Restoring a vintage PDP-11/04 computer

[MattisLind] spent one and a half years to complete restoration of a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-11/04 including peripherals like a TU60 tape drive and a LA30P Decwriter printing terminal. The computer is now able to run CAPS-11 which is a very simple operating system and also CAPS-11/BASIC. Just like the project itself, his blog post is quite long filled with interesting details. For a tl;dr version, check the video after the break.

This system originally belonged to Ericsson and [MattisLind] received it from Ericsson computer club, EDKX. He was lucky to have access to online resources which made the task easier. But it still wasn’t easy considering the number of hardware faults he had to tackle and the software challenges too. The first task was obviously looking at the Power supply. He changed the big electrolytic capacitors, and the power supply seemed to work well with his dummy load, but failed when hooked up to the backplane of the computer. Some more digging around, and a replaced thyristor later, he had it fixed. The thyristor was part of a crowbar circuit to protect the system from over-voltages should one of the main switching transistors fail.

With the power supply fixed, the CPU still wouldn’t boot. Some sleuthing around, and he pin pointed the bus receiver chip that had failed. His order of the device via a Chinese ebay seller was on the slow boat, so he just de-soldered a device from another board which improved things a bit, but it was still stuck in a loop. A replacement communications board and the system now passed diagnostics check, but failed memory testing. This turned out to be caused be a faulty DIP switch. He next tackled all the software challenges in getting the CPU board up to speed.

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ESP8266 ESP07 module DoA Fix

It seems the Far-East factories can’t churn out ESP8266 based modules fast enough to feed all the world’s hackers. Well, Pick-n-Place machines are human too, so it’s not too long before you end up with a messed up batch from a factory. [Tracker Johnny] found a bunch of ESP07 modules which had their resonator mounted the wrong way around, effectively making them DoA. The resonator mounting isn’t consistently wrong too – most have reported them 90 deg offset, while others had them 180 deg. off.

Unfortunately, you need some tools and skills to fix the error. The ESP07 modules have a metal shield which needs to be removed to access the resonator. This is best done using a hot air gun. With the cover removed, you need to de-solder the resonator, and put it back in the right orientation as shown in the pictures on [Tracker Johnny]’s blog. You can find other people reporting the same fault at this forum thread. Coming in the wake of the problem with magic smoke from ESP8266 based ESP01 modules we reported earlier, it seems obvious that quality comes at a cost.

Fixing Sega Cartridges With Old BIOS Chips

For one reason or another, [Dragao] has an old Sonic The Hedgehog cartridge that throws an illegal instruction somewhere in the Marble Zone stage. While the cause of this illegal instruction is probably cosmic rays, how to repair this cartridge isn’t quite as clear. It can be done, though, using BIOS chips from an old computer.

[Dragao] got the idea of repairing this cartridge from Game Boy flash carts. These cartridges use chips that are a simple parallel interface to the address and data lines of the Game Boy’s CPU, and Sega Genesis / Mega Drive flash cart would work the same way. The problem was finding old DIP flash chips that would work. He eventually found some 8-bit wide chips on the motherboard of an old computer, and by stacking the chips, he had a 16-bit wide Flash chip.

To program the chips, [Dragao] wired everything up to an Arduino Mega, put a ROM on the chip, and wired it up to the old Sega cartridge. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, everything worked, and now [Dragao] has a fully functioning copy of Sonic The Hedgehog.

Fixing a Toyota Camry Hybrid Battery for Under Ten Dollars

[scoodidabop] is the happy new owner of a pre-owned Toyota Camry hybrid. Well at least he was up until his dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree. He did some Google research to figure out what all of the warning lights meant, but all roads pointed to taking his car into the dealer. After some diagnostics, the Toyota dealer hit [scoodidabop] with some bad news. He needed a new battery for his car, and he was going to have to pay almost $4,500 for it. Unfortunately the car had passed the manufacturer’s mileage warranty, so he was going to have to pay for it out-of-pocket.

[scoodidabop] is an electrician, so he’s obviously no stranger to electrical circuits. He had previously read about faulty Prius batteries, and how a single cell could cause a problem with the whole battery. [scoodidabop] figured it was worth testing this theory on his own battery since replacing a single cell would be much less expensive than buying an entire battery.

He removed the battery from his car, taking extra care not to electrocute himself. The cells were connected together using copper strips, so these were first removed. Then [scoodidabop] tested each cell individually with a volt meter. Every cell read a voltage within the normal range. Next he hooked up each cell to a coil of copper magnet wire. This placed a temporary load on the cell and [scoodidabop] could check the voltage drop to ensure the cells were not bad. Still, every cell tested just fine. So what was the problem?

[scoodidabop] noticed that the copper strips connecting the cells together were very corroded. He thought that perhaps this could be causing the issue. Having nothing to lose, he soaked each and every strip in vinegar. He then wiped down each strip with some steel wool and placed them into a baking soda bath to neutralize the vinegar. After an hour of this, he reassembled the battery and re-installed it into his car.

It was the moment of truth. [scoodidabop] started up his car and waited for the barrage of warning lights. They never came. The car was running perfectly. It turned out that the corroded connectors were preventing the car from being able to draw enough current. Simply cleaning them off with under $10 worth of supplies fixed the whole problem. Hopefully others can learn from this and save some of their own hard-earned money.

Castellated Breakout is Pitchin’ Brilliant!

Radio, WiFi and similar modules are getting smaller by the day. Trouble is, they end up having non-DIY-friendly, odd pitch, mounting pads. Sometimes, though, simple hacks come around to help save the day.

[Hemal] over at Black Electronics came up with a hack to convert odd-pitch modules to standard 2.54mm / 0.1″. The process looks simple once you see the detailed pictures on his blog. He’s using the technique to add 2mm pitch modules like the ESP8266 and XBee by soldering them to standard perf board. Once they are hooked to the board, just add a row of male header pins, trim the perf board and you’re done. Couldn’t get simpler.

Another technique that we’ve seen is to solder straight across the legs and cut the wire afterward. That technique is also for protoyping board, but custom-sized breakout boards are one good reason to still keep those etchants hanging around. If you have other techniques or hacks for doing this, let us know in the comments.

Unbricking A Counterfeit FTDI Chip

If you haven’t been paying attention, FTDI, makers of one of the most popular USB to UART chips out there, really screwed up last October. They released a driver to Microsoft that would brick unauthorized clones of their chip by setting the USB PID pair to zero. This renders the chip unusable by any computer. That Windows driver has been fixed by now, but there’s probably still a good number of bricked FTDI chips out there. [Tony G] figured out how to fix it, and it only requires a few lines in the console of a proper OS.

The bricking Windows driver worked by setting the USB PID on fake chips to 0000. Luckily, there are ways to reprogram these chips. [Mark Lord] released a set of tools that will reset the USB PID. This unbricks the chip, fixing whatever device it’s attached to. It’s also a great reminder to either update or roll back your Windows drivers.

Vacuum Tube Repair After a Spectacular Failure

[Eric] has an Atwater Kent 55C AM radio from the early 1900’s. He’s been trying to restore the radio to proper working condition. His most recent pain has been with the rectifier tube. The tube is supposed to have a complete vacuum inside, but that’s not the case here. When the tube is powered up, it glows a beautiful violet color. It may look pretty, but that’s indicative that gas has leaked into the tube. It needed to be replaced.

[Eric] had a tube that would serve as a good replacement, but it’s plug didn’t fit the socket properly. He was going to have to use this old broken tube to make an adapter. Rather than just tearing the old tube apart, he decided to have some fun with it first. He hooked it up to a variac, an ammeter, and a volt meter. Then he slowly increased the voltage to see what would happen. The result was visually stunning.

The tube starts out with the same violet/blue glowing [Eric] experienced previously. As the voltage increases, it gets more and more intense. Eventually we start to see some green colors mixing in with the violets. [Eric’s] reaction to this unexpected result is priceless. As the tube gets increasingly hot, the anode starts glowing an orange-red color. Finally, the filament starts to crackle like a sparkler before the tube just gives up and completely fails.

After the light show, [Eric] moves on to replacing the tube. He begins by tapping on the old tube’s socket with the end of a screwdriver. After much tapping, the glass starts to come lose from the socket. After a bit of wiggling and twisting the tube finally came free from the socket. [Eric] luckily had an unused octal socket that fit perfectly inside of the old socket. All he needed to do to build his adapter was to connect the four pins from the old adapter to the proper pins on the octal socket. Piece of cake.

…Or so [Eric] thought. After testing some new tubes with a tube tester, he realized he had soldered all four pins incorrectly. On top of that, he had super glued the adapter together. He eventually got the two pieces apart. This time he removed all of the unused pins from the octal socket so he wouldn’t get it wrong. Another run on the tube tester confirmed that everything looked good. After plugging the tube into the radio, it worked just as expected

If you need fabrication rather than repair, we’ve got you covered there as well. Check out [Charles Alexanian’s] process for making new vacuum tubes in his garage. Now if you just have too darn many of them around, you can always decorate your pad with ’em.

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