All About Circuits 20th Anniversary Celebration—Exclusive Interview with Founder Rob Pengelly
May 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of All About Circuits. In this exclusive interview, Rob Pengelly—the site’s creator and still current “webmaster”—reflects on the history and impact of All About Circuits within the electrical engineering world.
First, let’s put 20 years into some perspective. Many of you are reading this article on your iPhone or Android smartphone—phones that, in 2003, were still at least four years in the future. Others of you who might be using All About Circuits in your university studies were not even born in 2003.
Over the last 20 years, All About Circuits has been viewed over 500 million times and accessed on all seven continents (yes, even Antarctica). As part of our celebration of this milestone, we sat down to discuss this history with Rob Pengelly, who still works daily on All About Circuits as part of EETech. When asked about his current role, Rob jokingly said he prefers a title “from the late 90s”—webmaster.
All About Circuits founder and webmaster, Rob Pengelly
It All Began With An Open-source Textbook
Back in May 2003, Rob was finishing up his first year at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University). He was studying Computer Science but was required to take a number of electrical engineering courses. During that second semester, he discovered the multi-volume open-source textbook Lessons in Electronic Circuits by Tony R. Kuphaldt.
Rob recounts that during high school, he had started playing with ”web development and coding small websites here and there.” After benefitting from the PDF version of Kuphaldt’s textbook, Rob recalls thinking that:
“Transitioning the book from a PDF onto a website that was broken down by page by page, with chapters and volumes, and then adding a search component, would be not just useful for myself, but others as well.”
He added, “I just figured I could maybe make a website specific for the textbook, and it could help others who were struggling like I did.” At the time, he could not have imagined how useful and helpful the textbook and All About Circuits would become.
A 2003 screen capture from All About Circuits
With some time off after his exams, Rob got to work. He laughingly recalled, “it was spaghetti code, but it worked.” When asked if he considered any other names for the site besides All About Circuits, Rob answered, “No, I thought it was catchy.”
In high school, Rob was also “working at a PC shop building computers and the real nerdy stuff.” He couldn’t recall what PC he used to host All About Circuits in 2003, but he was confident that it was “some big, ugly, beige box that I would have put together.”
The Forum Leads Community Growth
Shortly after completing the textbook, Rob got to work adding the community forum. For that, Rob admits that he used “out-of-the-box forum software” rather than trying to code that himself.
A 2003 screen capture from the All About Circuits forum
The forums took some time to get initial growth. Rob noted that “whenever you see a completely empty forum, no one really cares to post on it because there's no one there to answer it. It's tricky.” However, the textbook paired well with the forum to drive growth:
“I think we had the benefit of attracting students through the textbook, and then if they had questions, there was a big forum link that they could register and post on. So having both components really helped build the overall site and the overall community.”
The Key Role of Forum Moderators and Contributors
Rob mentioned that they “were quite fortunate” to have members jump on early and begin contributing. To his knowledge, there were not any other electrical engineering-specific forums available at the time. This led to a lot of “organic growth” very early on.
One of the first questions and answers on the All About Circuits forum
“There have been some key long-term, hardcore forum users that have contributed a lot of time moderating, answering questions, helping with policy, and dealing with issues. I think a huge thing I want to stress is that the long-term members of the forum are really the reason why All About Circuits is All About Circuits these days.”
Internet forums can be a bit notorious for spam, flame wars, and more. When asked about this, Rob chuckled and said, “many people are quite passionate on forums!” But Rob said that was never a major problem on All About Circuits, thanks to the community and moderators being open about policy discussions and then sticking to them.
According to Rob, some of those initial members are still contributing and moderating to this day. He added that “all of the kudos” for maintaining and policing the forum belong to the moderators. He was focused on “making sure the servers were up and that the pages were serving fast.”
The Forum and the Textbook Become Intertwined
Interestingly, the forum and its contributors were also instrumental in continuing to develop the textbook. Rob described how the forum became “the central place where people would report any technical issues with the textbook.” From there, it “evolved into larger contributions of chapters.”
For many years, the PDF and website versions of the textbook were tightly coupled. The source code for the textbook would be updated. This source code would then be used to generate a new PDF version. In parallel, Rob had a system that would pull from that source code and update the textbook
The content slowly grew to include worksheets and video lectures. You can still hear the joy in Rob’s voice as he describes the contributions of others in helping to make all of these engineering resources available on the web:
“It was really neat to have so many different people contributing to this useful textbook that's helped millions of people.”
All About Circuits Adds Editorial
For many years, Rob had wanted to expand All About CIrcuits to include an editorial team that would create technical articles and provide industry news coverage. “But to be honest, I just didn't know how to do it,” said Rob.
Then, Adam LaBarbera reached out to Rob, and “the timing was perfect.” Rob recognized that Adam had the experience to execute that joint vision to grow the site, saying “he had the background and organizational skills to get that going.”
In 2015, they launched EETech Media together and released an updated version of All About Circuits. Without their meeting, Rob acknowledges that “we wouldn't be anywhere near we are now without Adam and his leadership.”
The Team Blue vs. Team Orange Battle
As can be seen in some of the images above, All About Circuits began with a blue color scheme. While noting that he was “not a designer”, Rob settled on blue because it was “easy and easy on the eyes.” Plus, “a lot of sites back then were blue.”
The 2015 relaunch included a change in the color scheme from blue to orange. According to Rob, some of the community “hated Team Orange, as they called it.”
In a nod to those important Team Blue members and that two-decade legacy, Rob shared that it is still possible to this day for members to configure the All About Circuits forum to display with the classic blue format.
It’s So Much Bigger Than Me
When asked to reflect on the impact that All About Circuits has had in helping students, hobbyists, and engineers for 20 years, Rob said:
“I'm very proud of it, and I'm proud of the community of people that have helped make All About Circuits. Whether the volunteers on the forum or everyone who works at EETech over the years, I think everyone should be proud that we've created this incredible educational resource for both students and continuing education for engineers. It's unique, and it makes me very proud.”
Always quick to direct attention to others, Rob added, “I helped create the site, but it's so much bigger than me.”
Finally, when asked about dreams for the next 20 years, Rob mentioned wanting to “continue to grow the site” by adding more tools and technical education content. “The more it builds, the more it’s going to be useful to that student who signs up in 15 years to study at university.”
Share Your All About Circuits Memories
Help us celebrate 20 years by letting us know how All About Circuits impacted you. We would love to hear from you in the comments section below.