ENIAC: The Way We Were

When I first got interested in computers, it was all but impossible for an individual to own a computer outright. Even a “small” machine cost a fortune not to mention requiring specialized power, cooling, and maintenance. Then there started to be some rumblings of home computers (like the Mark 8 we recently saw a replica of) and the Altair 8800 burst on the scene. By today’s standards, these are hardly computers. Even an 8-bit Arduino can outperform these old machines.

As much disparity as there is between an Altair 8800 and a modern personal computer, looking even further back is fascinating. The differences between the original computers from the 1940s and anything even remotely “modern” like an Altair or a PC are astounding. If you are interested in that kind of history, you should read a paper entitled “Electronic Computing Circuits of the ENIAC” by [Arthur W. Burks].

These mid-century designers used tubes and were blazing new ground. Part of what makes the ENIAC so different is that it had a different design principle than a modern computer. It was less a general purpose stored-program computer and more of a collection of logic circuits that could be configured to solve problems — sort of a giant vacuum tube FPGA, if you will. It used some internal representations that proved to be suboptimal which also makes it seem strange. The EDSAC — a later device — was closer to what we think of as a computer. Yet the ENIAC was a major step in the direction of a practical digital computer.

Cost and Size

eniac
Programming the ENIAC in 1951 (±4 years)
[Image Source: Public Domain]
The size of ENIAC is hard to imagine. The device had about 18,000 tubes, 7,000 diodes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 6,000 switches. There were 5 million hand-soldered joints! ([Thomas Haigh] tells us that while this is widely reported, the real number was about 500,000.) Physically, it stood 10 feet tall, 3 feet deep, and 100 feet long. The tube filaments alone required 80 kW of power. Even the cooling system consumed 20 kW. In total, it took 150 kW to run the beast.

The cost of the machine was about $487,000. Almost a half-million dollars in 1946 is plenty. But that’s nearly seven million dollars in today’s money. What was worth that kind of expenditure? The military built firing tables for shell trajectories. From the [Burks] paper:

“A skilled computer with a desk machine can compute a 60-second trajectory in about twenty hours…”

Keep in mind that in 1946, a computer was a person. [Burks] goes on to say that a differential analyzer can do the same job in 15 minutes. ENIAC, on the other hand, could do it in 30 seconds and with a greater precision than the differential analyzer.

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555 Teardown and Analysis

If you are even remotely interested in electronics, chances are the number ‘555’ is immediately recognizable. It is, after all, one of the most popular IC’s ever built, with billions of units sold to date. Designed way back in 1970 by Hans Camenzind, it is still widely available and frequently used for various applications. [Ken Shirriff] does a teardown and analysis of a 555 and gives us a look at the internal structure of this oldie.

A metal can package allowed him to just chop off the top and get access to the die, which was way safer and easier than to etch out the black epoxy of a DIP package. He starts by giving us a quick run down on how the chip works, showing us the two comparators, the output flip-flop and the capacitor discharge circuitry that make up most of the chip. He then puts the die under a metallurgical microscope, and starts identifying the various sections of the chip. Combining pictures of individual elements with cross-sectional diagrams, he identifies the construction of the transistors and resistors, the use of a current mirror to replace bulky resistors, and the differential pair that makes up the comparators.

He wraps it up by providing an interactive map of the die and the schematic, where you can click on various parts and the corresponding component is highlighted along with an explanation of what it does. There’s some interesting trivia about how a redesigned, improved version – the ZSCT1555 – couldn’t survive the popularity and success of the 555. He wraps it up with a useful list of notes and references. While de-capping blog posts are interesting on their own, [Ken] does a great job by giving us a detailed look at the internals.

Thanks [Vikas] for sending in this tip.

Clap On! A Breadboard

The Clapper™ is a miracle of the 1980s, turning lights and TVs on and off with the simple clap of the hands, and engraving itself into the collective human unconsciousness with a little jingle that implores – nay, commands – you to Clap On! and Clap Off! [Rutuvij] and [Ayush] bought a clap switch kit, but like so many kits, this one was impossible to understand; building the circuit was out of the question, let alone understanding the circuit. To help [Rutuvij] and [Ayush] out, [Rafale] made his own version of the circuit, and figured out a way to explain how the circuit works.

While not the most important component, the most obvious component inside a Clapper is a microphone. [Rafale] is using a small electret microphone connected to an amplifier block, in this case a single transistor.

The signal from the microphone is then sent to the part of the circuit that will turn a load on and off. For this, a bistable multivibrator was used, or as it’s called in the world of digital logic and Minecraft circuits, an S-R flip-flop. This flip-flop needs two inputs; one to store the value and another to erase the stored value. For that, it’s two more transistors. The first time the circuit senses a clap, it stores the value in the flip-flop. The next time a clap is sensed, the circuit is reset.

Output is as simple as a LED and a buzzer, but once you have that, connecting a relay is a piece of cake. That’s the complete circuit of a clapper using five transistors, something that just can’t be done with other builds centered around a 555 timer chip.

Hackaday Links: December 5, 2012

PS1 hombrew competition

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The PlayStation Development Network is hosting a six-month long competition to develop homebrew games for the original PlayStation.We don’t get many homebrew games for old systems in our tip line, so if you’d like to show something off, send it in.

This is how you promote a kickstarter

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[Andy] has been working on an SNES Ethernet adapter and he’s finally got it working. Basically, it’s an ATMega644 with a Wiznet adapter connected to the second controller port. The ATMega sends… something, probably not packets… to the SNES where it is decoded with the help of some 65816 assembly on a PowerPak development cartridge. Why is he doing this? To keep track of a kickstarter project, of course.

What exactly is [Jeri] building?

jeri

[Jeri] put up an awesome tutorial going over the ins and outs of static and dynamic flip-flops. There’s a touch of historical commentary explaining why dynamic registers were used so much in the 70s and 80s before the industry switched over to static designs (transistors were big back then, and dynamic systems needed less chip area). At the end of her video, [Jeri] shows off a bucket-brigade sequencer of sort that goes through 15 unique patterns. We’re just left wondering what it’s for.

Finally, a camera for the Raspberry Pi

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In case you weren’t aware, the camera board for the Raspberry Pi will be released sometime early next year. Not wanting to wait a whole month and a half, [Jouni] connected a LinkSprite JPEG serial camera to his Raspberry Pi. The whole thing actually works, but [Jouni] didn’t bother posting the code. Maybe we can encourage him to do so?

Blatant advertising? Yes, but fireballs

Nintendo gave [MikenGary] a Wii U and asked them to make a film inspired by 30 years of Nintendo lore and characters. They did an awesome job thanks in no small part to Hackaday boss man [Caleb](supplied the fire), writer [Ryan] (costume construction) and a bunch of people over at the Squidfoo hackerspace.

Building a computer out of 555 chips

[M. Eric Carr] came up with an interesting build for the 555 contest earlier this year, and we’re pretty sure that it would have kicked the winner of the complex category off the throne if it were completed. Although it’s a few months late, we’re happy to feature at least part of his 555-based computer on Hack A Day.

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Beginner concepts: 555 push button toggle

PIC, AVR, and Arduino are ubiquitous in projects these days and a lot of the time it’s easy to over-complicate things with their use. In this case, [Tod] wanted to use a momentary tactile switch to turn something on and off. Instead of going with a microcontroller he built the circuit around a 555 timer. What he really needed in this case is a flip-flop but lacking a chip for that he went with the 555 because it has one built-in. Three resistors and a capacitor later he’s in business, adding another resistor and a transistor to deal with the load switching. We’ve embedded video of the circuit controlling an LED after the break. This IC ends up in a lot of projects so dig through your parts bin and give this circuit a try.

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