Recapture Radio’s Roots with an Updated Regenerative Receiver

Crystal radios used to be the “gateway drug” into hobby electronics. Trouble was, there’s only so much one can hope to accomplish with a wire-wrapped oatmeal carton, a safety-pin, and a razor blade. Adding a few components and exploring the regenerative circuit can prove to be a little more engaging, and that’s where this simple breadboard regen radio comes in.

Sometimes it’s the simple concepts that can capture the imagination, and revisiting the classics is a great way to do it. Basically a reiteration of [Armstrong]’s original 1912 regenerative design, [VonAcht] uses silicon where glass was used, but the principle is the same. A little of the amplified RF signal is fed back into the tuned circuit through an additional coil on the ferrite rod that acts as the receiver’s antenna. Positive feedback amplifies the RF even more, a germanium diode envelope detector demodulates the signal, and the audio is passed to a simple op amp stage for driving a headphone.

Amenable to solderless breadboarding, or even literal breadboard construction using dead bug or Manhattan wiring, the circuit invites experimentation and looks like fun to fiddle with. And getting a handle on analog and RF concepts is always a treat.

[via r/electronics]

New Caps And RAM Save Another Poly-1

1980s American teenagers, if they were lucky enough to attend a school with a computer lab, would have sat down in front of Apple IIs or maybe Commodore VIC20s. Similarly, their British cousins had BBC Micros. Solid and educational machines with all sorts of wholesome software, which of course the kids absolutely preferred to run in preference to playing computer games.

New Zealanders, at least a few of them, had the Poly-1. A footnote in the 8-bit microcomputer story, this was a home-grown computer with a built-in monitor clad in a futuristic one-piece plastic shell. Non-Kiwis never had the chance to encounter its 6809 processor and 64k of RAM, the global computer business being too great a challenge for a small New Zealand technology company, especially one whose government support had evaporated.

Decades after the end of Poly-1 production, some survive in the hands of enthusiasts. [Terry Stewart] has two of them, and has posted details of how he brought life back to one that was dead on arrival. It’s a story first of a failed electrolytic capacitor and tricky-to-dismantle PSU design, then of an almost-working computer whose random crashes were eventually traced to a faulty RAM chip. It seems swapping out that quantity of DIL RAM chips is rather tedious, and of course it had to be the final chip in the final bank that exhibited the problem.

Meanwhile it’s interesting to see the design of this unusual machine. A linear power supply contrasts with the switcher you’d have found in an Apple II at the time, and the motherboard is a huge affair. it’s easy to see why this was a relatively expensive machine.

We brought you [Terry]’s first Poly-1 last year, but so far he’s the only owner whose machine we’ve seen. More mainstream 8-bit machines are a common sight here, so for something else a bit esoteric read our coverage of home computers behind the Iron Curtain, and its companion piece on peripherals behind the Iron Curtain.

[via Hacker News]

Fixing Bugs In A 37 Year Old Apple II Game

Emulators are a great way to reminisce about games and software from yesteryear. [Jorj Bauer] found himself doing just that back in 2002, when they decided to boot up Three Mile Island for the Apple II. It played well enough, but for some reason, crashed instantly if you happened to press the ‘7’ key. This was a problem — the game takes hours to play, and ‘7’ is the key for saving and restoring your progress. In 2002, [Jorj] was content to put up with this. But finally, enough was enough – [Jorj] set out to fix the bug in Three Mile Island once and for all.

The project is written up in three parts — the history of how [Jorj] came to play Three Mile Island and learn about Apple IIs in the first place, the problem with the game, and finally the approach to finding a solution. After first discovering the problem, [Jorj] searched online to see if it was just a bad disk image causing the problem. But every copy they found was the same. There was nothing left for it to be but problem in the binary.

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C64 Keyboard Emulation Over Serial

There’s a lot of reasons you might want to emulate the keyboard on your Commodore 64. The ravages of time and dust may have put the original keyboard out of order, or perhaps you need to type in a long program and don’t fancy pecking away with the less-than-stellar feedback of the standard keys. [podstawek] has come up with the solution: a Commodore 64 keyboard emulator that works over serial.

It’s a simple concept, but one that works well. A Python script accepts incoming keypresses or pre-typed text, then converts them into a 6-bit binary code, which is sent to an Arduino over the serial connection. The Arduino uses the 6-bit code as addresses for an MT8808 crosspoint switch.

MT8808 Functional Diagram from Datasheet

The MT8808 is essentially an 8×8 matrix of controllable switches, which acts as the perfect tool to interface with the C64’s 8×8 keyboard matrix. Hardware wise, this behaves as if someone were actually pressing the keys on the real keyboard. It’s just replacing the original key switches with an electronic version controlled by the Arduino.

[podstawek] already has the setup working on Mac, and it should work on Linux and Windows too. There’s a little more to do yet – modifying the script to allow complex macros and to enable keys to be held – so check out the Github if you want to poke around in the source. Overall it’s a tidy, useful hack to replace the stock keyboard.

The C64 remains a popular platform for hacking — it’s even had a Twitter client since 2009.

Retro ZX Spectrum Lives a Spartan Existence

FPGAs (like Xilinx’s Spartan series) are great building blocks. They often remind us of the 100-in-1 electronic kits we used to get as kids. Lots of components you can mix and match to make nearly anything. However, like a bare microcontroller, they usually don’t have much in the way of peripheral devices. So the secret sauce is what components you can surround the chip with.

If you are interested in retro computing, you ought to have a look at the ZX-Uno board. It hosts a Spartan 6 FPGA. They are for sale, but the design is open source and all the info is available if you prefer to roll your own or make modifications. You can see a video of the board in action, below (as explained in the video, the color issues are due to the capture card trying to deal with the non-standard sync rate).

Here are the key specifications:

  • FPGA Xilinx Spartan XC6SLX9-2TQG144C
  • Static Memory 512Kb, AS7C34096A-10TIN
  • 50MHz Oscillator
  • Video output (composite)
  • PS/2 keyboard
  • Stereo audio jack
  • EAR jack connector (for reading cassette tapes)
  • Connectors for JTAG and RGB
  • Slot for SD Cards
  • Expansion port with 3 male pin strips
  • Micro-USB power connector
  • PCB Size: 86×56 mm. (Compatible with Raspberry Pi cases)

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Portal Ported To the Apple II

[deater] readily admits they’re a little behind on what’s new in gaming – only having just gotten around to Valve’s 2007 release of Portal. It’s a popular game, but [deater] didn’t want anyone to miss out on the fun – so set about porting Portal to the Apple II.

The port uses the “hires” mode of the Apple II for the flashy graphics that were state of the art around 1980 or so. It’s not a copy of the full game – only the first and last levels, combined with Jonathan Coulton’s now-classic ending theme, Still Alive. As is to be expected, it’s not a wild, fast paced gaming experience, but a cool use of BASIC to put together a fun tribute to a popular franchise.

It’s a little different to the original – portals can be placed anywhere, for example – but it rings true to the original. Source code and a disk image is provided, so you can try it for yourself – even in this online emulator.

We’re looking forward to the sequel so we can use the post title “Portal 2 Ported To The Apple II, Too”, but until then, check out [deater]’s Apple II web server, also in Applesoft BASIC. Video after the break.

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SCSI Emulation Of A Rare Peripheral For The Acorn BBC Micro

Mass storage presents a problem for those involved in the preservation of older computer hardware. While today’s storage devices are cheap and huge by the standards of decades ago their modern interfaces are beyond the ability of most older computers. And what period mass storage hardware remains is likely to be both unreliable after several decades of neglect, and rather expensive if it works due to its rarity.

The Domesday Project 86 team face this particular problem to a greater extent than almost any others in the field, because their storage device is a particularly rare Philips Laser Disc drive. Their solution is the BeebSCSI, a small board with a CPLD and an AVR microcontroller providing host adaptor and SCSI-1 emulation respectively for a modern micro-SD card.

An original BBC Domesday set-up. Regregex [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
An original BBC Domesday set-up. Regregex [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
1986 saw the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book, a survey and inventory of his new kingdom commissioned in 1086 by the Norman king of England, William the Conqueror. One of the ways the event was marked in 1986 was the BBC Domesday Project, a collaboration between the BBC, several technology companies including Acorn and Philips, and a huge number of volunteers from the general public and the British school system. Pictures, video, and text were gathered relating to locations all over the country, and the whole was compiled with a not-quite-hypertext interface onto a set of Laser Disc ROMs. The system required the upgraded Master version of the 6502-based BBC Micro, a SCSI interface, and a special Laser Disc player model manufactured by Philips for this project alone. The hardware was expensive, rare, and unreliable, so few of its contributors would have seen it in action and it faded from view to become a cause celebre among digital archivists.

There have been several resurrections of the project over the years, including one from the BBC themselves which you can browse online. What makes this project different from the others is that it strives to present the Domesday experience as it was originally intended to be viewed, on as far as possible the original hardware and with the original BBC Micro interface. Many original parts such as BBC Master systems are relatively easy to source in 2016, but the special Laser Disc player is definitely not. This board replaces that impossible link in the chain, and should allow them to present a glimpse of 1986 in more than just the on-screen information.

If you would like to see an original BBC Domesday Project system, you can find one in action at the National Museum of Computing, at Bletchley Park. Meanwhile we’ve already featured another peripheral from the same stable as this one, the SmallyMouse USB-to-quadrature mouse emulator.