Relays Calculate Square Roots

After seeing an exhibit of an old relay-based computer as a kid, [Simon] was inspired to build a simple two-relay latching circuit. Since then, he’s been fascinated by how relays can function to do computation. He’s come quite a long way from that first latching circuit, however, and recently finished a huge five-year project which uses electromechanical relays to calculate square roots.


The frame of the square root calculator can hold up to 30 identical relay modules, each of which hold 16 relays on PCBs, for a total of 480 relays. The module-based setup makes repair and maintenance a breeze. Numbers are entered into the computer by a rotary dial from an old phone and stored in the calculator’s relay memory. A nixie tube display completes the bygone era-theme of the device and shows either the current number that’s being entered, or the square root of that number as it’s being calculated.

The real magic of this project is that each relay has an LED which illuminates whenever the relay is energized, which shows the user exactly where all of the bits of the machine are going. [Simon] worked on this project from 2009 and recently completed it in 2014, and it has been featured at the San Mateo Maker Faire and at Microsoft Research in Redmond, WA. We’ve seen smaller versions of this before, but never on this scale and never for one specific operation like square roots.

Video below. Thanks to [Bonsaichop] for the tip!

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Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI

We all know what Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is nowadays. It’s almost impossible to get away from it in any television show or movie. It’s gotten so good, that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the real world and the computer generated world when they are mixed together on-screen. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. This 1982 clip from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World shows what the wonders of CGI were capable of in a simpler time.

In the earliest days of CGI, digital computers weren’t even really a thing. [John Whitney] was an American animator and is widely considered to be the father of computer animation. In the 1940’s, he and his brother [James] started to experiment with what they called “abstract animation”. They pieced together old analog computers and servos to make their own devices that were capable of controlling the motion of lights and lit objects. While this process may be a far cry from the CGI of today, it is still animation performed by a computer. One of [Whitney’s] best known works is the opening title sequence to [Alfred Hitchcock’s] 1958 film, Vertigo.

Later, in 1973, Westworld become the very first feature film to feature CGI. The film was a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park robots that become evil. The studio wanted footage of the robot’s “computer vision” but they would need an expert to get the job done right. They ultimately hired [John Whitney’s] son, [John Whitney Jr] to lead the project. The process first required color separating each frame of the 70mm film because [John Jr] did not have a color scanner. He then used a computer to digitally modify each image to create what we would now recognize as a “pixelated” effect. The computer processing took approximately eight hours for every ten seconds of footage. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI”

A Smaller, Homebrew Amstrad

Although they weren’t very popular in America, the Amstrad CPC 464 and CPC 6128 were extremely well-received in Europe. [Zaxon] loved his ‘464, and for a bit of a learning experience – and the fact that an Amstrad takes up an exceptional amount of desk space – decided to make a clone of his favorite computer (.pl, Google translatrix).

The clone began as a simple schematic of the original Amstrad CPC 464, but the parts used in the original required some modern equivalents. Still, most of the old chips remained in the clone; the original Hitachi HD46505 CRT controller remains, as do the original DRAM chips and the vintage Z80 CPU.

A few modern amenities were added, including an interface for a PS/2 keyboard and a disk that’s much improved over the original cassette drive or weird 3.5″ disks: a Disk On Module, or basically a CompactFlash card in a strange form factor that plugs straight into a motherboard’s IDE socket. They’re mostly seen when tearing apart old thin clients, but using them in retrocomputing project is a great idea.

Thanks [rasz_pl] for the tip. Video below.

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PCI I-RAM Working Without a PCI Slot

[Gnif] had a recent hard drive failure in his home server. When rebuilding his RAID array, he decided to update to the ZFS file system. While researching ZFS, [Gnif] learned that the file system allows for a small USB cache disk to greatly improve his disk performance. Since USB is rather slow, [Gnif] had an idea to try to use an old i-RAM PCI card instead.

The problem was that he didn’t have any free PCI slots left in his home server. It didn’t take long for [Gnif] to realize that the PCI card was only using the PCI slot for power. All of the data transfer is actually done via a SATA cable. [Gnif] decided that he could likely get by without an actual PCI slot with just a bit of hacking.

[Gnif] desoldered a PCI socket from an old faulty motherboard, losing half of the pins in the process. Luckily, the pins he needed still remained. [Gnif] knew that DDR memory can be very power-hungry. This meant that he couldn’t only solder one wire for each of the 3v, 5v, 12v, and ground pins. He had to connect all of them in order to share the current load. All in all, this ended up being about 20 pins. He later tested the current draw and found it reached as high as 1.2 amps, confirming his earlier decision. Finally, the reset pin needed to be pulled to 3.3V in order to make the disk accessible.

All of the wires from his adapter were run to Molex connectors. This allows [Gnif] to power the device from a computer power supply. All of the connections were covered in hot glue to prevent them from wriggling lose.

Computer Built into a Board Uses Only 10 Watts

In the realm of low-powered desktop computers, there are some options such as the Raspberry Pi that usually come out on top. While they use only a few watts, these tend to be a little lackluster in the performance department and sometimes a full desktop computer is called for. [Emile] aka [Mux] is somewhat of an expert at pairing down the power requirements for desktop computers, and got his to run on just 10 watts. Not only that, but he installed the whole thing in a board and mounted it to his wall. (Google Translated from Dutch)

The computer itself is based on a MSI H81M-P33 motherboard and a Celeron G1820 dual-core processor with 8GB RAM. To keep the power requirements down even further, the motherboard was heavily modified. To power the stereo custom USB DAC, power amplifier board, and USB volume button boards were built and installed. The display is handled by an Optoma pico projector, and the 10-watt power requirement allows the computer to be passively cooled as well.

As impressive as the electronics are for this computer, the housing for it is equally so. Everything is mounted to the backside of an elegant piece of wood which has been purposefully carved out to hold each specific component. Custom speakers were carved as well, and the entire thing is mounted on the wall above the bed. The only electronics visible is the projector! It’s even more impressive than [Mux]’s first low-power computer.

Central European Computer Collecting

During Hackaday’s short trip to Czech, we were lucky enough to run into someone who had recently had one of his projects featured on Hackaday. It’s [Martin]’s multi-target IDE for 8-bit CPUs, written entirely in JavaScript, and a full development suite for anything with a 6502, 6800, 6809, Z80, 8080, and 8085. [Martin] was kind enough to sit down and give us the scoop on why he’s interested in old computers, and why he developed his 8-bit IDE project, ASM80.

[Martin] grew up in the days of computer magazines, and originally wanted to build his own computer. That plan didn’t work out, but his parents did get him a Speccy in 1986, but the love of old hardware is still there. Over the years, this evolved into computer collecting, with the old ZX Spectrum, an Commodore 64, ORICs, and Acorns rounding out his collection. As we learned at the Computeum, there the middle of Europe had computers that just aren’t seen on the English-speaking Internet, and [Martin]’s collection is no exception.

In addition to doing some very cool stuff for some very old computers, [Martin] also donated something to the Hackaday Hackaspace. It’s a PMI-80, a single board computer made for university computer science students, and basically a KIM-1, but based on a Czechoslovak clone of the Intel 8080 made by Tesla. There is 1k of RAM and 1k of ROM on this board, a calculator keypad, and a few seven segment displays. For the time, it was a great ‘student’ computer, and not really rare in Europe, but this is the first one I’ve seen on my side of the Atlantic.

You can see some pics of the PMI-80 below with [Martin]’s interview. [Martin] also promised to write-up a short history of classic central european computers, a subject there isn’t much written about in the anglosphere. We’ll post a link to that when he finishes that up.

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A 4-bit Computer From Discrete Transistors

Anyone reading this uses computers, and a few very cool people have built their own computer out of chips, [zaphod] is doing something even cooler over on he’s building a computer from discrete transistors.

Building a computer from individual components without chips isn’t something new – Minecraft players who aren’t into cheaty command blocks do it all the time, and there have been a few real-life builds that have rocked our socks. [zaphod] is following in this hallowed tradition by building a four-bit computer, complete with CPU, RAM, and ROM from transistors, diodes, resistors, wire, and a lot of solder.

The ROM for the computer is just a bunch of 16 DIP switches and 128 diodes, giving this computer 128 bits of storage. the RAM for this project is a bit of a hack – it’s an Arduino, but that’s only because [zaphod] doesn’t want to solder 640 transistors just yet. This setup does have its advantages, though: the entire contents of memory can be dumped to a computer through a serial monitor. The ALU is a 4-bit ripple-carry adder/subtractor, with plans for a comparison unit that will be responsible for JMP.

The project hasn’t been without its problems – the first design of the demux for the ROM access logic resulted in a jungle of wires, gates, and connections that [zaphod] couldn’t get a usable signal out of because of the limited gate fan-out of his gates. After looking at the problem, [zaphod] decided to look at how real demuxes were constructed, and eventually hit upon the correct way of doing things – inverters and ANDs.

It’s a beautiful project, and something that [zaphod] has been working for months on. He’s getting close to complete, if you don’t count soldering up the RAM, and already has a crude Larson scanner worked out.