Learning And Failing At Digital Electronics

[spencerhamblin] is starting his explorations into digital electronics the hard way: reproducing a “simple” IC’s functionality by wiring up a board full of discrete transistors. In this case, the end product is a binary-to-seven-segment decoder built from scratch.

In engineering circles, this circuit is better known as a 7447 BCD to seven-segment decoder/driver, but just using a single chip has little pedagogical value. Building a simple circuit with 39 transistors, 31 resistors, and a handful of diodes is a good introduction to digital electronics, and after two attempts, [spencerhamblin] knocked it out of the park.

The build began with a piece of copper clad board, a bunch of cheap FETs from fleabay, and an incorrect schematic. While the first version of the project looked fantastic with Manhattan-style construction, and jumper wires everywhere, the schematic was fundamentally flawed and [spencer] got a little confused when converting the circuit to a common anode display.

Version two used a more standardized construction. This circuit was plotted in DipTrace, and the resulting PCB was sent off to OSHPark. The build was cleaner, but in capturing the schematic, [spencer] reversed the footprint of the seven segment display. That was easy enough to fix with a few short wires, and after a little bit of work [spencer] had a device that would convert binary to a seven segment display.

Hackaday Prize Entry: From Q To NAND

The apocalypse is coming, and the last time I checked, not many people have a semiconductor fab in their garage. We’ll need computers after the end of the world, and [matseng]’s project for the Hackaday Prize is just that – a framework to build computers out of discrete components.

The apocalyptic spin on this project is slightly exaggerated, but there is a lot someone can learn by building digital devices out of transistors, resistors, and diodes. The building blocks of [matseng]’s computer are as simple as they come: he’s using three resistors, four diodes, and one NPN transistor to build a single NAND gate. These NAND gates can then be assembled into any form of digital logic. You’re never going to get a better visual example of functional completeness.

A project like this must be approached from both the top down and bottom up. To go from a high level to ones and zeros, [matseng] built an assembler and an emulator. Some ideas of what the instruction set will be are laid out in this project log, and for now [matseng] is going for a Harvard architecture with eight registers. It’s a lot of work for a computer that will be limited by how much memory [matseng] can be wired up, but as far as ambition goes, there aren’t many projects in the Hackaday Prize that can match this tiny, huge computer.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Building A Transistor Clock From Scrap

[Phil] has already built a few clocks with Nixies, VFDs, and LED matrices. When his son requested his own clock, he wanted to do something a little different. Inspired by the dead bug style of [Jim Williams]’ creations, [Phil] set out to build a clock made entirely out of discrete components. That includes the counters, driver circuits, and an array of LED.

There are a few inspiration pieces for [Phil]’s clock, starting with the Transistor Clock, a mains-powered clock that uses 194 transistors, 566 diodes, and exactly zero integrated circuits. Design patterns from a clock so beautiful it’s simply called The Clock are also seen, as is a Dekatron emulator from [VK2ZAY].

[Phil]’s creation has no PCB, and all the components are soldered onto tiny wires arranged into something resembling the clocks circuit. It’s a fantastic contraption, and while we’ll still have to give the design award to the clock, [Phil]’s creation shows off the functional circuits; great if he’ll ever need to debug anything.

Jaw-Dropping Atomic Clock Build

You could cruise the Internet bazaars for a talking clock but you’ll never find one as awesome as this. Just look at it… even if it didn’t work it would be awesome.

[Art] certainly lives up to his username. His Rubidium-standard atomic real-time clock is surely an example of hardware art. The substrate is a collection of point-to-point soldered perfboard modules. Each laid out meticulously. What does such layout call for? A gorgeous enclosure which doesn’t obscure your view of the components. For this he went with a copper tube frame and a custom fabricated aluminum chassis pan.

For the circuit itself [Art] tells us he wanted to build something akin to the old HP nixie frequency counters so he went with logic chips. The pictures and a few video annotations are the only clues we have for how this works. Hopefully your encouragement in the comments will help prompt him to share more about that.

Oh, and the talking clock part that we referred to earlier? Every minute you get a readout of the time thanks to a PIC playing back audio using [Roman Black’s] BTc sound compression algorithm.

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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 hackaday.io: 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.

Capacitive Garage Door Opener Hides Behind Your Dash

[Pyrow] wanted to upgrade his garage door opener remote. It worked just fine, but changing those tiny batteries out can be an inconvenience. Plus, the remote control was taking up valuable storage space and would always rattle around while driving. [Pyrow] decided to make use of an Omron E2K-F10MC2 capacitive touch sensor to fix these issues.

[Pyrow’s] circuit still makes use of the original remote control. He just added some of his own components to get it to do what he wanted. The circuit is powered by the car’s battery, so it never needs a battery replacement. The circuit is protected with a fuse and the power is regulated to prevent electrical spikes from burning up the original remote control. The actual circuit is pretty simple and uses mostly discrete components. It’s all soldered onto proto board to keep it together. He only had to solder to three places on the original remote control in order to provide power and simulate a button press.

Next, [Pyrow] took his dash apart. He used double-sided tape to attach the touch sensor to the back of the dash.  After securing the electronics in place with tape, he now has a working hidden garage door opener. Full schematics are available in the writeup linked above. Also, be sure to watch the demonstration video below.

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The Disintegrated Op Amp

741By now we’ve all seen the ‘Three Fives’ kit from Evil Mad Scientist, a very large clone of the 555 timer built from individual transistors and resistors. You can do a lot more in the analog world with discrete parts, and [Shane]’s SevenFortyFun is no exception: it’s a kit with a board, transistors, and resistors making a very large clone of the classic 741 op-amp, with all the parts laid bard instead of encapsulated in a brick of plastic.

[Shane] was inspired by the analog greats – [Bob Pease], [Jim Williams], and of course [Bob Widlar], and short of mowing his lawn with goats, the easiest way to get a feel for analog design was to build some analog circuits out of individual components.

[Shane] has a few more kits in mind: a linear dropout and switching regulators are on the top of the list, as is something like the Three Fives kit, likely to be used to blink giant LEDs.