Decoding Rediscovered Rope Memory From the Apollo Guidance Computer

On August 25th, 1966, an Apollo Command Module was launched aboard a Saturn IB rocket in mission AS-202. This mission was intended to immediately precede the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission, the AS-202 was unmanned, serving as a test of flight hardware, fuel cells, and the guidance and navigation control systems. This mission used the first Apollo Guidance Computer ever flown, and this mission was vital to testing the computer that would take men to the moon.

While the software from the later missions exists and is available on Github, the earlier Block I spacecraft, including the unmanned Apollo 4 and Apollo 6 missions, are poorly documented. [Francois Rautenbach] was lucky enough to get his hands on the rope memory modules from the AS-202 mission. Now he’s investigating these modules with oscilloscopes and x-rays to recreate some of the first software that was flown in space.

The procedure to extract the data from these rope memory modules is a bit harder than reading a bit of Flash off a chip. Rope memory is weird, but with a contraption made out of a lot of relays and an oscilloscope, [Francois] was able to capture data from these memory modules.

Of course, [Francois] first needed to figure out the pinout for the gigantic backplane connector on each of these memory modules. To do that, he checked out a Block II AGC, read the schematics very carefully, and reverse engineered a connector that isn’t made anymore. The next step was x-raying the rope memory modules to see how they were assembled. Even though these memory modules contain the only extant copy of the Block I AGC software, even reading one bit off of these modules is an amazing case of technological archeology.

The answer to the obvious question — where did these modules come from — is exactly what you would expect. These memory modules were picked up off a scrap heap forty years ago. The gentleman who found these modules was kind enough to give them to [Francois]. Check out the videos below for [Francois]’ video logs. If you’re into slightly more destructive testing of forgotten Apollo flight hardware, [Fran Blanche] tore down a few modules from the Apollo Launch Vehicle Digital Computer a few years ago.

Thanks to [Vincent], [Danie], and [Kent] for jumping on this one and sending it into the tip line.
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High-Voltage Fractals

Int 1777, Georg Lichtenberg found that discharging high voltage on an insulating surface covered with a powder, a fractal-like image appears, sometimes known as a lightning tree. Incidentally, this is a crude form of xerography, the principle that lets copiers and laser printers operate.

[PaulGetson] had a high voltage power source from his Jacob’s ladder experiments and decide to see if he could create Lichtenberg figures. Turns out, he could.

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Really Easy Jacob’s Ladder

There was a time when making a high voltage project like a Jacob’s ladder took time to build or scrounge some kind of high voltage circuit. The neon sign transformer, Marx generator, or voltage multiplier was the hard part of the project. But nowadays you can get cheap high voltage modules that are quite inexpensive. [PaulGetson] picked up one for under $20 and turned it into a quick and easy Jacob’s ladder.

Honestly, once you have high voltage, making a Jacob’s ladder is pretty simple. [Paul] used a cheap plastic box, some coat hanger wire, and some stainless steel bolts.

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Building Better Tube Amps With Heathkit Parts

[Justin] had been trying to find a good tube amp for years, but all the best examples were either expensive or a complete basket case. Instead of buying a vintage stereo tube amp, he decided to build his own using the guts of a Heathkit AA-100, a popular tube amp from the 60s and 70s that doesn’t have a great reputation for sound quality.

This project was based on an earlier project from a decade ago that replicated the very popular Dynaco ST-70 tube amp from parts taken from the Heathkit AA-100. The schematic for this conversion was readily available on the usual tube head message boards, and a few PCBs were available for the input stage.

With the schematic in hand, the next thing for [Justin] to do was get a nice enclosure. High quality tube amps are valued as much for their appearance as they are for their sound quality, and after giving his father-in-law a few sketches, a cherry hardwood chassis stained in a beautiful golden brown appeared on [Justin]’s workbench.

The big iron for this new tube amp was taken directly from the old Heathkit, and a few hours in front of a mill netted [Justin] a chassis panel drilled out for the transformers and tube sockets. The rest of the project was a bit of assembly, point-to-point wiring, and wire management giving [Justin] a fantastic amplifier that will last for another fifty years until someone decides to reuse the transformers.

Open Source SNES to USB Converter Lets You Emulate Legally

[Andrew Milkovich] was inspired build his own Super Nintendo cartridge reader based on a device we covered an eternity (in internet years) ago. The device mounts a real cartridge as a USB mass storage device, allowing you to play your games using an emulator directly from the cart.

This uses a Teensy++ 2.0  at its core. [Andrew] had to desolder the EEPROM pins from the SNES cartridge and reverse engineer the pinouts himself, but the end result was a device that could successfully read the cartridge without erasing it, no small accomplishment. The finished cartridge reader is build on some protoboard and we’d like to complement [Andrew] on his jumper routing on the underside of that board.

Of course, the experience of any console is just not the same without the original controller. So [Andrew] went a step further and made his own SNES controller to USB converter. This had the venerable Atmel ATmega328 at its core, and can be used separate from the cartridge reader if desired.

Atari Archaeology Without Digging Up Landfill Sites

We are fortunate to live in an age of commoditized high-power computer hardware and driver abstraction, in which most up-to-date computers have the ability to do more or less anything that requires keeping up with the attention of a human without breaking a sweat. Processors are very fast, memory is plentiful, and 3D graphics acceleration is both speedy and ubiquitous.

Thirty years ago it was a different matter on the desktop. Even the fastest processors of the day would struggle to perform on their own all the tasks demanded of them by a 1980s teenager who had gained a taste for arcade games. The manufacturers rose to this challenge by surrounding whichever CPU they had chosen with custom co-processors, ASICs that would take away the heavy lifting associated with 2D graphics acceleration, or audio and music synthesis.

One of the 1980s objects of computing desire was the Atari ST, featuring a Motorola 68000 processor, a then-astounding 512k of RAM, a GUI OS, high-res colour graphics, and 3.5″ floppy drive storage. Were you to open up the case of your ST you’d have found those ASICs we mentioned as being responsible for its impressive spec.

Jumping forward three decades, [Christian Zietz] found that there was frustratingly little information on the ST ASIC internal workings. Since a trove of backed-up data became available when Atari closed down he thought it would be worth digging through it to see what he could find. His write-up is a story of detective work in ancient OS and backup software archaeology, but it paid off as he found schematics for not only an ASIC from an unreleased Atari product but for the early ST ASICs he was looking for. He found hundreds of pages of schematics and timing diagrams which will surely take the efforts of many Atari enthusiasts to fully understand, and best of all he thinks there are more to be unlocked.

We’ve covered a lot of Atari stories over the years, but many of them have related to their other products such as the iconic 2600 console. We have brought you news of an open-source ST on an FPGA though, and more recently the restoration of an ST that had had a hard life. The title of this piece refers to the fate of Atari’s huge unsold stocks of 2600 console cartridges, such a disastrous marketing failure that unsold cartridges were taken to a New Mexico landfill site in 1983 and buried. We reported on the 2013 exhumation of these video gaming relics.

A tip of the hat to Hacker News for bringing this to our attention.

Atari ST image, Bill Bertram (CC-BY-2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

Books You Should Read: The Soul of A New Machine

If there was one book that describes what it means to be in the trenches of a cutting edge design, that book is The Soul Of a New Machine. Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer prize-winning book has been an inspiration to thousands over the years.

Soul is the story of the creation of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, code-named Eagle. Eagle was Data General’s first 32-bit minicomputer. If you’re not a retrocomputing aficionado, minicomputers were a major industry back in the 70’s and 80’s. Starting in 1964 with the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8, minis provided a low-cost means for companies to get a computer. The only other option was a huge mainframe from companies like IBM. Minicomputers chugged along until the 1990s when microprocessor-based PCs and workstations passed them by. The market, and the industry evaporated.

Today, more than 30 years later, minicomputers are all but forgotten. Data General itself is long gone, purchased by EMC in 1999. DG’s mark on the landscape has all but been erased by the swiftly moving sands of technical progress. All except for the snapshot Kidder set down in Soul.

An MV/8000 installation (from DG literature)
An MV/8000 installation (from DG literature)

The technical side of designing a new computer is just one part of this book. The Soul of a New Machine is three stories: the story of the engineers, the story of the managers, and the story of the machine they built. For this reason, the book has found itself on the reading list of engineering schools and management institutes alike.

The thing that makes this book appeal to the masses is Kidder’s uncanny ability to explain incredibly complex topics in layman’s terms. He manages to explain the inner workings of a 32-bit CPU, all the way down to the level of microcode. He delves into Programmable Array Logic (PALs), forerunners of the CPLD and FPGA devices you read about on our pages today. PALs were a hot new technology back in the late 70’s. They allowed the Eagle team to make changes quickly — without pulling out their wire wrapping tools.

Kidder manages to explain these things in a way that doesn’t leave the average Joe scratching their head, yet doesn’t bore the technically savvy. If he ever decides to stop writing non-fiction, Tracy Kidder would have a career writing user manuals.

The Soul of a New Machine starts in a very unlikely place – on the deck of a sailing ship during a rough storm. The scene is our introduction to the star of the book – Tom West, a manager at Data General. West is multifaceted and enigmatic to say the least. A folk guitarist who was inspired to work on electronics by the Apollo program. He was a few years too late for NASA though. Eventually he found himself travelling the world building and adjusting incredibly accurate clocks at astronomical observatories for the Smithsonian. This meandering path eventually led him to DG, where he was hired as a computer engineer and quickly worked his way up the ranks.

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