Retrotechtacular: The Cryotron Computer

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Have you ever heard of a Cryotron Computer before? Of course not. Silicon killed the radio star: this is a story of competing technologies back in the day. The hand above holds the two competitors, the bulkiest one is obviously the vacuum tube, and the three-legged device is what became a household name. But to the right of that tube is another technological marvel that can also be combined into computing machines: the cryotron.

[Dudley Allen Buck] and his contributions to early computing are a tale of the possible alternate universe that could have been cryotrons instead of silicon transistors. Early on we find that the theory points to exotic superconductive materials, but we were delighted to find that in the conception and testing stages [Buck] was hacking. He made his first experimental electronic switches using dissimilar metals and dunking them in liquid helium. The devices were copper wire wrapped around a tantalum wire. The tantalum is the circuit path, the copper wire acts as the switch via a magnetic field that alters the resistance of the tantalum.

The name comes from the low temperature bath necessary to make the switches work properly. Miniaturization was the key as it always is; the example above is a relatively small example of the wire-wound version of the Cryotron, but the end goal was a process very familiar to us today. [Buck] was searching for the thin film fabrication techniques that would let him shoe horn 75,000 or more into one single computing platform. Guess who came knocking on his door during this period of his career? The NSA. The story gets even more interesting from there, but lest we rewrite the article we leave you with this: the technology may beat out silicon in the end. Currently it’s one of the cool kids on the block for those companies racing to the quantum computing finish line.

[Thanks Frederick]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

Hackaday Links: April 13, 2014

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Check out this Pokemon Yellow cartridge for Super Nintendo. Wait, what? That is a Game Boy game! Well there is a Super Gameboy cartridge that lets you play them on SNES. This mashes the guts of the two into a custom-decorated SNES cart. Now if you’re more interested in the guts of that Super Game Boy cartridge you’ll want to check out this classic hack which dumped the ROM from it. [Thanks Nick]

Here are a couple of interesting things from our friends over at Adafruit. First off, they have a high-res gallery of the Raspberry Pi compute module and carrier boards which we heard about earlier in the week. Also, the latest Collin’s Lab has a great video on soldering. We especially appreciated the discussion of soldering iron tips and their effect on heat transfer.

[Marius] got tired of the static shock from the office coat rack. You know, like the scene straight out of Office Space? But he didn’t disassemble the infrastructure to solve the issue. Instead he connected it directly to ground. Just make sure you stick the wire in the correct hole!

It’s as if Hackaday is on a quest for the most perfect DIY cyclonic separator. Here’s the latest offering which you can cut out from sheet stock by hand. It’s the alternative for those of us without access to a 3D printer.

If you think it’s too difficult to build what we refer to as a Daft Punk table you need to check out what [Dan] pulled off. He proves that your LED matrix coffee table project doesn’t have to take up a ton of time or cost an exorbitant amount of cash.

We should have mentioned this to you before the weekend so you’d have something to watch: you can now download BBS: The Documentary from the Internet Archive. We’ve watched the entire thing and it’s fantastic. If you know what a dial-up modem handshake sounds like, you’re going to be awash in nostalgia. If you don’t know the delight of those sounds you need to watch this and see how things used to be back in the day when connecting your computer to a network definitely wasn’t what the cool kids were doing. [Thanks Larry]

Fail of the Week: Rewiring Robosapien

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Our first thought was “check out all of those TO-92 components!”, but then we saw the wiring nightmare. [Tom] picked up a Robosapien from an estate sale for just $10. Most hackers couldn’t resist that opportunity, but the inexpensive acquisition led to a time-consuming repair odyssey. When something doesn’t work at all you crack it open to see what’s wrong. He was greeted with wiring whose insulation was flaking off.

This is no problem for anyone competent with a soldering iron. So [Tom] set to work clipping all the bad wire and replacing it with in-line splices. Voila, the little guy was dancing to his own tunes once again! But the success was short-lived as the next day the robot was unresponsive again. [Tom] plans to do some more work by completely replacing the wires as soon as he receives the replacement connectors he ordered. So what do you think, is this an issue that will be resolved with a wire-ectomy or might there be actual damage to the board itself?


2013-09-05-Hackaday-Fail-tips-tileFail of the Week is a Hackaday column which runs every Wednesday. Help keep the fun rolling by writing about your past failures and sending us a link to the story – or sending in links to fail write ups you find in your Internet travels.

Hackaday Links: April 6, 2014

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Back in September we saw this awesomesauce wristwatch. Well, [Zak] is now kitting it up. Learn more about the current version, or order one. [Thanks Petr]

Home automation is from the future, right? Well at [boltzmann138's] house it’s actually from The Next Generation. His home automation dashboard is based on the LCARS interface; he hit the mark perfectly! Anyone thinking what we’re thinking? This should be entered in the Hackaday Sci-Fi Contest, right? [via Adafruit]

PCB fab can vary greatly depending on board size, number of layers, number of copies, and turn time. PCBShopper will perform a meta-search and let you know what all of your options are. We ran a couple of tests and like what we saw. But we haven’t verified the information is all good so do leave a note about your own experience with the site in the comments below. [via Galactic Studios]

We recently mentioned our own woes about acquiring BeagleBone Black boards. It looks like an authorized clone board is poised to enter the market.

Speaking of the BBB, check out this wireless remote wireless sensor hack which [Chirag Nagpal] is interfacing with the BBB.

We haven’t tried to set up any long-range microwave communications systems. Neither has [Kenneth Finnegan] but that didn’t stop him from giving it a whirl. He’s using Nanobridge M5 hardware to help set up a system for a triathlon happening near him.

Sci-Fi Contest: Source Universe Roundup

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The Hackaday Sci-Fi contest has 36 entries so far. Since there are fifteen prizes available, you stand an excellent chance of winning; but you can’t win if you don’t play. It’s pretty easy to be considered for the contest. You simply need to hack together something Sci-Fi related and show off your work. Head over to the contest page and check out the details. Ten of the prizes are popularity-based, so posting early is the best bet! For those that were put-off by the team requirement, there’s a hack to get around that.

Since this is a themed contest we thought we’d give you an update on where inspiration is coming from. Below is the break-down of each Sci-Fi universe that has been so-far adopted by the entrants. We’d like to point out that this isn’t limited to movies, as the bulk of inspiration is to be found in literature. Why don’t we get a comment thread going here to help brain-storm for people who want help locking onto an idea?

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the banner images. These were taken from three of the contest projects. The upper left is a GLaDOS replica controlled by Google Glass (complete with Nerf dart gun) inspired by Portal. Bottom left is a pair of Peril-Sensitive sunglasses inspired by A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And the bottom right is a life-sign scanner inpired by Stargate Atlantis.

  • Unknown (genre or misc themes) 9
  • A Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy 4
  • Back to the Future 3
  • Star Wars 3
  • 2001 A Space Odyssey 2
  • Doctor Who 2
  • Stargate 2
  • Thor 2
  • Blade Runner 1
  • Demolition Man 1
  • ET: The Extra Terrestrial 1
  • Futurama 1
  • Harry Potter 1
  • Knight Rider 1
  • Portal 1
  • Prometheus 1
  • Start Trek 1

Throwback Handheld Built with Modern Hobby Hardware

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Remember all of those fantastically horrible handheld LCD games that hit the toy stores back in the ’90s. You know, the ones that had custom LCD screens to make for some fake animation. Here’s an example of what those should have been. It’s an LCD-based handheld with some soul.

The entire thing is roughly the size of a television remote, with a 3D printed case making it very presentable. But looking at the wiring which hides inside proves this is one-of-a-kind. The Arduino Pro Mini is probably the biggest difference in technology from back in the day compared to now. It has plenty of space for all of the different settings and games shown off in the clip below. The user interface itself is definitely a throw-back though. The Nokia 3310 screen boasts a whopping 84×48 pixel monochrome area. There are four buttons serving as a d-pad, and two as action buttons. Perhaps the greatest feature (besides the printed case we already mentioned) is the ability to recharge the internal battery via USB.

[Zippy314] built this with his son. What’s more fun: learning to program the games, or mastering them and discovering the bugs you missed along the way?

 

[Read more...]

Fail of the Week: CPLDs That Release Blue Smoke

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The card you see above is a floppy drive emulator for Macintosh. [Steve Chamberlain] has been hand assembling these and selling them in small runs, but is troubled by about a 4% burn-out rate for the CPLD which has the red ‘X’ on it. He settled into figure out what exactly is leading to this and it’s a real head-scratcher.

He does a very good job of trouble-shooting, starting with a list of all the possible things he thinks could be causing this: defective part, bad PCB, bad uC firmware, damage during assembly, solder short, tolerance issues, over-voltage on the DB connector, or bad VHDL design. He methodically eliminates these, first by swapping out the part and observing the exact same failure (pretty much eliminates assembly, solder short, etc.), then by measuring and scoping around the card.

The fascinating read doesn’t stop with the article. Make sure you work your way through the comments thread. [Steve] thinks he’s eliminated the idea of bad microcontroller code causing damage. He considers putting in-line resistors on the DB connector but we wonder if clamping diodes wouldn’t be a better choice (at least for testing purposes)? This begs the question, why is he observing a higher voltage on those I/O lines during power-up? As always, we want to hear your constructive comments below.


2013-09-05-Hackaday-Fail-tips-tileFail of the Week is a Hackaday column which runs every Wednesday. Help keep the fun rolling by writing about your past failures and sending us a link to the story – or sending in links to fail write ups you find in your Internet travels.