Retrotechtacular: Max Headroom Takes Chicago In Audacious TV Hack

Those of you with long memories and a compulsive TV viewing habit might remember [Max Headroom], a quirky piece of TV ephemera from the late 1980s and early 1990s. [Max] was a supposedly computer generated TV show host and VJ with a pseudomechanical stutter, a slightly blocky rendered head, and a moving background of rendered lines. He looks a little quaint for viewers with a few decades viewing experience of CGI, but in his day he was cutting-edge cypberpunk TV.

He also made unscheduled showings on two Chicago TV stations in an audacious hack that has never been explained and whose culprit has never been found.

The real [Max Headroom] (Fair use) Via Wikimedia commons.
The real [Max Headroom] (Fair use) Via Wikimedia Commons.
If you were a bored British teenager and future Hackaday writer vegging out in front of your parents’ TV on an April night in 1985, you’d have caught [Max]’s genesis. He strung upon us by rising out of a title screen full of static in the Channel 4 TV movie [Max Headroom]: 20 Minutes into the Future.

The plot is a trip in itself. An investigative journalist seeking to uncover the sinister owners of his network (they run speeded-up adverts with the unfortunate side-effect of causing overweight viewers to explode) is pursued, causing a road accident in which he is injured by a collision with a safety barrier. Hence the name: [Max Headroom]. The network try to cover it up by producing a computerized facsimilie of the reporter which turns out to be an embarassing failure. They scrap the computer and it falls into the hands of a pirate TV station operating from a decrepit campervan, the Alphabetti-eating proprietor of which turns the character it contains into a TV sensation. Meanwhile the reporter escapes, recovers, and prevails over the villains.

The [Max] character proved to be something of a hit, with a TV spin-off series, VJing, adverts, and more. But that wasn’t the whole story of his appearances, back to that unexplained hack of Chicagoland TV.

The Chicago fake [Max Headroom].
The Chicago fake [Max Headroom].
On the night of the 22nd of November 1987, viewers of WGN were watching a sports program when the screen went blank and they were treated to a few seconds of a slightly home-made [Max Headroom] dancing in front of  those trademark moving lines. A couple of hours later on WTTW a rerun of a [Doctor Who] episode was again interrupted with the same fake [Max], this time speaking for a while before, if his performance wasn’t already bizarre enough, being spanked by a woman whose face is off camera.

As a piece of television history it’s an intriguing mystery, though since so little is known about the mechanism through which it was achieved it hasn’t achieved the notoriety in the technical world that you might expect. The stations involved conducted full investigations at the time and failed to locate a culprit, perhaps they should have been looking for that old campervan with the antennae on its roof.

It is very unlikely that a similar stunt could be performed today, with entirely digital TV studios and easy access to encryption technologies for external links to transmitter sites. But in the 1980s a studio would still have been an analogue affair so there would have been more opportunities to insert an unauthorized feed. Next year sees the 30th anniversary of the event, it would be fascinating if the perpetrator would mark it by anonymously revealing how it was achieved. Of course, we’d love to hear how you would have done it in the comments below. Surely we have readers who are intimately familiar with the television broadcasting equipment of the time.

Below the break we’re showing you both fake [Max] intrusions into the Chicago airwaves. First is the short outing on EGN, below that the longer one on WTTV.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Max Headroom Takes Chicago In Audacious TV Hack”

Victorian Mouse

If Babbage had started the computer revolution early, we might have seen a mouse like the one [Peter Balch] created. He started with the guts from a USB wheeled mouse and some gears from an old clock movement. In addition to the big wheels to capture X and Y movement, the mouse buttons look like the keys from an old typewriter.

mechanical-mouse-magicWe were afraid the project would require advanced wood or metal working capability, but the bottom of the mouse is made from paper mache. The top and sides are cut from tinplate. Of course, the paint job is everything.

The electronics part is pretty simple, just hacking a normal mouse (although it is getting harder to find USB mice with mechanical encoders). However, we wondered if it would have been as simple to use an optical wireless mouse. That would leave the wheels just for show, but honestly, most people aren’t going to know if the wheels are useful or just ornamental, anyway.

If you don’t feel like gutting a mouse, but you still want USB, you could use an Arduino or similar board that can simulate a mouse. We’ve seen quite a few of those in the past. Now all you need is a matching keyboard.

A Buck-Boost Converter from the Ground Up

DC to DC conversion has come a long way. What was once took an electromechanical vibrator and transformer has been reduced to a PC board the size of a largish postage stamp that can be had for a couple of bucks on eBay. So why roll your own buck-boost converter for the ground up? Maybe because sometimes the best way to learn is by doing.

Continue reading “A Buck-Boost Converter from the Ground Up”

Sinclair I/O Board Completed Over 30 Years Later

In the early 1980s when the 8-bit microcomputer boom was well under way, [Alan Faulds] was a student, and an owner of a Sinclair ZX81. He had ambitions to use it, in his words, “to control the world“, but since the Sinclair lacked an I/O port he was thwarted. He bought an expander board and a couple of I/O card PCBs from the British electronic supplier Maplin in the days when they were a mail order parts stockist rather than a chain of stores chasing Radio Shack’s vacated retail position.

Sadly for [Alan], he didn’t have the cash to buy all the parts to populate the boards, then the pressures of a final year at university intervened, and he never built those Maplin kits. They sat forgotten in their padded envelope for over three decades until a chance conversation with a friend reminded him of his unfinished student project. He sought it out, and set about recreating the board.

zx-io-thumbnailThe ZX81 had a single port: a PCB edge connector at its rear that exposed all the Z80 processor’s lines. It was notorious for unreliability, as the tiniest vibration when a peripheral was connected would crash the machine. Maplin’s expansion system featured a backplane with a series of edge connector sockets, and cards with bare PCB edge connectors. Back in the 1980s it was easy to find edge connectors of the right size with the appropriate key installed, but not these days. [Alan] had to make one himself for his build.

The I/O card with its 8255 and brace of 74 series chips was a double-sided affair with vias made through the use of little snap-off hand-soldered pins. [Alan] put his ICs in sockets, a sensible choice given that when he powered it up he found he’d put a couple of the 74 chips in the wrong positions. With that error rectified the board worked exactly as it should, giving the little ZX three I/O ports, albeit with one of them a buffered output.

We haven’t featured the little Sinclair micro as often as we should have here at Hackaday, it seems to have been overshadowed by its ZX Spectrum successor. We did show you a VGA ZX81 emulated on an mbed though, and a rather neat color video hack for its Brazilian cousin.

Commodore Home – Your Smart Home For 1983

The Internet of Things is a horrific waste of time, even though no one knows exactly what it is. What would make it better? Classic Commodore gear, of course. Now you can run your smart home with a Commodore 64 and Commodore Home, the newest smart home framework from [retro.moe].

Commodore Home comes with the standard smart home features you would expect. The home lighting solution is a dot matrix printer, a few gears, and string tied to the light switch. Activate the printer, and the lights turn on and off. Brilliant. Multiple light switches can be controlled by daisy chaining printers.

Security is important in the smart home, and while the intruder alarm isn’t completely functional, future versions of Commodore Home will dial a modem, log into a BBS, and leave a message whenever an authorized person enters your home.

All of this is possible thanks to advances in UniJoystiCle technology, also from [retro.moe]. This device takes a standard ESP8266 WiFi module and turns it into a smartphone-to-joystick port bridge for the Commodore 64.

Unlike every other piece of IoT hardware being sold today, Commodore Home won’t stop working when the company behind it goes belly up; Commodore has been dead for twenty years already. You can grab all the software for Commodore Home over on the Githubs, or you can check out the video below.

Continue reading “Commodore Home – Your Smart Home For 1983”

Bringing USB Devices To The Apple Desktop Bus

During the development of the greatest member of the Apple II family, the Apple IIgs, someone suggested to [Woz] that a sort of universal serial bus was needed for keyboards, mice, trackballs, and other desktop peripherals. [Woz] disappeared for a time and came back with something wonderful: a protocol that could be daisy-chained from keyboard to a graphics tablet to a mouse. This protocol was easily implemented on a cheap microcontroller, provided 500mA to the entire bus, and was used for everything from license dongles to modems.

The Apple Desktop Bus, or ADB, was a decade ahead of its time, and was a mainstay of the Mac platform until Apple had the courage to kill it off with the iMac. At that time, an industry popped up overnight for ADB to USB converters. Even today, there’s a few mechanical keyboard aficionados installing Teensies in their favorite input devices to give them a USB port.

While plugging an old Apple keyboard into a modern computer is a noble pursuit — this post was written on an Apple M0116 keyboard with salmon Alps switches — sometimes you want to go the other way. Wouldn’t it be cool to use a modern USB mouse and keyboard with an old Mac? That’s what [anthon] thought, so he developed the ADB Busboy.

Continue reading “Bringing USB Devices To The Apple Desktop Bus”

The BASIC Issue With Retro Computers

If you are interested in how a computer works at the hardware grass-roots level, past all the hardware and software abstractions intended to make them easier to use, you can sometimes find yourself frustrated in your investigations. Desktop and laptop computers are black boxes both physically and figuratively, and microcontrollers have retreated into their packages behind all the built-in peripherals that make them into systems-on-chips.
Continue reading “The BASIC Issue With Retro Computers”