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Don Lancaster 1940-2023

The inimitable Don Lancaster has left us. He died on June 7 in Mesa, Arizona, of complications following hip surgery. He was 83.

Anybody who was there at the dawn of microcomputing knows who Don Lancaster was. His seminal TTL Cookbook sold over a million copies. He also did cookbooks for RTL and CMOS ICs. He was famous among early mirocomputer fanatics for his books on “cheap video,” back when video boards were just emerging and (can you believe it?) some folks rolled their own from loose parts. He wrote about the Apple II, including one or more books on Apple II assembly language. His book The Incredible Secret Money Machine was an eccentric guide to starting your own small-scale home business.

When I began using Don’s books in the midlate 1970s, I never gave any thought to actually meeting him. His CMOS Cookbook was critical to my ongoing COSMAC Elf project. I built the original Elf from Popular Electronics in 1976, and over the next several years expanded it in several ways, including a wire-wrapped memory system totaling 2,560 bytes of CMOS memory, as ten banks of paired 5101 CMOS 256X4 RAM chips. I doubt I could have managed that without the CMOS Cookbook.

I also used his TTL Cookbook to learn how the various TTL chips worked and could be hooked together. I’m not exaggerating when I say that without Don’s books on ICs, I would never have learned digital logic to any useful degree.

Don had a strong interest in local archaeology, especially the ways that indigenous  peoples used and stored water for irrigation. About that I know little or nothing, but looking for tinajas was one of his hobbies.

As I drifted toward technical writing in the early 1980s, I realized that I was imitating Don’s style without consciously doing so. This is an odd talent called “pastiche” in literary circles, which is the art of writing in another writer’s style. I discovered this talent in college, when after reading the whole (thick) book of e.e. cummings’ complete works, I began writing what were recognizably e.e. cummings poems. They weren’t great poems, but they were definitely in his style. When I began writing Pascal MT+ From Square One toward the end of 1983, there was a lot of Don Lancaster in it.  (That book eventually emerged as Complete Turbo Pascal in 1985.) I later found myself pastiching Isaac Asimov when I wrote the “Structured Programming” column in DDJ. Asimov almost always started an article with a funny story, and so did I. (See DDJ for September 1991 for my well-known intro about the Pizza Pride girl.)

Don Lancaster and Isaac Asimov taught me more about technical writing than anyone else, ever. Furthermore, neither had any idea that he was teaching me. I met Asimov at LACon in 1984 when Carol and some friends and I won breakfast with him at a charity auction. But unlike Asimov, Don eventually became a personal friend.

I don’t precisely recall how I was introduced to Don. I think my PC Techniques art director Barbara Nicholson’s brother somehow pulled me into Don’s network. Flukier still was the fact that Don lived within reasonable driving distance from Phoenix, in Thatcher, Arizona. Although Don never wrote for my magazines (and we published none of his books) we invited him to our monthly author parties. He attended quite a few, generally with his wife Bee and his dog.

And we went down to visit him a time or two. Don took us up the side of a nearby mountain in his VW microbus, which was scary at times but otherwise wonderfully scenic.

Once Carol and I left Arizona for Colorado in 2003, Don and I fell out of touch, but he was still working to the very end, and produced a boggling body of work including 44 books and over a thousand technical articles.

He was a little eccentric (though he had nothing whatsoever on Wayne Green) and I’ll freely accept the tag for myself as well. His skill with words and his rampaging curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever seen elsewhere. I am honored to have known him, and to have learned from him. He really was a guru, and the world could use a few more (or maybe a lot more) like him.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.


  1. Tom Roderick says:

    As a 76 year old retired engineer I will be the first to admit that I learned more about REAL electronics from Don Lancaster than in any of my classes. The classes were all theory and math, but Don taught us how to actually MAKE things. However, the career path of many engineers seems to follow a path from designing and making things to writing about them. Mine was no different, and for the latter part of my career I did FAR more writing than design and I will be happy to admit to pastiche in doing that because of what I read from both Don and you Jeff! I had exactly ONE technical writing course in over four years of engineering study, but I really learned most of what I know of the art from reading and emulating those who were were the best in the business. Thanks to you both.

    To quote Jimmy Buffett, “I read dozens of Books about Heroes and Crooks and learned much from both of their styles.” This time it was just two heroes and no crooks

  2. Don Doerres says:

    I never did meet Don, but I spoke to him on the phone several times. One of his columns invited readers to call with questions, so I did!

    It used to be Don would walk through area book stores, pick his books off the shelves, autograph them, and put them back. Most of my copies are so autographed.

    I worked at Goodyear Aerospace in Litchfield Park, Arizona for a time. I found lots of technical drawings of his there, before he went off on his own thing. I used his TTL Cookbook to help design many of the test circuits I built while I worked at Goodyear. Quite a mentor.

    I rummaged in ASU’s library and found his Masters Dissertation on metal detectors. Most interesting.

  3. Eric Brombaugh says:

    I was saddened to learn about this last week. His books and articles were a wonderful resource for a puppy engineer and I’ve continued to follow him on his website as well.

    I met him once – he’d driven his VW up to the Superstition Hamfest at Mesa Community College about 20 years ago and I had a quick chat with him as I bought a bunch of old parts in a plastic caddy. Quite a character – he will be missed.

  4. Tom Orman says:


    It was through Don’s “Guru’s Lair” or one of his other series of articles that I was alerted to your site, many years ago. I actually had “Life Time” subscriptions to both Byte and Kilobaud magazines… both of their lives were way shorter than I was expecting. I was quite saddened to hear of Don Lancaster’s passing and I will miss being able to read about his latest interests…

  5. Larry Keyes says:

    Jeff….what a wonderful memorial to Don Lancaster. I have all of his books, and certainly learned what little I know about integrated circuitry from him. I used the Money Machine book as a text when running my consulting business for ten years or so.

    Thank you so much for this rememberance.

  6. TRX says:

    > Asimov almost always started an article with a funny story, and so did I.

    Sometimes it was just talking about his car breaking down, or typewriters, or something he’d run across during his day. I liked the leaders; they gave a sense of personal involvement instead of just some text with an author name at the top.

    1. It was always in the back of my mind while beginning an essay: Bring ’em in grinning. What I didn’t entirely expect is that I would quickly develop a nonfiction style that leaned toward lightness of heart throughout, with personal mini-anecdotes here and there, and just enough wry humor to keep ’em grinning through the whole thing. It works. My intermittently funny assembly language book has been print now for 33 years. I’ve gotten a few gripe letters here and there (mostly about the Martians in Chapter 2) but reader response has been overwhelmingly positive.

      Back when I was in college fifty years ago, in one literature course or another I ran into a quote by Henry David Thoreau:

      “Not by constraint or severity shall you have access to true wisdom, but by abandonment and childlike mirthfulness. If you would know aught, be gay before it.”

      That was one of my mottoes for a long time (and in a deeper sense still is) granting that you can’t say it anymore. Ditto an e.e.cummings poem called “mighty guest of merely me,” which contains another of my mottoes:

      Be thou gay by dark and day
      gay as only truth is gay

      I don’t begrudge the word to gays; I just wish I had another word that packed the same meaning into as few letters. Language is a fluky business, and a great deal of that flukiness can be ascribed to good old [middle and modern] English.

  7. Bill Meyer says:

    Don Lancaster’s presentation of TTL was superb. It was so understandable that I lent my original copy to my boss – a transmitter/relay logic guy – and he correctly discovered an error in the book. I was less a fan of his CMOS cookbook, as I was more focused on the 74C products, and had devoured the NSC CMOS databook as soon as it was available.

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