Review: The National Museum Of Computing

Here’s a question for you all: how will you know when you are no longer young? When you fall out of love with contemporary popular music perhaps, or start to find the idea of a cruise holiday attractive? The surefire sign for many people is having to ask a teenager how a piece of technology works — this is probably not that applicable to most Hackaday readers.

How about when you’re shocked to encounter a significant part of your youth in a museum? These are supposed to be places of The Olden Days, full of rustic agricultural tools or Neolithic pottery, yet here you are in front of your teenage years presented for all to see. You have two choices: you can surrender to the inevitable and henceforth only wear beige clothing, take up golf or maybe book that old person’s cruise holiday, or you can dive in misty-eyed and reacquaint yourself with everything in front of you.

The above is probably an experience many regulars of these pages would share on a visit to Britain’s National Museum Of Computing in a corner of the famous Bletchley Park site, home of Britain’s wartime codebreaking efforts. They describe what they do on their web site as follows:

We conserve, restore, reconstruct, and give hands-on access to historic computers and related artefacts – with a particular focus on those which were the result of pioneering British ingenuity.

For the visitor this means that their galleries contain a huge array of computing and associated equipment, many of which are presented as working exhibits without too much of the dumbing-down that pervades so many other museums, and that the staff are extremely knowledgable about them.

The museum is housed in one of the groups of wartime codebreakers’ huts, laid out roughly in the shape of a capital H with the top of one vertical lopped off. If you are a connoisseur of British wartime sites you’ll recognise these buildings, they were built to a fairly standard design all over the country. Internally this means that the galleries are structured around the long corridors that are a staple of that era, giving in particular the earlier exhibits a feel of their time.

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Books You Should Read: Poorly Made In China

This book is scary, and honestly I can’t decide if I should recommend it or not. It’s not a guide, it doesn’t offer solutions, and it’s full of so many cautionary tales and descriptions of tricks and scams that you will wonder how any business gets done in China at all. If you are looking for a reason not to manufacture in China, then this is the book for you.

The author is not involved in the electronics industry. Most of the book describes a single customer in the personal products field (soap, shampoo, lotions, creams, etc.). He does describe other industries, and says that in general most factories in any industry will try the same tricks, and confirms this with experiences from other similar people in his position as local intermediary for foreign importers.

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Review: Monoprice Maker Ultimate 3D Printer

A few months ago, a very inexpensive 3D printer appeared on Monoprice. My curiosity for this printer was worth more than $200, so I picked one of these machines up. The Monoprice MP Select Mini is an awesome 3D printer. It’s the perfect printer to buy for a 13-year-old who might be going through a ‘3D printing phase’. It’s a great printer to print a better printer on. This printer is a sign the 3D printing industry is not collapsing, despite Makerbot, and foreshadows the coming age of consumer 3D printers.

The MP Select Mini isn’t Monoprice’s only 3D printer; the printer I bought was merely the ‘good’ printer in the good-better-best lineup. Since my review of the MP Select Mini, Monoprice has introduced their top of the line, the Maker Ultimate 3D printer. Monoprice asked if I would like to take a look at this offering, and I’m more than happy to oblige.

After a week of burn-in, I can safely say you’re not wasting your money on this $700 3D printer. It’s not a starter printer — it’s one that will last you a long time. 2016 is the beginning of the age of consumer 3D printers, and the Monoprice Maker Ultimate is more than proof of this.

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Books You Should Read: Basic Electronics

I learned some basic electronics in high school physics class: resistors, capacitors, Kirchoff’s law and such, and added only what was required for projects as I did them. Then around 15 years ago I decided to read some books to flesh out what I knew and add to my body of knowledge. It turned out to be hard to find good ones.

The electronics section of my bookcase has a number of what I’d consider duds, but also some gems. Here are the gems. They may not be the electronics-Rosetta-Stone for every hacker, but they are the rock on which I built my church and well worth a spot in your own reading list.

Grob’s Basic Electronics

Grob's Basic Electronics 12th Edition
Grob’s Basic Electronics 12th Edition

Grob’s Basic Electronics by Mitchel E Schultz and Bernard Grob is a textbook, one that is easy to read yet very thorough. I bought mine from a used books store. The 1st Edition was published in 1959 and it’s currently on the 12th edition, published in 2015. Clearly this one has staying power.

I refer back to it frequently, most often to the chapters on resonance, induction and capacitance when working on LC circuits, like the ones in my crystal radios. There are also things in here that I couldn’t find anywhere else, including thoroughly exhaustive online searches. One such example is the correct definitions and formulas for the various magnetic units: ampere turns, field intensity, flux density…

I’d recommend it to a high school student or any adult who’s serious about knowing electronics well. I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants to reduce frustration when designing or debugging circuits.

You can find the table of contents here but briefly it has all the necessary introductory material on Ohm’s and Kirchoff’s laws, parallel and series circuits, and so on but to give you an idea of how deep it goes it also has chapters on network theorems and complex numbers for AC circuits. Interestingly my 1977 4th edition has a chapter on vacuum tubes that’s gone in the current version and in its place is a plethora of new ones devoted to diodes, BJTs, FETs, thyristors and op-amps.

You can also do the practice problems and self-examination, just to make sure you understood it correctly. (I sometimes do them!) But also, being a textbook, the newest edition is expensive. However, a search for older but still recent editions on Amazon turns up some affordable used copies. Most of basic electronics hasn’t changed and my ancient edition is one of my more frequent go-to books. But it’s not the only gem I’ve found. Below are a few more.

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Introducing The Teensy 3.5 And 3.6

Paul Stoffregen has built a new Teensy. The latest in the line of very powerful, USB-capable microcontrollers is the Teensy 3.5 and 3.6 development boards. It’s faster, more capable, and bigger putting even more pins on a solderless breadboard.

The first Teensy was one of the first Arduino compatible boards with native USB. The Teensy 2.0 was even better with support for USB keyboards, mice, and MIDI. Even today, the Teensy 2.0 is the de facto board to use if you want to build anything like a USB keyboard. The Teensy 2.0 was followed by the exceptionally powerful Teensy 3.0, the first 32-bit Arduino compatible board, and thanks to Paul’s contributions of a pile of Arduino libraries, doing cool stuff faster has never been easier. Since the launch of the Teensy 3.0, its successors, the 3.1 and 3.2 have launched. If you want the power of an ARM microcontroller with the deepest Arduino library support, there’s only one board you should consider.

Like the launch of the Teensy 3.0, Paul is Kickstarting the launch of the latest Teensys with a crowdfunding campaign. Let’s dig into everything these new boards have to offer.

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The Othermill Is Something Else

I’ll admit. When I saw the Othermill for the first time I thought it was just another mill with cheap Chinese hardware inside sold as a premium. I’m ashamed to say that I even trash talked it a little bit. It gave me another chance to relearn that I should always do my research before being a jerk, check my assumptions thoroughly, and even then it’s not recommended. Other Machine Company was kind enough to let me swing by the office in Berkeley California. [Danielle], the CEO, led me through the design of the mill as well as the challenges in running the operation.

The Othermill is a serious machine, and with the recent release of the Othermill Pro, it’s only getting better. The components are not bargain basement. This is something that could be more obvious, but it’s almost entirely made from US sourced parts, including the custom stepper motors. There aren’t any ball bearings that will start to make strange noises in a year. It can now cut 6mil traces in a PCB all day long. To put it into perspective. The Othermill Pro costs a third of the price of an equivalent machine from LPKF and has the same capabilities.

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Books You Should Read: Instruments Of Amplification

Psst… Wanna make a canning jar diode? A tennis ball triode? How about a semiconductor transistor? Or do you just enjoy sitting back and following along an interesting narrative of something being made, while picking up a wealth of background, tips and sparking all sorts of ideas? In my case I wanted to make a cuprous oxide semiconductor diode and that lead me to H.P. Friedrichs’ wonderful book Instruments of Amplification. It includes such a huge collection of amplifier knowledge and is a delight to read thanks to a narrative style and frequent hands-on experiments.

Friedrichs first authored another very popular book, The Voice of the Crystal, about making crystal radios, and wanted to write a second one. For those not familiar with crystal radios, they’re fun to make radios that are powered solely by the incoming radio waves; there are no batteries. But that also means the volume is low.

Readers of that book suggested a good follow-up would be one about amplifier circuits, to amplify the crystal radio’s volume. However, there were already an abundance of such books. Friedrichs realized the best follow-up would be one on how to make the amplifying components from scratch, the “instruments of amplification”.  It would be unique and in the made-from-scratch spirit of crystal radios. The book, Instruments of Amplification was born.

The Experiments

Microphonic relays
Microphonic relays, via H.P. Friedrichs Homepage

The book includes just the right amount of a history, giving background on what an amplifier is and how they first came in the electrical world. Telegraph operators wanted to send signals over greater and greater distances and the solution was to use the mix of electronics and mechanics found in the telegraph relay. This is the springboard for his first project and narrative: the microphonic relay.

The microphonic relay example shown on the right places a speaker facing a microphone; the speaker is the input with the microphone amplifying the output. He uses a carbon microphone salvaged from an old telephone headset, housing everything in an enclosure of copper pipe caps, steel bar stock, nuts and bolts mounted on an elegant looking wood base. All the projects are made with simple parts, with care, and they end up looking great.

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