Reinventing The Harwell Dekatron

A huge number of modern replicas of retro computers pass our screens here at Hackaday, and among them are an astonishing variety of technologies. Those who weren’t lucky enough to be present in the days when the building blocks of computing were coming together may have missed out on understanding gate-level operation of a computer. Put your super-powerful and super-complex systems-on-chip aside sometime and dig into the details of their distant ancestors.

Most such machines follow a very conventional architecture, so it is something of a surprise to find a project recreating a modern version of something far more obscure. The Harwell Dekatron, also known as the WITCH, can be found at the National Museum Of Computing in Bletchley, UK, and [David Anders] is building a modern all-electronic replica of it.

The original machine is currently the world’s oldest working digital computer, a hybrid electromechanical computer built at the start of the 1950s  to perform calculations for British nuclear scientists. It was retired by the end of that decade and found its way — via a technical college, a museum, and a period of storage in a council archive — to Bletchley where it was restored to working order by 2012. Its special feature is the use of dekatron discharge tubes as memory, allowing an instant visual display of its working as it happens.

[David]’s replica uses modern logic chips to replicate the building blocks of the Harwell Dekatron, and his write-up is as fascinating for that as it is for his study of the real thing in the museum. We ran into [Dave] showing off this project at the Hackaday Dallas event last year and are excited to learn of the advancements since then from his page. He’s put his research and designs on GitHub, and a series of YouTube videos, the introduction to which we’ve put below the break.

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Thanks for the Memories: Touring the Awesome Random Access of Old

I was buying a new laptop the other day and had to make a choice between 4GB of memory and 8. I can remember how big a deal it was when a TRS-80 went from 4K (that’s .000004 GB, if you are counting) to 48K. Today just about all RAM (at least in PCs) is dynamic–it relies on tiny capacitors to hold a charge. The downside to that is that the RAM is unavailable sometimes while the capacitors get refreshed. The upside is you can inexpensively pack lots of bits into a small area. All of the common memory you plug into a PC motherboard–DDR, DDR2, SDRAM, RDRAM, and so on–are types of dynamic memory.

The other kind of common RAM you see is static. This is more or less an array of flip flops. They don’t require refreshing, but a static RAM cell is much larger than an equivalent bit of dynamic memory, so static memory is much less dense than dynamic. Static RAM lives in your PC, too, as cache memory where speed is important.

For now, at least, these two types of RAM technology dominate the market for fast random access read/write memory. Sure, there are a few new technologies that could gain wider usage. There’s also things like flash memory that are useful, but can’t displace regular RAM because of speed, durability, or complex write cycles. However, computers didn’t always use static and dynamic RAM. In fact, they are relatively newcomers to the scene. What did early computers use for fast read/write storage?

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An Internet Speedometer With A Dekatron

[Sprite_tm], like most of us, is fascinated with the earlier ways of counting and controlling electrons. At a hacker convention, he found an old Dekatron tube hooked up to a simple spinner circuit. The prescription for this neon infatuation was to build something with a Dekatron, but making another spinner circuit would be a shame. Instead, he decided to do something useful and ended up building an Internet Speedometer with this vintage display tube.

Like all antique tubes, the Dekatron requires about 400V to glow. After a bit of Googling, [Sprite] found a project that drives a Dekatron with an AVR with the help of a boost converter. Borrowing the idea of controlling a boost converter with a microcontroller, [Sprite] built a circuit with the Internet’s favorite Internet of Things thing – the ESP8266 – that requires only a 12 volt wall wart and a handful of parts.

Controlling the rotating glow of a Dekatron is only half of the build; this device is an Internet speedometer, too. To read out his Internet speed, [Sprite] is using a managed switch that allows SNMP to read the number of incoming and outgoing octets on a network interface. By writing a simple SNMP client for the ESP8266, the device can read how clogged the Intertubes are, both incoming and outgoing.

With an acrylic case fresh out of the laser cutter and a remarkably good job at bending acrylic with a heat gun, [Sprite] has a tiny device that tells him how much Internet he’s currently using. He has a video of it running a speedtest, you can check that video out below.

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LED Water Wheel Display Is Dekatron-tastic!


Sometimes, it’s the simple things that mesmerize. [JohnS_AZ] has created a simple dekatron style LED ring, but we can’t seem to stop watching his video. [John’s] LED ring began as a visual indicator for his Hackaday Prize entry, a water consumption display. Judging by his website, [John] is a bit of a display nut. Nixie tubes and huge clocks feature prominently.

We’ve seen plenty of LED projects using the trusty 74xx595 8-bit shift register. [John] personally isn’t a fan, as the entire chip is only rated to drive about 50mA. While hackers routinely push the chip several times past this limit, [John] found a chip designed for the task in the Texas Instruments TLC59282 16 channel constant current LED driver. (PDF link) While more expensive than the ‘595, the 59282 makes life much easier. Only one resistor is needed at the chip’s current sense pin, rather than a current-limiting resistor for each LED. The 59282 also provides a blank input, which is perfect for driving with PWM.

[John] designed a simple PCB with a the 59282 driving a ring of 16 LEDs. While he waited for the boards to come in, he wrote some test code for a Microchip PIC16F1509. [John’s] code is not optimized, but that makes it easy to see exactly which bit patterns he’s writing to the LEDs. It all makes for a great demo, and reminds us of those old Dekatron tubes.
It’s the demo video that makes this project. Click past the break and give it a watch. After several long days of judging entries, a really nice LED ring might be just what the doctor ordered.

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Cold War Clock is all Tubes

A clock built from tubes


Clocks are great projects to build. They serve a real purpose, and there’s a wide variety of ways to implement a unique timepiece. [Hank]’s Cold War Clock only uses parts and technologies that were available in 1959. It contains no semiconductors, but has an audible alarm and reasonable time accuracy.

Looking through the hand drafted schematics, you’ll find a number of Dekatron tubes. These vintage components are used as registers to store and count the time. [Hank] found some cheap Soviet Dekatrons, but had to machine his own sockets to connect them. These tubes do the counting, but the actual display consists of nixies.

A cost estimate puts this clock at $2130 in 1959, which equates to $17040 today. Clearly this would be outside the price range of most hobbyists. The actual build cost [Hank] around $1600.

There’s some intricate details in this build. The front panel has an authentic look to it, and the manual has instructions for “demolition of clock to prevent enemy use.” [Hank] calls it a “creative anachronism.” In a sense, it’s a reproduction of a product that never actually existed.

A video of this clock in action, including the Cold War era alarm, is after the break.

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Drive bay form factor dual Dekatron readouts for RAM and CPU usage


The two circular displays seen above are Dekatrons built into an optical drive enclosure. [Matt Sylvester] picked up a couple of different types of these tubes on eBay. He etched his own driver, and was able to control them with an Arduino. After a few months went by he decided to revisit the project to see if it would work as a CPU and RAM usage meter.

These tubes need high voltage to get the neon display glowing brightly. This raised some concerns about having those voltage levels inside of his PC, as well as the noise which may be introduced by the supply. To deal with those issues [Matt] gutted an old optical drive, using its case to physically isolate the circuitry, and some optoisolators to protect the logic connections. His driver board uses an ATmega328 running the Arduino bootloader. It connects to the PC using an FTDI USB to Serial cable. This makes it a snap to push the performance data to the display. It also has the side benefit of allowing  him to reprogram the chip without opening the case.

If you can’t find one of these tubes for your own project consider faking it.

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Halloween Props: Pie of Sauron


[Richard] combined creative carving with vacuum tube electronics for a unique pumpkin offering. He used the stencil-and-cut method of carving, making use of an inexpensive carving kit for great results. He salvaged an LED module from a flashlight to provide the internal illumination, but it’s the center feature that we like the best. [Richard’s] used a glow-transfer counting tube, or dekatron, which provides something like a circular cylon eye to the project. There’s a video of this after the break.

You might not have access to a wicked-looking dekatron but we’re guessing you’ve got a microcontroller and some LEDs lying around that can serve as a stand-in for one night. We’d love to do a reader jack-o-lantern roundup, so if you build something, send us a picture!

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