Saving Old Voices by Dumping ROMs

Some people collect stamps. Others collect porcelain miniatures. [David Viens] collects voice synthesizers and their ROMs. In this video, he just got his hands on the ultra-rare Electronic Voice Alert (EVA) from early 1980s Chrysler automobiles (video embedded below the break).

Back in the 1980s, speech synthesis was in its golden years following the development of TI’s linear-predictive coding speech chips. These are the bits of silicon that gave voice to the Speak and Spell, numerous video game machines, and the TI 99/4A computer’s speech module. And, apparently, some models of Chrysler cars.

IMG_0695We tracked [David]’s website down. He posted a brief entry describing his emulation and ROM-dumping setup. He says he used it for testing out his (software) TMS5200 speech-synthesizer emulation.

The board appears to have a socket for a TMS-series voice synthesizer chip and another slot for the ROM. It looks like an FTDI 2232 USB-serial converter is being used in bit-bang mode with some custom code driving everything, and presumably sniffing data in the middle. We’d love to see a bunch more detail.

The best part of the video, aside from the ROM-dumping goodness, comes at the end when [David] tosses the ROM’s contents into his own chipspeech emulator and starts playing “your engine oil pressure is critical” up and down the keyboard. Fantastic.

Continue reading “Saving Old Voices by Dumping ROMs”

Why No Plane Parachutes? And Other Questions.

This week I was approached with a question. Why don’t passenger aircraft have emergency parachutes? Whole plane emergency parachutes are available for light aircraft, and have been used to great effect in many light aircraft engine failures and accidents.

But the truth is that while parachutes may be effective for light aircraft, they don’t scale. There are a series of great answers on Quora which run the numbers of the size a parachute would need to be for a full size passenger jet. I recommend reading the full thread, but suffice it to say a ballpark estimate would require a million square feet (92903 square meters) of material. This clearly isn’t very feasible, and the added weight and complexity would no doubt bring its own risks.

Continue reading “Why No Plane Parachutes? And Other Questions.”

Up Your Tiny House Game with Stone Age Hacks

Bare feet, bare hands, and bare chest – if it weren’t for the cargo shorts and the brief sound of a plane overhead, we’d swear the video below was footage that slipped through a time warp. No Arduinos, no CNC or 3D anything, but if you doubt that our Stone Age ancestors were hackers, watch what [PrimitiveTechnology] goes through while building a tile-roofed hut with no modern tools.

The first thing we’ll point out is that [PrimitiveTechnology] is not attempting to be (pre-)historically accurate. He borrows technology from different epochs in human history for his build – tiled roofs didn’t show up until about 5,000 years ago, by which time his stone celt axe would have been obsolete. But the point of the primitive technology hobby is to build something without using any modern technology. If you need a fire, you use a fire bow; if you need an axe, shape a rock. And his 102 day build log details every step of the way. It’s fascinating to watch logs, mud, saplings, rocks and clay come together into a surprisingly cozy structure. Especially awesome if a bit anachronistic is the underfloor central heating system, which could turn the hut into a lovely sauna.

Primitive technology looks like a fascinating hobby with a lot to teach us about how we got to now. But if you’re not into grubbing in the mud, you could always 3D print a clay hut. We’re not sure building an enormous delta-bot is any easier, though.
Continue reading “Up Your Tiny House Game with Stone Age Hacks”

Hams in Space: Project OSCAR

In early December 1961, a United States Air Force rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying a special payload. The main payload was a Corona surveillance satellite, but tucked just aft of that spacecraft was a tiny package of homebrew electronics stuffed into something the looked like a slice of cake. What was in that package and how it came to tag along on a top-secret military mission is the story of OSCAR 1, the world’s first amateur radio satellite.

Continue reading “Hams in Space: Project OSCAR”

Rube Slowberg

This one was buried in our tips line for a couple of months, but we’re glad it eventually surfaced. [Bob Partington] built the “Rube Slowberg” contraption – it’s billed as the world’s slowest Rube Goldberg Machine. The golf ball that he tee’d off took six weeks to reach it’s rather dramatic end.

Rube Goldberg machines are fascinating, but most often the fun ends quite quickly. [Bob] decided to slow it all down and it took several hacks to get that done. Thankfully for us, the edited video with extensive use of stop-motion and fast forwards brings the chase down to under three minutes.

Check out the video below. It starts with the Golf ball riding a slow boat on molasses, hitching a ride on a Tortoise, running through a series of melting popsicle sticks and then being propelled one tiny bit at a time by a bunch of growing grass. If you are interested is seeing behind the scenes, watch the other video where he talks a little about how he managed to pull it off.

Continue reading “Rube Slowberg”

Building Triodes With Blinker Fluid

The triode is one of the simplest kinds of vacuum tubes. Inside its evacuated glass envelope, the triode really is just a few bits of wire and metal. Triodes are able to amplify signals simply by heating a cathode, and modulating the flow of electrons to the anode with a control grid. Triodes, and their semiconductor cousin the transistor, are the basis of everything we do with electricity.

Because triodes are so fantastically simple, they’re the parts most commonly crafted by the homebrew tube artisans of today. You don’t need a glass blowing lathe to make the most basic vacuum tube, though: [Marcel] built one from the light bulb used in a car’s tail light.

The light bulb in your car’s tail light has two filaments inside: one for the normal tail light, and a second one that comes on when you brake. By burning out the dimmer filament, [Marcel] created the simplest vacuum tube device possible. In his first experiment, he turned this broken light bulb into a diode by using the disconnected filament as the anode, and the burning filament as the cathode. [Marcel] attached a 1M resistor and measured 30mV across it. It was a diode, with 30μA flowing.

The triode is just a diode with a grid, but [Marcel] couldn’t open up the light bulb to install a piece of metal. Instead, he wrapped the bulb in aluminum foil. After many attempts, [Marcel] eventually got some amplification out of his light bulb triode.

The performance is terrible – this light bulb triode actually has an “amplification” of -108dB, making it a complete waste of energy and time. It does demonstrate the concept though, even though the grid isn’t between the anode and cathode, and this light bulb is probably filled with argon. It does work in the most perverse sense of the word,  and makes for a very interesting build.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Adhesive Tape

No doubt many of you have spent a happy Christmas tearing away layers of wrapping paper to expose some new gadget. But did you stop to spare a thought for the “sticky-back plastic” holding your precious gift paper together?

There are a crazy number of adhesive tapes available, and in this article I’d like to discuss a few of the ones I’ve found useful in my lab, and their sometimes surprising applications. I’d be interested in your own favorite tapes and adhesives too, so please comment below!

But first, I’d like to start with the tapes that I don’t use. Normal cellulose tape, while useful outside the lab, is less than ideally suited to most lab applications. The same goes for vinyl-based insulating tapes, which I find have a tendency to fall off leaving a messy sticky residue. When insulation is necessary, heatshrink seems to serve better.

The one tape I have in my lab which is similar to common cellulose tape however is Scotch Magic Tape. Scotch Magic tape, made from a cellulose acetate, and has a number of surprising properties. It’s often favored because of it’s matte finish. It can easily be written on and when taped to paper appears completely transparent. It’s also easy to tear/shape and remove. But for my purposes I’m more interested in it’s scientific applications.

Here’s a neat trick you can try at home. Take a roll of tape (I’ve tried this with Scotch Magic tape but other tapes may work too) to a dark room. Now start unrolling the tape and look at interface where the tape leaves the rest of the roll. You should see a dim blue illumination. The effect is quite striking and rather surprising. It’s called triboluminescence and has been observed since the 1950s in tapes and far earlier in other materials (even sugar when scraped in a dark room will apparently illuminate). The mechanism, however, is poorly understood.

It was perhaps this strange effect that led researchers to try unrolling tape in a vacuum. In 1953 a group of Russian researchers attempted this and bizarrely enough, were able to generate X-rays. Their results were unfortunately forgotten for many years, but were replicated in 2008 and even used to X-ray a researcher’s finger! As usual Ben Krasnow has an awesome video on the topic:

In my lab however I mostly use Scotch tape to remove surface layers. In certain experiments it’s valuable to have an atomically flat surface. Both Mica and HOPG (a kind of graphite) are composed of atomically flat layers. Scotch tape can be used to remove the upper layers leaving a clean flat surface for experimentation.

graphene
The mechanical exfoliation of Graphene

Researchers have also modified this technique to produce graphene. Graphene is composed of single carbon layers and has a number of amazing properties, highly conductive, incredibly strong, and transparent. For years producing small quantities of graphene provided difficult. But in 2004 a simple method was developed at the University of Manchester using nothing but bulk ordered graphite (HOPG) and a little Scotch tape. When repeatedly pressed between the Scotch tape, the Graphite layers can be separated until eventually only a signal layer of graphene remains.

kaptonmasking
Using Kapton to maskout traces via Dangerous Prototypes

 

 

The other non-conductive tape I use regularly in my lab is of course Kapton tape. While Kapton is a Dupoint brand name, it’s basically a polyimide film tape which is thermally stable up to 400 degrees C. This makes it ideal for work holding in electronics (or masking out pins) when soldering. You can also use it for insulating (though it’s inadvisable for production applications). Typically polyimide tape is available under a number of dubious synonyms (one example is Kaptan) from a variety of Chinese suppliers at low cost.

 

Carbon tape is conductive in all axes. This means it you can create a electrical connection by simply taping to your devices. It’s resistance however is somewhat high. I’ve most commonly come across this when using electron microscopes. Carbon tape is used both to keep a sample in place and create an electrical connection between the sample and the sample mount.

carbon_tape
Carbon tape, applied to a SEM mount.

Other conducting tapes are available with lower resistance, creating a electrical connection without soldering is valuable in a number of situations. Particularly when heat might damage the device. One example of this is piezoelectric materials. Not only does solder often bond poorly to ceramic materials, but it may also depole the material removing its piezoelectric properties. I tend to use conductive epoxies in these situations, but conductive tapes appear to be an attractive option.

Aluminum tape is commonly used for (heat) insulation in homes. It’s therefore very cheap and easily available. As well as conducting heat aluminum tape of course also conducts electricity. Around the lab this can be pretty handy. While the adhesive is not conductive, making it less attractive for connection parts, I’ve found aluminum tape great of sealing up holes in shielded enclosures. It also makes a great accompaniment to aluminum foil which is used to provide ad-hoc shielding in many scientific environments. Copper tape is also easily obtained, though slightly more expensive.

ztape
Z tape under a microscope

A much less common, but far cooler conductive tape is so called Z tape. This tape is composed of regular double-sided tape impregnated with spaced conductors. The result is a tape that conducts in only one direction (from the top to the bottom). This makes it similar in structure to a zebra strip, commonly used to connect LCDs. Z tape is unfortunately pretty expensive, a short 100mm strip can cost 5 dollars. What exactly 3M had in mind when creating Z tape is unclear. But it can be used for repairing FPC connectors on LCDs or in other situations where soldering is impractical.

One of the more awesome applications is Jie and Bunnie’s circuit sticker project. The kits are designed to allow kids to assemble circuits simply by sticking components together. Z tape is ideal for this, as it allows multiple connections to be made using the same piece to tape.

I couldn’t write an article on tape without mentioning the somewhat apocryphal “Invisible Electrostatic Wall” incident. A report at the 17th Annual EOS/ESD Symposium describes a “force field” like wall that appeared during the production of polypropylene film. While the story seems slightly dubious, it reminds us of the surprising applications and utility of tapes.

Next time you’re sending off a package or ripping open a package, spare a thought for the humble tape that holds it together.