FPGA-and-Pi Colossus Smashes Your Codes!

If it were sixty years ago, and you were trying to keep a secret, you’d be justifiably glad that [Ben North] hadn’t traveled back in time with his Raspberry-Pi-and-FPGA code-breaking machine.

We’ve seen a lot of Enigma builds here at Hackaday — the World War II era encryption machine captured our readers’ imaginations. But perhaps the more important machines to come out of cryptanalysis during that era were Turing’s electromechanical Bombe, because it cracked Enigma, and the vacuum-tube-based Colossus, because it is one of the first programmable electronic digital computers.

[Ben]’s build combines his explorations into old-school cryptanalysis with a practical learning project for FPGAs. If you’re interested in either of the above, give it a look. You can start out with his Python implementations of Colossus to get your foot in the door, and then move on to his GitHub repository for the FPGA nitty-gritty.

It’s also a cool example of a use for the XuLA2 FPGA board and its companion StickIt board that plug straight into a Raspberry Pi for programming and support. We haven’t seen many projects using these since we first heard about them in 2012. This VirtualBoy hack jumped out at us, however. It looks like a nice platform. Anyone else out there using one?

One Man’s Awesome Collection Of Projects Done Over A Lifetime

[Robert Glaser] kept all his projects, all of them, from the 1960s to now. What results is a collection so pure we feel an historian should stop by his house, if anything, to investigate the long-term effects of the knack.

He starts with an opaque projector he built in the third grade, which puts it at 1963. Next is an, “idiot box,” which looks suspiciously like “the Internet”, but is actually a few relaxation oscillators lighting up neon bulbs. After that, the condition really sets in, but luckily he’s gone as far as to catalog them all chronologically.

We especially enjoyed the computer projects. It starts with his experiences with punch cards in high school. He would hand-write his code and then give it to the punch card ladies who would punch them out. Once a week, a school-bus would take the class to the county’s computer, and they’d get to run their code. In university he got to experience the onset of UNIX, C, and even used an analog computer for actual work.

There’s so much to read, and it’s all good. There’s a section on Ham radio, and a very interesting section on the start-up and eventual demise of a telecom business. Thanks to reader, [Itay Ramot], for the tip!

The World’s Supply Of DB-19 Connectors

[Steve] over at Big Mess O’ Wires has a very, very niche product. It’s the Floppy Emu, a hard disk emulator for the Apple II, Lisa, and very old Macs. The Floppy Emu takes data stored on an SD card and presents it to these classic computers through a contemporary connector, the venerable DB-19. This connector is in the same family as the familiar DB-25 parallel port, DE-9 serial port and the old DA-15 joystick port, but there’s something very special about the DB-19 connector – nobody makes it anymore, and no surplus electronics store has any in stock. They’re unobtanium, and when you’re making a product built around this connector, you’re going to have a few problems.

Those problems have come to a head over the past year, but getting a few thousand DB-19 connectors manufactured has always seemed just out of reach. It would be a five-figure investment for a very niche product, and [Steve] would have to find someone to make the connectors.

The world’s shortage of DB-19 connectors is no more. After chatting up a few people in the NeXT and Atari communities, [Steve] set up a group buy and manufactured the first batch of DB-19 connectors in recent memory. The world’s supply of DB-19 connectors, all 10,000 of them, is now in [Steve]’s living room.

The process of manufacturing ten thousand DB-19 connectors actually wasn’t that hard for [Steve]. Over the past year, he’s reached out to manufacturers to get a quote, and he still had those numbers in his rolodex. The only problem was finding an engineering drawing of a DB-19 connector and transferring a large amount of money to Hong Kong. The drawing was easy enough, as datasheets sometimes last longer than the parts they describe. Transferring the money over to the manufacturer meant convincing a bank manager there is not a Nigerian prince in Hong Kong and thirty minutes of paperwork.

After a few months, a round of prototyping, and a trip through customs, the world’s supply of DB-19 connectors finally landed on [Steve]’s porch. He still needs to ship them out to the NeXT and Atari folk who participated in the group buy, but the great shortage of DB-19 connectors is over for now.

A Cake Tin Makes A Great Tube Amp Chassis

If you have ever had a go at building a tube-based project you will probably be familiar with the amount of metalwork required to provide support structures for the tubes themselves and the various heavy transformers and large electrolytic capacitors. Electronic construction sixty years ago was as much about building the chassis of a project as it was about building the project itself, and it was thus not uncommon to see creative re-use of a chassis salvaged from another piece of equipment.

This morning we stumbled upon a rather nice solution to some of the metalwork woes facing the tube constructor courtesy of [Bruce], who built his tube audio amplifier on a chassis made from a cake tin and with its transformers housed in decorative display tins.

The circuit itself is a straightforward single-ended design using an ECL82 triode-pentode on each stereo channel, and comes courtesy of [Nitin William]. The power supply is on-board, and uses a pair of silicon diodes rather than another tube as the rectifier.

It’s true that [Bruce] has not entirely escaped metalwork, he’s still had to create the holes for his tubes and various mountings for other components. But a lot of the hard work in making a tube chassis is taken care of with the cake tin design, and the result looks rather professional.

We have something of a personal interest in single-ended tube amplifiers here at Hackaday, as more than one of us have one in our constructional past, present, or immediate futures. They are a great way to dip your toe in the water of tube amplifier design, being fairly simple and easy to make without breaking the bank. We’ve certainly featured our share of tube projects here over the years, for example our “Groove tube” round-up, or our look at some alternative audio amplifiers.

How An Amiga Graphics Business Ran In The 1990s

If you have ever used an eraser to correct a piece of pencil work, have you ever considered how much of an innovation it must have seemed when the first erasers were invented? It might seem odd to consider a centuries-old piece of stationery here on Hackaday, but there is a parallel in our own time. Digital image manipulation is such a part of everyday life these days as to have become run-of-the-mill for anyone with a mobile phone and the right app, but it’s easy to forget how recent an innovation it really is. Only a few decades ago your only chance of manipulating a photograph was to spend a lot of time in a darkroom with a photographic developer of exceptional skill, now children who have never known a world in which it wasn’t possible can manipulate their selfies with a few deft touches of the screen.

[Steve Greenfield] pointed us at a detailed description of the business he ran in the 1990s, offering digital and composite photography using an upgraded Amiga 3000.  It caught our attention as a snapshot of the state of digital image manipulation when these things still lay at the bleeding edge of what was possible.

His 3000 was highly customised from the stock machine. It featured a Phase 5 68060 accelerator board, a Cybervision 64 graphics card, a then-unimaginably-huge 128MB RAM, and an array of gigabyte-plus Fast SCSI drives.  To that he had attached a Polaroid SCSI digital camera with a then-impressive 800×600 pixel resolution. The Polaroid had no Amiga drivers, so he ran the Shapeshifter Mac emulator to capture images under the MacOS of the day. The fastest 68000-series Mac only had a 68040 which the early PowerPC Macs could only emulate, so he writes that his 68060-equipped Amiga ran the Mac software faster than any Mac at the time.

His stock-in-trade was attending sci-fi conventions and giving costumed attendees pictures with custom backgrounds, something of a doddle on such a souped-up Amiga. He writes of the shock of some Microsoft employees on discovering a 60MHz computer could run rings round their several-hundred-MHz Pentiums running Windows 95.

His business is long gone, but its website remains as a time capsule of the state of digital imagery two decades ago. The sample images are very much of their time, but for those used to today’s slicker presentation it’s worth remembering that all of this was very new indeed.

In a world dominated by a monoculture of Intel based desktop computers it’s interesting to look back to a time when there was a genuine array of choices and some of them could really compete. As a consumer at the start of the 1990s you could buy a PC or a Mac, but Commodore’s Amiga, Atari’s ST, and (if you were British) Acorn’s ARM-based Archimedes all offered alternatives with similar performance and their own special abilities. Each of those machines still has its diehard enthusiasts who will fill you in with a lengthy tale of what-if stories of greatness denied, but maybe such casualties are best viewed as an essential part of the evolutionary process. Perhaps the famous Amiga easter egg says it best, “We made Amiga …

Here at Hackaday we’ve covered quite a few Amiga topics over the years, including another look at the Amiga graphics world. It’s still a scene inspiring hardware hackers, for example with this FPGA-based Amiga GPU.

Amiga 3000 image: By [Joe Smith] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

How Does a Buck Converter Work Anyway?

[Great Scott] should win an award for quickest explanation of a buck converter. Clocking in at five and a half minutes, the video clearly shows the operating principles behind the device.

It starts off with the question, what should you do if you want to drop a voltage? Many of us know that we can dim and brighten an LED using the PWM on an Arduino, but a closer inspection with an oscilloscope still shows 5V peaks that would be dangerous to a 3.3V circuit. He then adds an inductor and diode, this keeps the current from dropping too fast, but the PWM just isn’t switching fast enough to keep the coil energized.

A small modification to the Arduino’s code, and the PWM frequency is now in the kHz range. The voltage looks pretty good on the oscilloscope, but a filter cap gets it to look nice and smooth. Lastly, he shows how when the load changes the voltage out looks different. To fix this a voltage divider feeds back the information to the Arduino, letting it change the PWM duty to match the load.

In the last minute of the video he shows how to hook up off-the-shelf switching regulators, whose support components are now completely demystified as the basic principles are understood. Video after the break.

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Greet the Sun with a 555 Flute

Here’s an interesting implementation of a classic: the 555 timer as astable multivibrator for the noble purpose of making weird music. [pratchel] calls this a Morgenflöte or morning flute, indicating that it is best played in the morning. It would certainly wake up everyone in the house.

Instead of using LDRs in straight-up Theremin mode and waving his hands about, [pratchel] mounted one in each of several cardboard tubes. One tube is small and has just a few holes; this is intended to be used as a flute. [pratchel] cautions against locating holes too close to the LDR, because it will overpower the others when left uncovered. A larger tube with more holes can be used as a kind of light-dependent slide whistle with another holey tube that fits inside. We were disappointed to find that the giant tube sitting by the amplifier hasn’t been made into a contrabass flute.

Continuing the theme of astability, [pratchel] went completely solderless and built the circuit on a breadboard. The LDR’s legs are kept separate by a piece of cardboard. This kind of project and construction is fairly kid and beginner-friendly. It would be a good one for getting your musically inclined friends and family members into electronics. Here’s a 555 player piano built by Hackaday’s own [Steven Dufresne] that might be a good second step. Check out [pratchel]’s performance after the break.

Continue reading “Greet the Sun with a 555 Flute”