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Widget Of The Week

Micronta 22-195A Digital Multimeter, 1986

The ability to accurately measure the three basic units of electricity, namely volts, amps and ohms, has been one of the cornerstones of electrical and electronic engineering for almost 200 years. However, until comparatively recently it was more of an art than a science and relied, to a considerable extent, on the waggling of needles on meter scales, and the eyesight and judgement of whoever was doing the measuring.

 

Everything changed with the introduction of digital electronics and numerical displays in the late 1960s, which turned guesswork into certainty, and it has to be said, took some the soul out of the task. Most engineers wouldn’t dream of swapping their fancy pocket-size digital multimeters for a venerable old AVO 8, andno one can deny the benefits of digital technology when it comes to speed, accuracy reliability and cost, but it didn’t happen overnight. The first generation of affordably priced digital multimeters started to appear in the late 70s and the mid 80s professionals were starting to take them seriously, with their  large and legible displays, improved accuracy and a comprehensive range of measurements that rivalled the best of the traditional analogue instruments. 

 

Second generation digital multimeters, like this Micronta 22-195, dating from 1986, also introduced new features that were previously impossible, or uneconomical to include on analogue meters and the one that got the most attention was auto-ranging. In order to use a traditional multimeter you needed a pretty good idea of what you were about to measure, be it voltage, current or resistance, and more importantly, roughly how much of it there was. This meant you could set the appropriate units and range before you applied the probes. If you got it wrong with the probe leads the wrong way around or you tried to measure a hefty voltage with the meter on a low current or resistance range, for example, at best it was goodbye meter with a bent needle and a puff of smoke. At worst there could be a small explosion and the possibility of a nasty burn or shock for whoever was holding the probes.

 

Auto-ranging removes a lot of the guesswork and perils involved in making measurements. Some models will do everything for you though this Micronta multimeter is a relatively inexpensive device and the user still has to make some basic choices about what they want to measure, i.e. voltage, current or resistance, but after that it mostly figures out the quantities on its own and where the decimal point goes without any need to twiddle dials or swap probe sockets. To those unfamiliar with the dark arts of multimetering this might not sound very important, or indeed interesting, but take it from me, when you’re trying to measuring a live circuit carrying several hundred volts, with both hands occupied holding the probes (usually in a dark corner, surrounded by lots of juice-carrying wires and components), the last thing you want to do is keep taking your hands out to mess around with range knobs.   

 

The Micronta 22-195 has a number of other refinements and these include simple diode and transistor test functions, an audible continuity tester, a high-low memory function for gauging or comparing changes in a variable input, data hold, which freezes the display and it is well protected against overload and transient voltages and currents on all but the very high current range. Readings are displayed on large 4-digit LCD panel that also has mode, status and battery condition information. There’s a row of function selector buttons to the side of the LCD and the buttons below are used for secondary features, like the memory display, manual range control and the built-in buzzer. On the far right there are three sockets for the red (positive) and black (negative) colour-coded probes. The two lower ones are for everyday use; the one at the top is for high range AC/DC current measurements.

 

It’s housed in a slim, heavy-duty plastic case with a carry handle that doubles as a tilt stand. Power is supplied by four 1.5-volt C cells that live in a compartment on the underside. Build quality is very good indeed, it’s rugged too, which is just as well as test instruments that spend a lot of time in the field (quite literally in some cases) need to be able to withstand a lot of harsh treatment. 

 

Micronta was one of Radio Shack’s house brands. The once mighty corporation had thousands of stores across the US, and several hundred in the UK under the Tandy name. The 22-195 made its first appearance in the US parent company’s 1987 catalogue, though it was almost certainly on sale from mid 1986 due to long product and catalogue lead times. It was priced at just under 100 dollars, which was a tidy sum for a multimeter (equivalent to around £200 in today’s money). I can’t be sure about it’s UK debut but typically products appeared here at or around the same time as the US.

 

This one was a chance find at a local car boot sale a couple of years ago and it has been sitting in the dustygizmos to-do box ever since. I can’t remember how much I paid for it but it would have been less than £5.00. Buying vintage battery powered gadgets is always a bit of a gamble, more so with early digital devices. They are virtually unrepairable due to the scarcity of critical parts, like integrated circuits and displays, which were often custom designed. The shabby condition is something else that would have limited how much I was prepared to pay for it but the battery compartment was clean and test instruments are designed to take a bit of rough and tumble, so it’s less of a concern. As it turned out all it needed was a strip down, a thorough spring clean, and with a fresh set of batteries installed it powered up worked straight away.

 

What Happened To It?

There are two stories here; the first was the sad collapse of Radio Shack, which finally filed for bankruptcy in 2015 but it had been going steadily downhill since the late 90s. Radio Shack, and overseas subsidiaries like Tandy were in almost every shopping mall and high street and they were a haven for gadget nuts. It pioneered many electronic technologies, and those of us of a certain age will be immediately familiar with their home computers (the legendary TRS-80), CB Radios, radio scanners, radio controlled toys, novelty radios, electronic kits and parts. For years Tandy was the go-to place for everything from batteries to cheap hi-fis and TVs, but they fell afoul of rival chains, their prices became uncompetitive, it was slow to respond to changes in home computing, they got left behind in the home entertainment, video and mobile phone booms and once the rot had set in, it was only a matter of time before they went into terminal decline.

 

The wider story of multimeters is less dramatic and for a long time Radio Shack/Tandy was the only place to go in the high street for decent quality test instruments like the 22-195. At the time, for the price, it was one of the most advanced models available to the general public, but this was a tiny market. By the early 90s Radio Shack had begun to reduce its involvement with the nuts and bolts side of electronics. In every store, usually at the back, there was an Aladdin’s Cave area, stacked to the ceiling with electronic components that drew in enthusiasts, constructors dabblers and DIYers. The shops changed, and the knowledgeable folk behind the counter were replaced by slick salespersons doing their best to shift shiny ready-made gadgets and black boxes. Interest in building and repairing electronics devices was also on the wane and with it went what was left of the market for multimeters. For those that wanted one there were plenty of cheap instruments online, though the vast majority of them were nowhere near as sophisticated as this one but for most casual users, who only wanted the basics, it didn’t matter.

 

The thing about a good multimeter is that one is all you will ever need, even if you only get it out a couple of times a year and if you are careful it should last a lifetime. Late vintage models, like this one, providing they are in good working order, are no less useful for being old – volts, amps and ohms do not change with the years – so they’re worth having in any case, just don’t expect them to go up much, if at all, in value. Really old instruments, and I’m talking pre WW II can be interesting objects in their own right, and have become very collectable, but they’re strictly for show, and definitely not for testing or any safety-related applications.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1986

Original Price         $99.95 (£65)

Value Today           £20.00 (0616)

Features                 4-digit LCD display, auto ranging, 300mV – 1000VDC, 3 – 750VAC, DC Current 300mA – 30A DC, AC Current 300mA – 10A, Resistance 3 Ohm – 30 Megohm, continuity, diode check, transistor check (hfe/gain), memory (max-min values), input impedance 10M/volt (AC/DC) 100M on 300mV DC scale, data hold, low battery indication, carry handle/tilt stand, fused protection (not high range AC/DC current)

Power req.                    4 x 1.5v C cells

Dimensions:                   200 x 125 x 68mm

Weight:                          650g

Made (assembled) in:    Taiwan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


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