Retrotechtacular: Olivetti Net3

If you sign up for a European hacker camp such as CCC Camp in Germany or SHA Camp in the Netherlands, you’ll see among the items recommended to take with you, a DECT handset. DECT, or Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications, refers to the set of standards that lie behind the digital cordless telephones that are ubiquitous across Europe and some countries elsewhere in the world. These standards cover more than just the simple two-way telephone calls through a base station that most Europeans use them for though, they define a fully functional multi-cell 3G phone and data networking system. This means that an event like SHA Camp can run its own digital phone network without having to implement cell towers.

Olivetti promotional net3 image
Olivetti promotional Net3 image

Reading the history of DECT, there is the interesting snippet that the first DECT product on the market in 1993 was not a telephone but a networking device, and incidentally the first wireless LAN product on the European market. Olivetti’s Net3 provided 512kB/s wireless networking to a base station with Ethernet or Token Ring interfaces for connection to a LAN. In its original form it was an internal card for a desktop PC coupled to a bulky external box containing radio circuitry and antenna, but its later incarnations included a PCMCIA card with a much smaller antenna box. The half-megabit speed seems tiny by today’s standards, but in the pre-multimedia world of 1993 would have been perfectly adequate for a Novell Netware fileserver and an HP Laserjet 4.

Heinz Wolff swallows a condom in another Olivetti promotional picture.
[Heinz Wolff] swallows a condom in another Olivetti promotional image.

Mystery Technology

So DECT is an interesting technology that can do more than just a simple cordless phone, and its first product was unexpectedly somewhat groundbreaking. It then becomes even more interesting to find that Net3 has left very little evidence of itself to find that can be found on the Web, and learning more about it requires a little detective work.

The Wikipedia entry has the bare bones, but it speaks volumes about the obscure nature of the product that the encyclopedia’s only picture of it is a tiny thumbnail-sized promotional image of the PCMCIA variant in a chunky mid-1990s laptop. A further search reveals a 1993 British Olivetti staff newsletter (PDF) carrying another promotional image of the desktop Net3 device featuring the then-well-known TV personality and academic [Heinz Wolff] demonstrating the technology bizarrely by swallowing a DECT medical instrumentation transponder wrapped in a condom. Some press releases remain in the fossilized remnants of the 1990s internet, and a Net3 design team member’s LinkedIn page led us to the patent covering the system, but that’s pretty much it. We can’t even find a high enough resolution image of a Net3 card for our featured image slot.

Wireless Things Before Their Time

It’s obvious that Net3 and DECT networking as a high-end wireless LAN before a need for wireless LANs existed never made it, but what is perhaps more interesting is that it seems to have left no legacy for other more mundane applications. We are in the midst of an explosion of hype around the Internet of Things and it seems new short-range wireless networking technologies appear almost daily, yet the world seems to have overlooked this robust, low power, and mature wireless network with its own dedicated frequency allocation that many of us already have in our homes. It seems particularly surprising that among the many DECT base stations on sale at your local consumer electronics store there are none with an Internet connection, and there is no market for IoT devices that use DECT as their backhaul.

In the open-source community there has been some work on DECT. The OsmocomDECT project for example provides a DECT software stack, and deDECTed.org states an aim to “better understand DECT and its security and to create an Open Source implementation of the DECT standard”. But there seems to have been very little hardware work in our community on the standard, for example there are no DECT-specific projects on Hackaday.io.

Net3 then was a product before its time, a herald of what was to come, from that twilight period when the Web was definitely a thing but had yet to become the world’s universal information repository. Public wireless networking was still several years in the future, so there was no imperative for road warriors to equip themselves with a Net3 card or for computer manufacturers — not even Olivetti themselves! — to incorporate the technology. It thus didn’t take the world by storm, and unusually for such a ground-breaking computer product there remains little legacy for it beyond a rarely-used feature of the protocol Europeans use for their cordless phones.

Did you have a Net3 card? Do you still have one? Let us know in the comments.

Eclipse 2017: Was Einstein Right?

While most people who make the trek to the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse next week will fix their gazes skyward as the heavenly spectacle unfolds, we suspect many will attempt to post a duck-face selfie with the eclipsed sun in the background. But at least one man will be feverishly tending to an experiment.

On a lonely hilltop in Wyoming, Dr. Don Bruns will be attempting to replicate a famous experiment. If he succeeds, not only will he have pulled off something that’s only been done twice before, he’ll provide yet more evidence that Einstein was right.

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Getting Started with Blinking Lights on Old Iron

If you ever go to a computer history museum, you’ll be struck by how bland most modern computers look. Prior to 1980 computers had lights and switches, and sometimes dials and meters. Some had switchboard-like wiring panels and some even had oscilloscope-like displays. There’s something about a machine with all those switches and lights and displays that gets your hacker juices flowing. Have you ever wanted to get started in retrocomputing? Is it difficult? Do you need a lot of money? That depends on what your goals are.

There are at least three ways you can go about participating in retrocomputing: You can pony up the money to buy actual antique computers, you can build or buy old computers recreated with anywhere from zero to one hundred percent of period-authentic components, or you can experiment with emulators that run on a modern computer. As a hybrid of the second and third option there are also emulations in FPGAs.

You can see that the first option can be very expensive and you will probably have to develop a lot of repair and restoration skills. Watching [Mattis Lind] twiddle the bits on an actual PDP-8 in the clip above is great, but you’ll need to work up to it. The two techniques which get you going without the original hardware don’t have to break the bank or even cost anything presuming you already have a PC.

Although some sneer at emulation, for some machines it is almost the only way to go. You couldn’t buy the original EDSAC, for example. It is also a good way to get started without a lot of expense or risk. But regardless of how you do it, there’s one thing in common: you have to know how to operate the thing.

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The Sensors Automating Your Commute

In a bout of frustration I recently realized that the roads have all updated — most people have no idea how — and this sometimes hurts the flow of traffic. This realization happened when an unfortunate person stopped in a left turn lane well before the stop line. The vehicle didn’t trigger the sensor, so cycle after cycle went by and the traffic system never gave the left turn lane a green light, thinking the lane was unoccupied. Had the driver known about this the world would have been a better place. The first step in intelligent automation is sensing, and there are a variety of methods used to sense traffic’s flow.

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Intro to the North American Traffic Signal

Traffic lights are so ubiquitous that we hardly give them a second thought, except to curse their existence when they impede us on our daily drive. But no matter how much it seems like traffic lights have the ability to read our minds and tell when we’re running late, they’re really not much more than a set of lights and a programmable controller. Simple in practice, but as usual, the devil is in the details, and for a system that needs to work as close to 100% of the time as possible, the details are important. Let’s explore the inner workings of traffic signals.

Electromechanical Timing

The traffic lights and crosswalk signals at an intersection are only the public user interface, of course. The interesting stuff is going on in the control box. There’s at least one at every intersection, usually a plain metal cabinet set back from the road, sometimes camouflaged with public bills or graffiti. But inside are the guts of what makes an intersection work and keeps vehicle and foot traffic moving smoothly and safely.

Unsurprisingly, most traffic signal controls started out as purely electromechanical devices. Cabinets were chock full of synchronous motors turning timing wheels with cams to cycle the intersection’s lights through the proper sequence. One old time controller that was common up until recently was made by Econolite, and the insides are a paragon of sturdy design.

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Rotary Phones and the Birth of a Network

I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before the movie title  “Dial M for Murder” becomes mysterious to most of the population. After all, who has seen a dial phone lately? Sure, there are a few retro phones, but they aren’t in widespread use. It may not be murder, but it turns out that the dial telephone has its roots in death — or at least the business of death. But to understand why that’s true, you need to go back to the early days of the telephone.

Did you ever make a tin can phone with a string when you were a kid? That dates back to at least 1667. Prior to the invention of what we think of as the telephone, these acoustic phones were actually used for specialized purposes.

We all know that [Alexander Graham Bell] made a working telephone over a wire, drawing inspiration from the telegraph system. However, there’s a lot of dispute and many others about the same time were working on similar devices. It is probably more accurate to say that [Bell] was the first to successfully patent the telephone (in 1876, to be exact).

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Books You Should Read: The Idea Factory

You’ve heard of Bell Labs, but likely you can’t go far beyond naming the most well-known of discoveries from the Lab: the invention of the transistor. It’s a remarkable accomplishment of technological research, the electronic switch on which all of our modern digital society has been built. But the Bell Labs story goes so far beyond that singular discovery. In fact, the development of the transistor is a microcosm of the Labs themselves.

The pursuit of pure science laid the foundation for great discovery. Yes, the transistor was conceived, prototyped, proven, and then reliably manufactured at the Labs. But the framework that made this possible was the material researchers and prototyping ninjas who bridged the gap between the theory and the physical. The technology was built on what is now a common material; semiconducting substances which would not have been possible without the Labs refinement of the process for developing perfectly pure substances reliably doped to produce the n-type and p-type substances that made diode and transistor possible.

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