Resurrecting the Retro-futuristic Poly-1


[Tez] has acquired and resurrected a piece of New Zealand computing history, the Poly-1. To anyone who went to school in 1980s Britain, the Poly-1 appears to be a cooler, mirror universe version of Acorn’s BBC Micro. Like the humble Beeb, the Poly-1 was designed primarily for educational use. It also used a related, but superior, microprocessor (the Motorola 6809).

However while the legacy of Acorn lives on in the ARM architecture, only a few thousand Poly-1s were ever sold and it appears to have been largely forgotten.


The Poly-1’s demise was likely in part due to its high price tag — around $5,000 USD — its lack of support within New Zealand, and the difficulty that the small New Zealand company had breaking into international markets: issues which eventually killed off many similar 1980s computer companies in the UK, Japan and elsewhere.

But it’s still fascinating to look back, not just in nostalgia, but in admiration of the intrepid 1980s hackers who created these beautiful machines and the dream of a world that might have been.

[NE555]’s SMD Prototyping is a Work of Art

One of [NE555]’s boards from the 90s.
Over on twitter [NE555] has been posting beautiful SMD prototypes.

Back in the 90s when surface mount components gained widespread adoption, the quick and cheap PCB prototyping services of today were unavailable. This led many to develop their own approaches. In Japan a particularly novel and beautiful approach was, and still is, somewhat popular. [NE555]’s work is a excellent example of this technique using a fine enameled wire (you can find this on eBay as “magnet wire”), wirewrap board, and careful hand soldering. [NE555] has made a great video on the process (which you can watch below).

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Slide Viewer Upgrade is a Bright Idea

[cunningfellow] has been putting LEDs in everything lately. That’s understandable. Most recently, he used them to drastically upgrade his father’s super-cool mid-century slide viewer.slide-viewer-comparison

The slide viewer used to use a flashlight bulb, but it didn’t light evenly at all. Not only that, it produced a dim, orange-ish light. [cunningfellow] happened to have an old Nokia N93 lying around and decided to cannibalize that strange, beautiful, swiveling flip phone for its backlight circuitry. Unfortunately, the 4 LEDs aren’t going to run on a pair of C cells like the flashlight bulb did. [cunningfellow] needed some kind of boost converter.

He found one in the form of a Nokia E73 LCD driver board created by [Andy Brown]. The LEDs are way brighter than that old incandescent bulb, and they draw about 10mA less to boot. We think [cunningfellow]’s father will be happy with the result.

If you have an old slide viewer and no slides, try using it as a project case. If this post makes you miss your View-Master (also understandable), you can always turn your phone into a stereopticon.

Arcade Cabinet Build Takes Quarters, Dispenses Fun

Building an arcade cabinet seems to be a rite of passage for many hackers and woodworkers. Not that there is anything wrong with that: as this series of posts from [Alessandro] at boxedcnc shows, there is an art to doing it well.

His final build is impressive, with quality buttons, a genuine-looking banner, and even a coin slot so he can charge people to play. His build log covers both the carpentry and electronic aspects of the build, from cutting the panels to his own code for running the coin acceptor that takes your quarter (or, as he is in Italy, Euro coins) and triggers the game to play.

To extract money from his family, he used the Sparkfun COM-1719 coin acceptor, which can be programmed to send different pulses for different coins, connected to an Arduino which is also connected to the joystick and buttons. The Arduino emulates a USB keyboard and is connected to an old PC running MAME with the Attract Mode front end. It’s a quality build, down to the Bubble Bobble banner, and the coin slot means that it might even make some money back eventually.

The Haunting Last Day of Hot Metal Typesetting at The New York Times

The short film, Farewell — ETAOIN SHRDLU, produced in 1978 covers the very last day the New York Times was set for printing in the old way, using hot metal typesetting.

We’ve covered the magic of linotype machines before, but to see them used as they were in their prime is something else. They saw nearly a hundred years of complete industry dominance. Linotype machines had entire guilds dedicated to their use. Tradesmen built their lives around them. For some of us we see the rise and fall of technology as an expected thing. Something that happens normally, sometimes within spans that cover only a few short years. Yet it’s still a strange thing to see a technology so widely used shut down so completely and relatively rapidly.

To make it even stranger, the computer that replaced the linotype machines is so alien to the technology used today that even it is an oddity. In the end only the shadow of the ‘new’ technologies — showcased as state of the art in this video — are still in use. Nonetheless it’s important to see where we came from and to understand what it means to innovate. Plus, you never know when you see an old idea that’s ready for a bit of refurbishment. Who knows, maybe part of the linotype’s spirit is ready to be reborn, and all it takes is a clever hacker to see it.

Oh, and that title — ‘etaoin shrdlu‘ — is the linotype equivalent of ‘qwerty’. The first two columns of keys on the linotype machine make up those two words.

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Never Twice the Same Color: Why NTSC is so Weird

Ever wonder why analog TV in North America is so weird from a technical standpoint? [standupmaths] did, so he did a little poking into the history of the universally hated NTSC standard for color television and the result is not only an explanation for how American TV standards came to be, but also a lesson in how engineers sometimes have to make inelegant design compromises.

Before we get into a huge NTSC versus PAL fracas in the comments, as a resident of the US we’ll stipulate that our analog color television standards were lousy. But as [standupmaths] explores in some depth, there’s a method to the madness. His chief gripe centers around the National Television System Committee’s decision to use a frame rate of 29.97 fps rather than the more sensible (for the 60 Hz AC power grid) 30 fps. We’ll leave the details to the video below, but suffice it to say that like many design decisions, this one had to do with keeping multiple constituencies happy. Or at least equally miserable. In the end [standupmaths] makes it easy to see why the least worst decision was to derate the refresh speed slightly from 30 fps.

Given the constraints they were working with, that fact that NTSC works as well as it does is pretty impressive, and quite an epic hack. And apparently inspiring, too; we’ve seen quite a few analog TV posts here lately, like using an SDR to transit PAL signals or NTSC from a microcontroller.

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Glitching USB Firmware for Fun

[Micah Elizabeth Scott], aka [scanlime], has been playing around with USB drawing tablets, and got to the point that she wanted with the firmware — to reverse engineer, see what’s going on, and who knows what else. Wacom didn’t design the devices to be user-updateable, so there aren’t copies of the ROMs floating around the web, and the tablet’s microcontroller seems to be locked down to boot.

With the easy avenues turning up dead ends, that means building some custom hardware to get it done and making a very detailed video documenting the project (embedded below). If you’re interested in chip power glitching attacks, and if you don’t suffer from short attention span, watch it, it’s a phenomenal introduction.

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