The Original Seven (Eight?) Segment Display

The seven-segment LED display is ubiquitous. But how old do you think the fundamental idea behind it is? You nixie tube fans will be thinking of the vacuum-tube era, but a reader sent us this patent filed in 1908 where [Frank W. Wood] builds a numeric display with plain-vanilla light bulbs, slots cut in wood, and lots of wires.

The OCR on the patent is poorly done — you’re going to want to download the PDF and read it locally. But as it states in the patent, “Referring again to Fig. 1, the novel arrangement of the lamp compartments will be readily understood.”

Technically it’s not a seven-segment display at all. [F.W. Wood] designed these really nice-looking “4”s with the diagonal heads, and so he needed eight segments per digit. But the basic idea shines through, if you pardon the pun.

The other figures demonstrate the machine that’s used to send the signals to light up the lights. It’s a rotating drum with the right contacts on the bottom side to make connections and turn on the right lights at the other end. Low tech, but it’s what was available at the time.

We’re stoked that we’re not responsible for wiring this thing up, and we’re a bit awed by how old the spirit behind one of our most ubiquitous technologies is.

Thanks to [mario59] for the nostalgic tip!

UTF-8 – “The most elegant hack”

While it may not look like much, the image above is a piece of the original email where [Ken Thompson] described what would become the implementation of UTF-8. At the dawn of the computer age in America, when we were still using teletype machines, encoding the English language was all we worried about. Programmers standardized on the ASCII character set, but there was no room for all of the characters used in other languages. To enable real-time worldwide communication, we needed something better. There were many proposals, but the one submitted by [Ken Thompson] and [Rob ‘Commander’ Pike] was the one accepted, quite possibly because of what a beautiful hack it is.

[Tom Scott] did an excellent job of describing the UTF-8. Why he chose to explain it in the middle of a busy cafe is beyond us, but his enthusiasm was definitely up to the task. In the video (which is embedded after the break) he quickly shows the simplicity and genius of ASCII. He then explains the challenge of supporting so many character sets, and why UTF-8 made so much sense.

We considered making this a Retrotechtacular, but the consensus is that understanding how UTF-8 came about is useful for modern hackers and coders. If you’re interested in learning more, there are tons of links in this Reddit post, including a link to the original email.

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This day in Hack a Day history: January 1st 2005

TIMEHAX

A new feature that we’re playing with is an occasional look back at this day in Hack a Day history. While we’re still hotly disputing exactly what, when, and how to show, we thought today would be a great day to introduce the idea.

So, in on this day in Hack a Day history we’re reaching back to our very first January 1, which was 2005.  There are some interesting things to consider when reading this post. At this point in time, we were still sort of  a growth off the side of engadget like [Kuato] from the 1990 version of Total Recall.  We were less than a year old and still hadn’t completely developed our style, we didn’t really share much information about the project, and yep, the very first comment is “not a hack”.

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The making of a Vacuum Tube

With the death of Heathkit looming  in our minds it’s high time for a a heartwarming story. [Ronald Dekker] has done a wonderful job documenting the history of the E1T beam counting tube, detailing everything from the work led up to the invention of the tube to the lives of the inventors themselves.

For those who are unaware, the E1T is a rather strange vacuum tube capable counting from 0 to 9. While that’s nothing too special in itself, the tube also displays the numbers on a phosphor screen, much like a miniature cathode ray tube. In fact, this phosphor screen and the secondary emission caused by it is critical to the tubes operation. To put it bluntly, it’s a dekatron and a magic eye tube smashed together with the kind of love only a group of physicists could provide.

Now, who wants to have the honor of transposing Ronald’s story into a wikipedia article?

A visual history of the computer mouse

mouse

As we all go about our day to day activities, it’s easy to get lost in technology and take for granted things that have slowly evolved over long periods of time. Take for instance the mouse on your desk. Whether it’s a standard 2-button mouse with a scroll wheel or a magic mouse with no buttons at all, we’re all a bit spoiled when you think about it.

Dvice recently published a visual history of the computer mouse, which is quite interesting. The first pointing device that relied on hand motions to move a cursor was created by the Royal Canadian Navy in 1952. This trackball device, which is predates all other mechanical pointing devices, was crafted using a 5-pin bowling ball and an array of mechanical encoders that tracked the ball’s movement.

As time went on, other mouse-type devices came and went, but it was 30 years ago yesterday that Xerox unveiled the world’s first optical mouse at its PARC facility. The mouse used LEDs and optical sensors along with specialized mouse pads to track the user’s movements. The tech is primitive compared to today’s offerings, but it’s a nice reminder of the humble beginnings something you use every single day.

Be sure to swing by the Dvice site and take a look at how the mouse has evolved over the years – it’s a great way to kill a few minutes.

A Briefing on Integrated Circuits

Although technology is constantly racing to faster / smaller / more, so many of the fundamentals of how it is made remains similar, if not the same. This interesting 30 minute video clip [thanks to The Computer History Museum] was made in 1967 by Fairchild Semiconductor as a briefing on integrated circuits, and shows the different steps to produce ICs including:

Design, making the photo masks, manufacturing the silicon ingots, preparing the wafers, building of the circuit and its components (like transistors, resistors, and capacitors), testing, and final packaging. Add in some other cool items of interest such as a 1960’s pick n place machine, wave soldering, an automatic wirewrap machine, and toss in some retro computer action and it’s surely a video worth watching, with something for everyone.

So join us after the break, kick back and enjoy the show!

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ENIAC was first, right?

Well, no. Many of us who went to school and have degrees in various computer related fields instantly think of ENIAC as the first “computer”, but we’re all wrong. We know some of you are already familiar with the Atanasoff-Berry computer, and we are too… now. However, when we learned about it, it was long after our school lessons were over, and it felt like learning Santa wasn’t real, or the pilgrims didn’t really have a fancy dinner with the native Americans. [Jane Smiley] is releasing a book telling the whole story, and it should be fairly interesting. She gave an interview with Wired about the book. In the interview she talks about how fascinating the story is and even addresses [Alan Turing]’s role.