Electronic Rule-Breakers That Crept into Everything We Use

Students in grade school are usually taught square roots before or during junior high, and with these lessons comes one immutable fact: It’s forbidden to take the square root of a negative number. Not too much longer after that, however, the students all learn that this is a big fat lie and that taking square roots of negative numbers is critically important in many fields of study.

There’s a similar “lie” in existence for anyone studying electricity, whether they’re physicists, engineers, or electronics enthusiasts: it’s only possible to raise and lower voltage levels on alternating current (AC) circuits using a transformer. If you generate direct current (DC) voltage through the use of a generator or a battery and need a different voltage level for your new power distribution system in New York or your battery-powered electronics, well, you’re out of luck.

Of course we all know that DC-DC conversion, like taking square roots of negative numbers, is not only possible but fundamental to most modern electronics. After all, there are certain integrated circuits that we can drop into our projects to magically transform one DC voltage to another DC voltage without thinking too much about the problem. And we’re not just talking about linear regulators, which can only drop the source voltage to a smaller level by dissipating energy. Using switch mode DC-DC converters, it’s possible to decrease or increase a DC voltage, and do it at around 95% efficiency or higher for some applications (compared to around 30% efficiency for any linear regulator).  But unraveling the mystery of how switch-mode power supplies (SMPS) and other DC-DC converters work, and how they’re different from AC transformers, involves diving a little deeper.

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BlinkenBone Meets The PiDP8

Years ago when the old mainframes made their way out of labs and into the waiting arms of storage closets and surplus stores, a lot got lost. The interesting bits – core memory boards and the like – were cool enough to be saved. Some iconic parts – blinkenlight panels – were stashed away by techs with a respect for our computing history.

For the last few years, [Jörg] has been making these blinkenlight panels work again with his BlinkenBone project. His work turns a BeagleBone into a control box for old console computers, simulating the old CPUs and circuits, allowing them to work like they did thirty years ago, just without the hundreds of pounds of steel and kilowatts of power. Now, [Jörg] has turned to a much smaller and newer blinkenlight panel, the PiDP-8.

The PiDP-8 is a modern, miniaturized reproduction of the classic PDP 8/I, crafted by [Oscar Vermeulen]. We’ve seen [Oscar]’s PiDP a few times over the last year, including a talk [Oscar] gave at last year’s Hackaday Supercon. Having a simulated interface to a replica computer may seem ridiculous, but it’s a great test case for the interface should any older and rarer blnkenlight panels come out of the woodwork.

What Lies Beneath: The First Transatlantic Communications Cables

For some reason, communications and power infrastructure fascinates me, especially the long-haul lines that move power and data over huge distances. There’s something about the scale of these projects that really gets to me, whether it’s a high-tension line marching across the countryside or a cell tower on some remote mountain peak. I recently wrote about infrastructure with a field guide that outlines some of the equipment you can spot on utility poles. But the poles and wires all have to end at the shore. Naturally we have to wonder about the history of the utilities you can’t see – the ones that run under the sea.

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Testing DRAM, One Byte At A Time

A few weekends ago, [Chris] was in the mood for some retrogaming. That meant digging out the old Apple IIgs equipped with a monstrous RAM card with a whole three megabytes of RAM. This particular Apple IIgs had intermittent issues for a long time, and [Chris] was beginning to suspect the RAM was the culprit. Testing this required testing a few dozen individual RAM chips, so why not build something with an Arduino to make [Chris]’ life easier?

The chips found in [Chris]’ Apple are standard 1 M x 1 DRAM chips, the standard for late-80s computers. To test these chips on an Arduino, he picked up a beautiful ZIF socket, wired up the chip to an Arduino shield, and began the joyous process of figuring out how to interface DRAM to an Arduino.

Unlike static memories, DRAM needs to be refreshed periodically to recharge the capacitors. While this refresh cycle was the bane of designers and engineers throughout time, [Chris] actually doesn’t need to care about refreshing the DRAM. He’s just writing 1024 rows to the memory and reading it straight out – no need to refresh the memory. The trick comes from the multiplexed address bus. For his project, [Chris] needs to write 10 bits of the address, latch it, then write the other half of the address bits.

The DRAM tester was a success, and [Chris] put all the code and schematics up on GitHub. Solving the mystery of the broken Apple IIgs wasn’t as simple, as [Chris] thinks the problem might be in one of the support chips on the gigantic RAM card or the IIgs motherboard. Still, it’s a neat, quick build to test out a few DRAM chips.

The Origin of QWERTY

There are very few things that are surrounded with as much hearsay and rumor as the origins of the QWERTY layout of typewriters and keyboards. The reason behind the QWERTY layout isn’t as simple as ‘so the bars for each letter don’t collide with each other.’ That’s nonsense – it would make far more sense to improve the mechanism before changing the arrangement of the keyboard around.

That’s not the only fallacious argument for the creation of QWERTY. It’s also been called a marketing ploy; Stephen Jay Gould popularized the idea of the QWERTY keyboard being as it is so a salesman could peck out TYPE WRITER on the top row [1]. This also makes little sense. Why would the top row and not the home row be so privileged as to contain all the letters the make up the name of the machine. For that matter, wouldn’t a sales pitch be more impressive if TYPE WRITER were typed with one hand?

This doesn’t mean there’s not a method behind the madness of QWERTY – it’s just not as simple as jammed typewriter mechanisms or appeasing the wishes of salesmen in the 1870s. QWERTY didn’t come out of thin air, though, but folk tale history of this keyboard layout is sadly deficient.

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How Low Can You Go? The World of QRP Operation

Newly minted hams like me generally find themselves asking, “What now?” after getting their tickets. Amateur radio has a lot of different sub-disciplines, ranging from volunteering for public service gigs to contesting, the closest thing the hobby has to a full-contact sport. But as I explore my options in the world of ham radio, I keep coming back to the one discipline that seems like the purest technical expression of the art and science of radio communication – low-power operation, or what’s known to hams as QRP. With QRP you can literally talk with someone across the planet on less power than it takes to run a night-light using a radio you built in an Altoids tin. Now that’s a challenge I can sink my teeth into.

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Breadboard Colecovision

The Colecovision was a state-of-the-art game console back in 1983. Based around the Z-80, it was almost a personal computer (and, with the Adam add-on, it could serve that function, complete with a daisy wheel printer for output). [Kernelcrash] set out to recreate the Colecovision on a breadboard and kept notes of the process.

His earlier project was building a Funvision (a rebranded VTech Creativision) on a breadboard, so he started with the parts he had from that project. He did make some design changes (for example, generating separate clocks instead of using the original design’s method for producing the different frequencies needed).

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