Anthropomorphizing Microprocessors

Vintage microprocessors usually do something, be it just sitting in an idle loop, calculating something, or simply looking cool in a collector’s cabinet. [Lee] has come up with a vastly cooler use for an old microprocessor: he’s anthropomorphized it by wiring LEDs up to the address lines and arranged those LEDs into a face. After wiring up the right circuit, the face of LEDs slowly changes expressions, making this tiny little board react to random electronic fluctuations.

The CPU used for this project is the RCA 1802, best known for being the smarts in the COSMAC Elf, a very early microprocessor training computer, but still capable of teaching the basics of computing today, albeit on a processor that isn’t made any more with an instruction set that is barely supported by anything modern.

[Lee] apparently has a lot of these 1802s, and to show off how simple a microcomputer can get, he created the strangest use for a CPU we’ve ever seen. You can’t program this face of LEDs; the data bus is left floating so random values are ‘displayed’ on the face. Only one of the data lines is pulled high. This prevents the data bus from ever being 0x00, the HALT instruction.

If you’re looking for something a little more useful to do with an RCA 1802 MPU, [Lee] also has a COSMAC Elf membership card. It’s a reproduction of the famous COSMAC Elf, repackaged into a board the size of an Altoid tin. It has the 1802 onboard, a few switches and blinkenlights,  and a parallel port for interacting with peripherals.

Central European Computer Collecting

During Hackaday’s short trip to Czech, we were lucky enough to run into someone who had recently had one of his projects featured on Hackaday. It’s [Martin]’s multi-target IDE for 8-bit CPUs, written entirely in JavaScript, and a full development suite for anything with a 6502, 6800, 6809, Z80, 8080, and 8085. [Martin] was kind enough to sit down and give us the scoop on why he’s interested in old computers, and why he developed his 8-bit IDE project, ASM80.

[Martin] grew up in the days of computer magazines, and originally wanted to build his own computer. That plan didn’t work out, but his parents did get him a Speccy in 1986, but the love of old hardware is still there. Over the years, this evolved into computer collecting, with the old ZX Spectrum, an Commodore 64, ORICs, and Acorns rounding out his collection. As we learned at the Computeum, there the middle of Europe had computers that just aren’t seen on the English-speaking Internet, and [Martin]’s collection is no exception.

In addition to doing some very cool stuff for some very old computers, [Martin] also donated something to the Hackaday Hackaspace. It’s a PMI-80, a single board computer made for university computer science students, and basically a KIM-1, but based on a Czechoslovak clone of the Intel 8080 made by Tesla. There is 1k of RAM and 1k of ROM on this board, a calculator keypad, and a few seven segment displays. For the time, it was a great ‘student’ computer, and not really rare in Europe, but this is the first one I’ve seen on my side of the Atlantic.

You can see some pics of the PMI-80 below with [Martin]’s interview. [Martin] also promised to write-up a short history of classic central european computers, a subject there isn’t much written about in the anglosphere. We’ll post a link to that when he finishes that up.

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Cloning a Board from Pictures on the Internet

[Andrew] was a pretty cool guy in the early 90s with an awesome keyboard synth that did wavetable synthesis, sampling, a sequencer, and an effects processor. This was a strange era for storage; a reasonable amount of Flash memory was unheard of, and floppy disks ruled the land. [Andrew]’s synth, though, had the option to connect SCSI drives. Like all optional add ons for high-end equipment, the current price for the Ensoniq SCSI card is astronomical and [Andrew] figured he could build one of these cards himself.

Poking around eBay, [Andrew] found the card in question – just a few passives, some connectors, a voltage regulator, and an odd chip from AMD. This chip was a 33C93A, a SCSI controller, and a trip down the Chinese vendor rabbit hole netted him one for $7. Can’t do better than that.

With the datasheet for the chip in hand and a few reasonable assumptions on how the circuit worked, [Andrew] tried to figure draw the schematic. After doing that, he found another hobbyist that had attempted the same project a few years earlier. All the nets were identical, and all that was left to do was sending a board off to the fab.

A quick trip to Front Panel Express got [Andrew] a mounting bracket for the card, and after plugging it in to the synth revealed a new option – SCSI. It worked, and with an ancient SCSI CD-ROM drive, he had boatloads of offline storage for his synth. Great work, and something we’d love to see more of.

 

Hacklet 23 – The Groove Tube

The transistor may rule the electronics world today, but before solid state moved in, vacuum state was king. Tubes, or valves if you’re from Europe, were the only way to fly. Every good hacker knew their triodes from their tetrodes and their pentodes. While technology has moved on, some hackers keep the past alive with tube based projects. This week on the Hacklet, we’re featuring some of the best tube projects on Hackaday.io!

SAMSUNGWe start with [256byteram] and Tube Television Tennis. [256byteram] is building an entire Pong style game from tubes, including a CRT to display the game. Displaying anything on a standard television means generating lots of timing signals. [256byteram] is doing this by using multivibrators to create one-shots and flip-flop circuits. Tube Television Tennis is still a work in progress, but [256byteram] already can display a paddle and move it around the screen in both X and Y. This project has already blown our minds!

tamp1From [Marcel] comes this great Low Voltage All-Tube Amplifier, which we featured on the blog earlier this year. [Marcel] does tubes without the danger of high voltage by using the ECL82 tube at 40 volts. The ECL82 incorporates both a triode pentode in one package, making it something of an integrated circuit. Power is provided by transformer while a PY88 tube handles rectifier duties, making this truly an all tube amp. A few passive components complete the design. We can’t wait to fire one up and hear some class A goodness while basking in the warm glow only a tube can create.

obsoleteTimeNo tube article would be complete without some nixies, and [opeRaptor] is here to provide them with Obsolete Time, a nixie tube clock! Obsolete Time uses IN-12 Russian nixie tubes, and goes for a minimalist design. Under the hood it’s all modern tech though, including a Bluetooth radio which allows the clock to be set via an Android app.

hybridHeadphone2[Brandon Foltz] is also getting into a vacuum state of mind as he takes Adventures in Hybrid Headphone Amps. [Brandon] is mixing the best of the old and new worlds by using a 6247 tube as the input stage to an LM386 single chip amplifier. This hybrid is still a work in progress, as [Brandon] is trying to clean up the sound from his LM386.

Hackaday.io update!

private-messageDid you know that we’re constantly upgrading Hackaday.io? We listen to your input on the feedback project, and we’re always adding new features to the site. If you haven’t noticed, you can now send private messages to other users. We’re sure this will help put users in contact with each other, so they can collaborate on even more projects! On the left side of each profile page there is a “Send a private message” button below the hacker’s avatar. You now have better indicators when you have messages or updates too! The private messages and feed icons at the top right of every .io page now have indicators to show how many messages or feed entries you have waiting. These are all based on live data, so they’ll update as you browse the site.

That’s all the time we have for this week’s Hacklet! As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Artisanal Vacuum Tubes: Hackaday Shows You How

Homemade Vacuum Tube
Homemade Vacuum Tube

About a decade ago I started a strange little journey in my free time that cut a path across electronics manufacturing from over the last century. One morning I decided to find out how the little glowing glass bottles we sometimes call electron tubes worked. Not knowing any better I simply picked up an old copy of the Thomas Register. For those of you generally under 40 that was our version of Google, and resembled a set of 10 yellow pages.

I started calling companies listed under “Electron Tube Manufacturers” until I got a voice on the other end. Most of the numbers would ring to the familiar “this number is no longer in service” message, but in one lucky case I found I was talking to a Mrs. Roni Elsbury, nee Ulmer of M.U. Inc. Her company is one of the only remaining firms still engaged in the production of traditional style vacuum tubes in the U.S. Ever since then I have enjoyed occasional journeys down to her facility to assist her in maintenance of the equipment, work on tooling, and help to solve little engineering challenges that keep this very artisanal process alive. It did not take too many of these trips to realize that this could be distilled down to some very basic tools and processes that could be reproduced in your average garage and that positive, all be it rudimentary results could be had with information widely available on the Internet.

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Tweet Messages from Punch Cards

It all started with a conversation about the early days of computing. The next thing he knew, [Tim Jagenberg’s] colleague gave him a stack of punch cards and a challenge.  [Tim] attempted to read them with a mechanical contact and failed.  Undeterred, he decided to make a punch card-to-keyboard interface using optical parts from disassembled HP print stations.  Specifically, he took apart the slotted optical interrupter switches to use their IR-LEDs and photo-transistors. Next, [Tim] drilled holes into two pieces of plastic, gluing the LEDs on one piece of plastic and the photo-transistors on the other. The photo-transistors tell the Teensy 3.1 whenever a hole is detected.

[Tim] developed an interpreter on the Teensy that reads the punch card according to IBM model 029 keypunch codes. The Teensy enumerates as a USB keyboard when connected to a computer. As a punch card is read, the Teensy outputs the decoded characters as key presses.  When a punch card has been completely read, an ‘Enter’ key press is transmitted.  Tweeting the punch cards is no more complicated than typing the text yourself. Naturally, the first message posted on Twitter from the stack of punch cards was “Hello World!”  [Tim’s] binary and source code is available for download on Github.

We’ve enjoyed covering the backstory of the punch card and a previous project reading these cards using a digital camera setup. It’s always interesting to see the clever ways people use current technology and can-do attitude to read data from obsolete systems that would otherwise be lost.  We wonder what is on the rest of those punch cards?  Let’s hope [Tim] has more punch card tweets soon!

Play Music on a High Voltage Keyboard

[Matt] works at a neon sign power supply company. When a vendor error left him with quite a few defective high voltage transformers, he couldn’t bring himself to toss them in the bin. [Matt] was able to fix the transformers well enough to work, and the idea for a high voltage keyboard began to brew. Unfortunately, the original transformers were not up to the task of creating a musical arc. At that point the project had taken on a life of its own. Matt grabbed some higher power transformers and started building.

The keyboard has 25  keys, each connected to an individual high voltage circuit with its own spark gap. The HV circuit is based upon a IR2153D self-oscillating half-bridge driver. (PDF link). The 2153D is modulated by a good old-fashioned 555 timer chip. No micros in this design, folks! The output of the IR2153D switches a pair of N-channel MOSFETS which drive the flyback transformers.

[Matt] created 25 copies of his circuit and built them up on individual PCBs. He assembled everything on a wooden board shaped roughly like a grand piano. The final project looks great – though [Matt] admittedly has no musical ability, so we can’t hear AC/DC flying out of those spark gaps just yet.

If you do want to hear sparks playing music, check out the OneTesla project we saw at MakerFaire NY 2013.

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