Smallest BASIC Computer?

This may be the most minimal computer that we’ve ever seen running BASIC. Hackaday.io user [Kodera2t] has been working through the history of computing, so after his 4-bit CPU, he stepped up his game to eight bits. It’s amazing how much can be done with so little. It’s basically a Z80 on a single PCB.

[Kodera2t] is careful to give credit where credit is due: the design of this computer is by [Grant Searle]. It’s amazing what you can do with an old CPU (6809), some SRAM, a controller-interface chip, and an EPROM for your BASIC. Check out the GitHub for the computer’s PCB files if you want to make your own — it’s a very hobbyist-friendly two-layer board with fat traces. Or you could put it all together on a breadboard. It’s that non-critical.

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The other sweet touch is this monochrome CRT build that pairs up with the tiny computer.

[Kodera2t] is doing some really clever retro and minimalistic hacks, and putting them all up on Hackaday.io. You should really give his whole portfolio a look. We recently wrote up his experimentations with the Atmel ATtiny10 if you’re in the mood for something more modern.

The Best Gingery Lathe Video Series To Date

[Makercise] has been working on a Gingery Lathe since September last year. His videos on the process are by far the most detailed, clearly shot, and complete series on making a Gingery lathe we’ve come across.

For those who aren’t familiar, the Gingery series of books describe how to build an entire machine shop’s worth of bench top tools using only the hardware store, dumpster dives, charcoal, and simple skills. The series of books start out with the charcoal foundry. [Makercise] has built a nice oil fired foundry already so it’s off to the next book, Gingery 2,  is the metal lathe.

The Gingery books and, really, most DIY books from that era are: not well laid out, well written, or even complete. All but the most recent prints of the series still looked like photocopies of typewritten documents with photos glued on. The series provided just enough detail, drawings, and advice to allow the hobbyist to fill in the rest. So it’s really nice to see someone work through the methods described in the book visually. Seeing someone using a scraper made from an old file on aluminum to true the surface is much more useful than Gingery’s paragraph or two dedicated to the subject.

[Makercise] is fast approaching the end of his lathe build. We’re not certain if he’ll move onto the Shaper, mill, drill press, brake, etc. after finishing the lathe, but we’re hopeful. The playlist is viewable after the break.

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The Champagne of Light Bulbs

We’re all used to making our own lighting projects. Triac dimmers, LEDs, Neopixels, EL wire, there is a huge array of lighting components and technologies at our fingertips. But how many of us have made our own lighting rather than buying off-the-shelf? [Confined Maker] set out to do just that by creating an incandescent light bulb from scratch, and since he’s obviously a hacker with a bit of class he did it in an empty Dom Perignon champagne bottle.

It might seem a daunting project, but as he shows us in the video below the break, it turns out to be surprisingly straightforward with no exotic tooling required. He starts by winding a fine coil of thin tungsten wire round a dowel to act as his filament, before bringing a pair of enameled copper wires through holes drilled in the base of the bottle and out of the neck. The ends of these wires are then spliced to his filament and secured with conductive epoxy before the whole assembly is carefully slid back into the bottle. The holes are caulked with silicone, and the bottle is then carefully charged with argon. Argon is heavier-than-air, so he can do this on the bench with nothing more than a bicycle tube inflator and a drinking straw. The bottle is then sealed with a cork and more silicone, and his bulb is ready.

The first power-up with 120V mains power sees a puff of smoke inside the bottle as a coating on the tungsten is vapourised, but after that the bulb does its job well. He’s concerned about his epoxy melting, and the filament has moved to one side of the bottle so he’s not sure about the lifetime he can expect, but to make a working light bulb with such basic equipment is still an impressive accomplishment. His video below the break is eleven and a half minutes long, but well worth watching every minute.

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A 150MHz 6502 Co-Processor

If you are familiar with ARM processors, you may know of their early history at the 1980s British home computer manufacturer Acorn. The first physical ARM system was a plug-in co-processor development board for Acorn’s BBC Micro, the machine that could be found in nearly every UK school of the day.

For an 8-bit home computer the BBC Micro had an unusually high specification. It came with parallel, serial and analog ports, built-in networking using Acorn’s proprietary Econet system, and the co-processor interface used by that ARM board, the Tube. There were several commercial co-processors for the Tube, including ones with a 6502,  a Z80 allowing CP/M to be run, and an 80186.

As with most of the 8-bit generation of home computers the BBC Micro continues to maintain a strong enthusiast following who have not stopped extending its capabilities in all directions. The Tube has been interfaced to the Raspberry Pi, for instance, on which an emulation of original co-processor hardware can be run.

bbc-tube-screenshotAnd thus we come to the subject of this article, [Hoglet] and [BigEd]’s 150MHz 6502 coprocessor for the BBC Micro. Which of course isn’t a 6502 at all, but a 6502 emulated in assembler on an ARM which is in a way the very distant descendant of the machine it’s hosted upon. There is something gloriously circular about the whole project, particularly as the Pi, like Acorn, the BBC Micro, and modern-day ARM, has its roots in Cambridge. How useful it is depends on your need to run 8-bit 1980s software in a tearing hurry, but they do report it runs Elite, which if you were there at the time we’re sure you will agree is the most important application to get running on a BBC Micro.

We’ve featured the Tube interface before when we talked about an FPGA co-processor with a PDP/11 mode that was definitely never sold by Acorn. And we’ve also featured an effort to reverse engineer the primordial ARM from that first BBC Micro-based co-processor board.

BBC Micro image: Stuart Brady, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Retrotechtacular: How Solidarity Hacked Polish TV

In the 1980s, Poland was under the grip of martial law as the Communist government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski attempted to repress the independent Solidarity trade union. In Western Europe our TV screens featured as much coverage of the events as could be gleaned through the Iron Curtain, but Polish state TV remained oblivious and restricted itself to wholesome Communist fare.

In September 1985, TV viewers in the city of Toruń sat down to watch an action adventure film and were treated to an unexpected bonus: the screen had a brief overlay with the messages “Solidarity Toruń: Boycotting the election is our duty,” and “Solidarity Toruń: Enough price hikes, lies, repression”. Sadly for the perpetrators, they were caught by the authorities after their second transmission a few days later when they repeated the performance over the evening news bulletin, and they were jailed for four months.

The transmission had been made by a group of dissident radio astronomers and scientists who had successfully developed a video transmitter that could synchronise itself with the official broadcast to produce an overlay that would be visible on every set within its limited transmission radius. This was a significant achievement using 1980s technology in a state in which electronic components were hard to come by. Our description comes via [Maciej Cegłowski], who was able to track down one of the people involved in building the transmitter and received an in-depth description of it.

Transmission equipment seized by the Polish police.
Transmission equipment seized by the Polish police.

The synchronisation came courtesy of the international effort at the time on Very Long Baseline Interferometry, in which multiple radio telescopes across the world are combined to achieve the effect of a single much larger instrument. Before GPS made available a constant timing signal the different groups participating in the experiment had used the sync pulses of TV transmitters to stay in time, establishing a network that spanned the political divide of the Iron Curtain. This expertise allowed them to create their transmitter capable of overlaying the official broadcasts. The police file on the event shows some of their equipment, including a Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer from the West that was presumably used to generate the graphics.

There is no surviving recording of the overlay transmission, however a reconstruction has been put on YouTube that you can see below the break, complete with very period Communist TV footage.

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Bringing A Teletype Into The 21st Century

Before modern CRTs with ancient VGA connectors, and before fancy video terminals, the display for computers large and slightly smaller was the Teletype. While many of these Teletypes were connected directly, they were designed to be a remote terminal, connected through Ma Bell’s network. [NeXT] over on the Vintage Computer Forums is bringing the iconic ASR33 Teletype into the 21st century by giving this old display a modern way to connect to the outside world.

If you ever see a Teletype in action, it will be connected to a local machine. This was certainly not always the case. The Teletype was designed to connect to remote systems. [NeXT]’s Teletype came with a Call Control Unit designed for Telex lines, which do not exist anymore. Modems for the ASR33 existed, but good luck finding one. Lucky for [NeXT], nearly every modem ever made is backwards-compatible with the Bell Dataphone, one of the standard ways of plugging a Teletype into a phone line. All [NeXT] had to do was put a modem inside this Teletype.

With relays, transistors, LEDs, and a lot of perfboard, [NeXT] successfully built a circuit that would interface the Teletype’s Call Control Unit to a Hayes Smartmodem tucked away inside the stand. Believe it or not, this is an exceptionally useful build; if you ever find a Teletype tucked away in the back of an old office, in a surplus shop, or on Craigslist, odds are it won’t be compatible with any modern electronics. That’s not to say land lines are particularly modern, but since there’s a microcontroller included in the new circuitry, it’s relatively easy to add a USB port to this ancient terminal.

You Can Learn a Lot from a Candle

Beginning in 1827, [Michael Faraday] began giving a series of public lectures at Christmas on various subjects. The “Christmas Lectures” continued for 19 years and became wildly popular with upper-class Londoners. [Bill Hammack], aka [The Engineer Guy], has taken on the task of presenting [Faraday]’s famous 1848 “The Chemical History of a Candle” lecture in a five-part video series that is a real treat.

We’ve only gotten through the first episode so far, but we really enjoyed it. The well-produced lectures are crisply delivered and filled with simple demonstrations that drive the main points home. [Bill] delivers more or less the original text of the lecture; some terminology gets an update, but by and large the Victorian flavor of the original material really comes through. Recognizing that this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, [Bill] and his colleagues provide alternate versions with a modern commentary audio track, as well as companion books with educational guides and student worksheets. This is a great resource for teachers, parents, and anyone looking to explore multiple scientific disciplines in a clear, approachable way.

If there were an award for the greatest scientist of all time, the short list would include [Faraday]. His discoveries and inventions in the fields of electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and physics spanned the first half of the 19th century and laid the foundation for the great advances that were to follow. That he could look into a simple candle flame and see so much is a testament to his genius, and that 150 years later we get to experience a little of what those lectures must have been like is a testament to [Bill Hammack]’s skill as an educator and a scientist.

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