice design. I liked the fact that, like the RBBB, it looked like it would be easy to use with prototyping boards. It is another of the designs that doesn't have the USB onboard... good, in my opinion.

There's also the Modern Device BBB, for people who like their pins all on one side, so that breadboard space isn't lost under the Arduino. (Another alternative is to use TWO breadboards, one on each side of the DIL footprint Arduinos, like the Mini Pro.)

Originally what came next was just "I'd tell you more... but I'd rather go play with my Arduino!"

I've now played with Arduinos for many years. Still loving them.

My first serious project was a prototype "client/server" system which lets me put the overheads of looking at a 16 key matrix keyboard into a separate device (a BasicStamp at the moment, eventually an ad hoc PIC), using just two lines of the Arduino to "talk" to the keyboard as necessary. I told you the beast was capable! (Other people have done similar things to simplify interfacing an Arduino to an LCD display.

I've also worked up an access control device driven by an Arduino. It has two switches, two LEDs, and must be connected to an electro-mechanical strikeplate for actual use... but you can use an LED just to see the device in action. It presents the person wanting entry to some premises a "challenge" in the form of a pattern of "ons" and "offs" on the LEDs. If the user gives the right "response", by pressing one or both of the buttons, the door will open for 10 seconds. (That "open" time can be adjusted.) Just a little example of what an Arduino can do. The program only used a tenth of the available memory, and a piffling number of the available I/O pins. (For "real world" use, I would add at least another LED and another switch, making the "code" harder to crack.)

A I first came across the Arduino at the start of 2008, quite by accident, thanks to the enthusiastic mention on Peter Anderson's microcontroller page. (I'm sorry to say that Peter passed away some time ago, but his page lives on.)

I hope you'll give the Arduino a try. It is a great, inexpensive, microcontroller development environment. If I haven't, please let me know where my "pitch" is lacking? No, Virginia, I don't get any commission... I just have had a lot of fun, and expect you.. or your kids... could have similar fun! (How many things are kids allowed to do today which give them such opportunities to be hard working and creative and self-directed?)

If you have been doing your homework, and you are thinking about "getting into" something like the Arduino, then you are probably also reading about the relatively new kid on the block, the Raspberry Pi. A good device. But while it may seem a similar product, it really addresses different wants. I've explored the issues at "Arduino or Pi?"

See my general microcontroller systems page for the "Basic Stamp" from Parallax and other sources. For years, the page you are reading also suggested considering the Control Plus "Pascalite" and various Microchip PIC based kits... but the Pascalite "died" a while ago, and in early 2016 it seemed that the hobbyists, at least, had moved on from the PIC. Sigh. At least it seems I backed the right horse all those years ago! (There's a bit more about the Pascalite and the PIC at the general microcontroller systems page.

Ad from page's editor: Yes.. I do enjoy compiling these things for you... hope they are helpful. However.. this doesn't pay my bills!!! If you find this stuff useful, (and you run an MS-DOS or Windows PC) please visit my freeware and shareware page, Sheepdog Software (tm), download something, and circulate it for me? At least (please) send an 'I liked the parallel port use page, and I'm from (country/ state)' email? (No... I don't do spam) Links on your page to this page would also be appreciated!
Click here to visit editor's freeware, shareware page.

A different way to control things with a computer: If you can find a Windows PC with a parallel port(!), at my shareware site there are two freeware programs there... one for toggling bits, the other for using the computer as a timer via the parallel port.

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