Retrotechtacular: The Apollo Guidance Computer

There is so much amazing technology that came out of the space race. For this week’s Retrotechtacular we’re looking at the guidance computer used in the Apollo program undertaken by NASA in the 1960′s.

One of the main components of this system is the Inertial Measurement Unit or IMU. That’s a familiar term for hackers who build quadcopters or other devices for which spacial awareness is paramount. In this case the IMU provided critical information about the motion and orientation of the capsule during it’s trip from the Earth to the Moon and back. But it wasn’t just high tech electronics along for the flight. To determine actual position a sextant was used for triangulating position. Yes, this is the same type of measuring device used for centuries. The method of using the sextant is displayed above. The spacecraft was turned until the sextant pointed at a landmark on Earth. The instrument was the adjusted to line up a star as a landmark, then the computer calculated position based on time and the angles of the two points being sighted. There’s a lot more shown in this thirty-minute film including in-depth assembly and testing of the computer components.

Before we point you to a few related articles we’d like to mention that our stash of really cool Retrotechtacular tips is running low. So if you know of some old footage that’s awesome to watch please send us a tip about it.

Now if you can’t get enough about NASA electronics you should check out the LVDC board which [Fran] got her hands on. Also, it’s worth checking out the unbelievable soldering techniques specified in the NASA manual. There’s a pretty good discussion about that going on in the Reddit thread.

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16 core computer made of ATMegas

atmega

Your desktop has two, four, or even eight cores, but when’s the last time you’ve seen a multicore homebrew computer? [Jack] did just that, constructing the DUO Mega, a 16 core computer out of a handful of ATMega microcontrollers.

From [Jack]‘s description, there are 15 ‘worker’ cores, each with their own 16MHz crystal and connection to an 8-bit data bus. When the machine is turned on, the  single ‘manager’ core – also an ATMega328 – polls all the workers and loads a program written in a custom bytecode onto each core. The cores themselves have access to a shared pool of RAM (32k), a bit of Flash, a VGA out port, and an Ethernet controller attached to the the master core.

Since [Jack]‘s DUO Mega computer has multiple cores, it excels at multitasking. In the video below, you can see the computer moving between a calculator app, a weird Tetris-like game, and a notepad app. The 16 cores in the DUO Mega also makes difficult calculations a lot faster; he can generate Mandelbrot patterns faster than any 8-bit microcontroller can alone, and also generates prime numbers at a good click.

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Programmable computer built from a humble ATtiny84

attiny84-computer

Here’s a way to play around with simple computing concepts without going too crazy with the hardware side of things. [John Eisenmann] calls it the DUO tiny. It’s a programmable computer based around the ATtiny84. He wrote the operating system himself, building in a set of commands that make it quite functional, but allow the user to manipulate or even write the programs using the four button interface. Editing and running programs (which include some games) is demonstrated in the clip after the break.

The three major components used in the system are the ATtiny84, and EEPROM chip with 64 KB capacity to hold the programs, and the 102×64 pixel LCD screen seen above. The project began on a breadboard, but as he brought each part into being it transitioned to a strip-board prototype and finally this fab-house version.

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World’s oldest functioning digital computer reminds us of a telephone exchange

This is the WHICH, the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell. It is the oldest functioning digital computer and thanks to a lengthy restoration process you can go and see it in person at The National Museum of Computing in Milton Keynes (Northwest of London in the UK).

The system was first put into operation in 1951. It’s function is both familiar and foreign. First off, it uses decimal rather than binary for its calculations. And instead of transistors it uses electromechanical switches like are found in older automatic telephone exchanges. This makes for very noisy and slow operation. User input is taken from strips of paper with holes punched in them. As data is accumulated it is shown in the registers using decatrons (which have since become popular in hobby projects). Luckily we can get a look at this in the BBC story about the WITCH.

According to the eLinux page on the device, it was disassembled and put into storage from 1997 until 2009. At that point it was loaned to the museum and has been undergoing cleaning, reassembly, and repair ever since.

[Thanks David]

Breadboarding a 4-bit ALU

[TGTTGIT] recently took the plunge and decided to build his own computer using logic chips. He just completed a 4-bit ALU which can compute 18 functions. It took a long time to get the wiring right, but in true geek fashion his build was accompanied by an alternating Chapelle’s Show and Star Trek: TNG marathon playing in the background.

This project is the stepping stone for a larger 16-bit version. The experience of wiring up just this much of it has convinced him that an FPGA is the only way to go for the future of the build. But since he had already ordered the chips it was decided that the only thing to do was to see this much through. He used the truth table from The Elements of Computing Systems for the design and posted several times about the project before arriving at this stopping point so you may be interested in clicking through the other post on his blog. There’s also a lot of other TTL computer projects around here worth checking into.

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Computer desk… literally

This piece of furniture begs the question, why think of a desk and a computer case as separate things? It combines Ikea furniture with electronic hardware to create the ultimate command center.

First the obvious parts: there’s a nook for the computer case that hangs just below the desktop off to the side, and the twin displays are mounted front and center. The divider between the cabinet pieces was cut away to allow the monitors to be wall-mounted. But things start to get interesting to the left of those monitors. You can see a series of dial displays in the door for that cabinet. Those meters were sourced from the MIT Flea Market and after a bit of alteration they display CPU load information fed to them by  an Arduino board. This also drives some LED strips which are mounted behind the frosted glass panel that we guess could be called a back splash. The heavier the load, the better the light show.

All of the power management is taken care of in the cabinet to the right of the monitors. The top row hides a printer, external hard drive backup system, and several gaming consoles. Heat will be an issue so exhaust fans were added to each of these partitions. They’re switched based on a temperature sensor in each. It’s a lot of work, but the outcome proves it was worth it.

[via Reddit]

Calculating with 3D printed gears

Here’s a 3D printed electromechanical computer built by [Chris Fenton] over at NYCResistor. It uses plastic registers printed on a Makerbot, a bunch of pogo pins, and business-card sized punch cards capable of storing 32 bits of instructions and data.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen [Chris]‘  FIBIAC. Since the last update, [Chris] managed to get a program that walks through the first three digits of the Fibonacci sequence. There’s really no limit to what the FIBIAC can theoretically do, but with only three registers he’s limited to calculating the first three digits of pi.

With more registers, [Chris]‘ computer could be expanded, but each register takes about 8 hours to print. We’re sure [Chris] would gladly accept any donations of additional 3D-printed registers, so if you’d like to make a few of these gear registers you can get the files on Thingiverse.

As a proof of concept, [Chris]‘ FIBIAC is amazing, but it doesn’t live up to its intended design. The punch card format [Chris] created is capable of storing 8 registers, and the registers themselves can be expanded far beyond their current 3-digit width. Still, it’s an incredible build and has the bonus of being easily expandable thanks to a very clever design.

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