Digital Images And The Amiga

There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s where the Amiga was the standard for computer graphics. Remember SeaQuest? That was an Amiga. The intro to Better Call Saul? That’s purposefully crappy, to look like it came out of an Amiga. When it comes to the Amiga and video, the first thing that comes to mind is the Video Toaster, hardware and software that turns an Amiga 2000 into a nonlinear video editing suite. Digital graphics, images, and video on the Amiga was so much more than the Video Toaster, and at this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East, [Bill] and [Anthony] demonstrated what else the Amiga could do.

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Bootstrapping an Amiga 2000 Graphics Card Because Vintage is Pricey

If you have a computer on your desk today, the chances are that it has an Intel architecture and is in some way a descendant of the IBM PC. It may have an Apple badge on the front, it may run Linux, or Windows, but in hardware terms the overwhelming probability is that it will be part of the Intel monoculture. A couple of decades ago though in the 16- and early 32-bit era you would have found a far greater diversity of architectures. Intel 3-, and 486s in PCs and clones, Macintosh, Commodore, and Atari platforms with the 68000 family, the WDC 65C816 in the Apple IIGS, and the Acorn Archimedes with an early ARM processor to name but a few.

In the tough environment of the 1990s most of these alternative platforms fell by the wayside. Apple survived to be revitalised under a returning Steve Jobs, Atari and Commodore withered under a bewildering succession of takeovers, and Acorn split up and lost its identity with its processor licensing subsidiary going on to power most of the mobile devices we take for granted today.

Surprisingly though some of the 16-bit platforms refused to die when their originators faded from view. In particular Commodore’s Amiga has lived on with new OS versions, new platforms, and community-supported hardware upgrades. News of just such a device came our way this morning, [Lukas Hartmann]’s MNT VA2000, a graphics card for the Amiga 2000 using a GPU implemented on an FPGA.

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Building The First Digital Camera

While the official history of the digital camera begins with a Kodak engineer tinkering around with digital electronics in 1975, the first digital camera was actually built a few months prior. At the Vintage Computer Festival East, [William Sudbrink] rebuilt the first digital camera. It’s wasn’t particularly hard, either: it was a project on the cover of Popular Electronics in February, 1975.

Cromemco catalog page for the Cyclops, the first digital camera
Cromemco catalog page for the Cyclops, the first digital camera

[William]’s exhibit, Cromemco Accessories: Cyclops & Dazzler is a demonstration of the greatest graphics cards you could buy for S-100 systems and a very rare, very weird solid-state TV camera. Introduced in the February, 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, the Cyclops was the first digital camera. This wasn’t a device that used a CCD or a normal image sensor. The image sensor in the Cyclops was a 1 kilobit DRAM from MOS, producing a digital image thirty-two pixels square.

The full description, schematic, circuit layout, and theory of operation are laid out in the Popular Electronics article; all [William] had to do was etch a PCB and source the components. The key part – a one kilobit MOS DRAM in a metal can package, carefully decapsulated – had a date code of 1976, but that is the newest component in the rebuild of this classic circuit.

To turn this DRAM into digital camera, the circuit sweeps across the rows and columns of the DRAM array, turning the charge of each cell into an analog output. This isn’t a black or white camera; there’s gray in there, or green if you connect it to an oscilloscope.

This project in Popular Electronics would be manufactured by Cromemco in late 1975 and was released as their first product in January, 1976. The Cromemco was marketed as a digital camera, designed to interface with the MITS Altair 8800 computer, allowing anyone to save digital images to disk. This was the first digital camera invented, and the first digital camera sold to consumers. It’s an amazing piece of history, and very happy [William] was able to piece this together and bring it out to the Vintage Computer Festival this weekend.

Powering A Lot Of Nixie Tubes

[Limpkin] has an idea for a project that uses a lot of IN-9 Nixie tubes. Where a Nixie tube clock would only use four or six tubes, [Limpkin] is looking at fifty IN-9 bar graph Nixie tubes. These tubes only light up above 100 Volts and draw about half an amp. That’s 64 Watts, according to the math on the project page, so how does [Limpkin] plan on powering these tubes? With a big high voltage power supply.

The power supply [Limpkin] designed is more or less what you would expect to find in any power supply. There’s a transformer, a bunch of caps, and a rectifier. Going with a standard laminated core transformer would mean this power supply would be huge and heavy, but once again eBay comes to the rescue with a small, 150 Watt toroidal transformer. The largest output on the transformer was two 24 V outputs. Combining those outputs gets [Limpkin] to 48V AC, or 68V peak to peak. A full wave voltage doubler with two caps and two diodes gives [Limpkin] the 136V DC that will power the tubes.

Combine the high voltage circuit with a 9V AC tap, a small bridge rectifier, and a few more caps, and [Limpkin] had a supply that would power the tubes and the rest of the electronics in his multiple Nixie tube project. A few passes with a CNC mill gave the power supply a nice case topped off with a foreboding toroidal transformer ready to power a beautiful neon project.

Dump Your (Old) Computer’s ROM Using Audacity

If you’ve got an old calculator, Commodore 64, or any other device that used a tape recorder to store and retrieve data, you’ve probably also got a bunch of cassettes lying around, right? Well, you can get rid of them now (or sell them to nostalgic collectors for outrageous prices) because you can just as easily dump them to Audacity, decode them and archive them on a more sane medium.

In [Kai]’s case, the computer was a Sharp Pocket Computer system, and in his post there’s a lot of detail that’s specific to that particular system. If that’s applicable to you, go read up. In particular, you’ll be glad to find that the Pocket-Tools is a software suite that will encode and decode files between the Sharp binary formats and audio. Along the way, we found similar tools for Casio pocket computers too.

For a more general-purpose approach, like if you’re trying to dump and load data from a more standard computer that uses 1200/2400 Hz FSK encoding, this Python library may be useful, or you can implement the Goerzel algorithm yourself on your platform of choice. If you’ve got a particular binary format in mind, though, you’ll have to do the grunt work yourself.

Anyone out there still using these audio data encodings? We know that ham radio’s APRS system runs on two tones. What else? Why and when would you ever transfer data this way these days?

via the Adafruit blog!

A Comparison of Early Graphics Cards

We have to admit, we expected to be bored through [The 8-Bit Guy]’s presentation, only to stay riveted through his comparison of early graphic card technology.

Some presentations get a bit technical, which isn’t bad, but what is so interesting about this one is the clear explanation of what the market was like, and what it was like for the user during this time. For example, one bit we found really interesting was the mention of later games not supporting some of the neat color hacks for CGA because they couldn’t emulate it fully on the VGA cards they were developing on. Likewise, It was interesting to see why a standard like RGBI even existed in the first place with his comparison of text in composite, and much clearer text in RGBI.

We learned a lot, and some mysteries about the bizarre color choices in old games make a lot more sense now. Video after the break.

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Stolen Tech: The Soviet Shuttle

The US Space Shuttle program is dead and buried. The orbiters can now be found in their permanent homes in the Air and Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center, and the California Science Center. The launch pads used by the shuttles over a career of 135 launches are being repurposed for vehicles from SpaceX and the Space Launch System. Yes, some of the hardware and technology will be reused for NASA’s next generation of heavy launch vehicles, but the orbiter – a beautiful brick of a space plane – is forever grounded.

The Space Shuttle was a product of the cold war, and although the orbiters themselves were never purely military craft, the choices made during the design of the Space Shuttle were heavily influenced by the US Air Force. The Soviet Union was keenly aware the United States was building a ‘space bomber’ and quickly began development of their own manned spaceplane.

While this Soviet Shuttle would not be as successful as its American counterpart — the single completed craft would only fly once, unmanned — the story of this spaceplane is one of the greatest tales of espionage ever told. And it ends with a spaceship that was arguably even more capable than its American twin.

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