Retrotechtacular: A Desktop Computer from 1965

About eight years before the Xerox built the Alto at PARC and over a decade before the Apple ][ premiered, Italian business equipment manufacturer Olivetti produced a bona fide desktop personal computer. When Olivetti debuted this typewriter-sized marvel in 1965 at a business convention in New York City, people were in absolute awe that this tiny, self-contained unit could perform the same types of functions as the hulking room-sized mainframes of the time. Some were sure that it was simply a small input device for a much bigger machine hiding behind the curtain.

But the revolutionary Olivetti Programma 101 was no joke. It performed standard four-banger operations and could handle square root and absolute value calculations. The Olivetti had 16 jump instructions as well as 16 conditional jump instructions, which put it firmly in state machine territory. Programs could be printed on a roll of paper or stored long-term on long magnetic cards.

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Acoustic Delay Line Memory

Back in the olden days  when computers were both analog and digital, making RAM was actually very hard. Without transistors, the only purely electronic means of building a memory system was vacuum tubes; It could have been done, but for any appreciable amount of RAM means an insane amount of tubes, power, and high failure rates.

One of the solutions for early RAM was something called a delay line. This device used ultrasonic transducers to send a pulse through a medium (usually mercury filled tubes heated to 40°C) and reads it out at the other end. The time between the pulse being sent and received is just enough to serve as a very large, small capacity RAM.

Heated tubes filled with hundreds of pounds of mercury isn’t something you’d want sitting around for a simple electronics project. You can, however, build one out of a Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab, a speaker, and a microphone.

[Joe] designed his delay line using an op-amp to amplify the train of acoustic pulses traveling through the air. A compactor picks up these pulses and sends them into a flip-flop. A decade counter and oscillator provide the timing of the pulses and a way to put each bit in the delay line. When a button on the electronics lab is pressed, a ‘tick’ is sent into the speaker where it travels across [Joe]’s basement, into the microphone, and back into the circuit.

The entire setup is able to store ten bits of information in the air, with the data conveniently visualized on an oscilloscope. It’s not a practical way to store data in any way, shape, or form, but it is an interesting peek into the world before digital everything.

Video below.

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Glass delay line slide used in an RGB lamp


The spire used in this lamp is a part from an old television. It’s a glass delay line slide which pipes the light up from the Bluetooth controlled RGB lamp (translated) in the base.

We have looked at delay lines previously when [Dave Jones] tore down a camcorder to get at one. But we must have missed the EEVblog follow-up episode which explains how the glass slides work. The device uses physical distance to form a delay. Waves directed into the edge of the glass slide bounce around at an angle before being sensed at the collection point. [Lukas] liked the visual appearance of the part and decided to use it to add visual interest to his lamp project. The nature of the glass makes it perfect for directing the light up and away from the PCB.

The lamp consists of one RGB LED module controlled by an ATtiny2313 microcontroller. Also on board is a HC-05 Bluetooth module. This along with an app he wrote lets the user change lamp color and behavior wirelessly. You can see the lamp in action in the video after the break, but we think the camera shot probably doesn’t do it the justice it deserves.

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Storing 32 bits of data in a piece of glass

After finding an old piezoelectric delay line in an old TV, [Mike] decided to figure out how it works and in the process stored his name in sound waves reflecting inside a piece of glass

[Mike] was intrigued by these old-fashioned delay lines after watching [Dave] from EEVblog’s teardown of an circa 1985 camcorder. [Dave] found a piezoelectric delay line in his camcorder – a device that is able to store digital data by sending a sound wave into a glass plate, letting the sound wave bounce through the plate. and picking up the sound on the other end. It’s actually not too dissimilar to a mercury delay line used in the earliest computers.

After sending a pulse through his piezoelectric delay line, [Mike] picked up an echo almost exactly 64 microseconds later. After hooking up a simple circuit constructed out of a 74-series chip, [Mike] found he could ‘loop’ the delay line and keep a pulse going for up to 3 milliseconds.

Three milliseconds isn’t much, but by injecting serial data into the delay line, [Mike] was able to spell out his name in binary, as seen above. It’s just 32 bits stored for a fraction of a second, making it a very volatile, low-capacity memory, but functionally equivalent to the old mercury delay lines of yore.

It’s certainly not what [Mike] or [Dave]’s delay line was designed to do; these video delay lines were used to hold the previous line of video for a form of error correction. Outside [Mike]’s workbench and a few museums, though, you won’t see a delay line used as a form of computer memory. A very cool build and an awesome history lesson, and we thank [Mike] for that.