When [Thundersqueak] was looking for a project for The Hackaday Prize, she knew it needed to be a special project. IoT devices and microcontrollers are one thing, but it’s not really something that will set you of from the pack. No, her project needed to be exceptional, and she turned to logic and balanced ternary computing.
[Thundersqueak] was inspired to design her ternary computer from a few very interesting and nearly unknown historical computing devices. The first was the [Thomas Fowler] machine, designed all the way back in 1838. It could count to several thousand using a balanced ternary mechanical mechanism. The [Fowler] machine was used to calculate logs, and the usual boring mathematical tasks of the time.
A bit more research turned up the Setun, an electronic computer constructed out of vacuum tubes in 1958. This computer could count up to 387,000,000 with eighteen ternary digits. On the binary machine you’re using right now, representing that would take twenty-nine binary digits. It’s about a 2.5 times more efficient way of constructing a computer, and when you’re looking for the right vacuum tubes in 1950s USSR, that’s a great idea.
[Thundersqueak] isn’t dealing with vacuum tubes – she has a world of semiconductors at her fingertips. After constructing a few truth tables for ternary logic, she began designing circuits to satisfy the requirements of what this computer should do. The design uses split rails – a negative voltage, a positive voltage, and ground, with the first prototype power supply made from a 741 Op-amp. From there, it was just breadboarding stuff and checking her gates, transistors, and truth tables to begin creating her ternary computer.
With the basic building blocks of a ternary computer done, [Thundersqueak] then started to design a basic ALU. Starting with a half adder, the design then expanded to a full adder with ripple carry. We’re sure there are plans for multiplying, rotating, and everything else that would turn this project into a CPU.
Would you consider this to be doing math the old-fashioned way? Instead of going with silicon-based switching (ie: transistors) this 4-bit adder uses mechanical relays. We like it for its mess of wires (don’t miss the “assembly” page which is arguably the juiciest part of the project). We like it for the neat and tidy finished product. And we like it for the clicky-goodness which surely must bloom from its operation; but alas, we didn’t find a video to stand as testament to this hypothesis.
The larger of the two images seen above is from the register memory stage of the build. The black relay in the bottom right is joined by a ring of siblings that are added around the perimeter of the larger relays before the entire thing is planted in the project box.
Sure, simulators are a great way to understand building blocks of logic structures like an adder. But there’s no better way to fully grip the abstraction of silicon logic than to build one from scratch. Still hovering on our list of “someday” projects is this wooden adder.
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.
Continue reading “Acoustic Delay Line Memory”
We’ve seen NAND and NOR logic gates – the building blocks of everything digital – made out of everything from marbles to Minecraft redstone. [kos] has outdone himself this time with a logic circuit we’ve never seen before. It’s based on magnets and induction, making a NOR gate out of nothing but a ferrite core, some wire, and a diode.
The theory of operations for this magnetic NOR gate goes as follows: If two of the input windings around the core have current passing in different directions, the fields cancel out. This could either be done by positive or negative voltages, or by simply changing the phase of the winding. To keep things simple, [kos] chose the latter. The truth table for a simple two-input, one-output gate gets pretty complicated (or exceedingly cool if you’d like to build a trinary computer), so to get absolute values of 1 and 0, a separate ‘clock’ winding was also added to the core.
One thing to note about [kos]’ gate is its innovation on techniques described in the relevant literature. Previously, these kinds of magnetic gates were built with square ferrites, while this version can work with any magnetic core.
While this isn’t a very practical approach towards building anything more complex than a memory cell, it is an exercise of what could have been in an alternate universe where tube technology and the transistor just didn’t happen.
When a normal alarm clock just won’t do, the only option is to build your own, entirely out of discrete logic chips. [jvok] built this alarm clock for last year’s 7400 Logic Competition. In a desire to go against the grain a little bit, [jvok] decided to use 4000-series logic chips. It was allowed under the rules, and the result is a wonderful example of what can be done without a microcontroller.
Most clock projects we’ve seen use a single button to increase each digit. [jvok] wanted to do something unique, so he is able to set his clock with a ‘mode’ button that allows him to independently set the hours, minutes, and seconds. He’s only ever seen this method of setting a clock’s time used with microcontroller-based projects, and translating even that simple code into pure circuitry is quite impressive.
This clock also includes an alarm function, set by a bunch of DIP switches in binary coded decimal. It’s a great piece of work, and deserving of much more attention than it received during the Open Logic Competition.
[James] recently finished up a gigantic seven segment display for Nottingham Hackerspace, and although it looks great, the display isn’t the interesting part. The PWM dimmer control implemented in logic is the true head-turner. That’s right: this is done without a programmable controller.
Unsatisfied with the lack of difficulty he faced when slapping together the rest of the electronics, [James] was determined to complicate the auto-dimmer by foregoing all sensible routes. He started by building an 8-bit timer made from a 555 timer fed into a 12-bit 4040 counter. He then used an 8-bit ADC IC to read a photoresistor. The outputs from both the ADC and from the scratch-built 8-bit timer plug into an 8-bit comparator; If the values match, the comparator outputs LOW for a single clock period.
Though this set the groundwork for PWM control, [James] had to add a couple of additional logic gates into the mix to nail everything down. You can find a diagram and the details behind flip-flopping out a duty cycle on his project blog. Clever builds like this one are a rarity when a few lines of code and a microcontroller can give you numerous shortcuts. [James] doesn’t recommend that you over-engineer your PWM controller, but we’re glad he did. Meanwhile, Moore’s Law marches on; check out what people are doing with Low-Energy Bluetooth these days.
This project is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished with a rather complicated logic circuit. It’s an Etch-a-Sketch made from a 16×16 LED grid. That in itself is only somewhat interesting. But when hearing about the features and that it is driven by logic chips we were unable to dream up how it was designed. There’s no schematic but the video commentary explains all.
The thing that confused us the most is that the cursor is shining brighter than the rest of the pixels. This is done with two different 555 times and a duty cycle trick. When you turn the trimpots the cursor position is tracked by some decade counters. Pixels in your path are written to a RAM chip which acts as the frame buffer. And there’s even a level conversion hack that let’s the display run at 15v to achieve the desired brightness. Top notch!
Continue reading “LED Etch-a-Sketch built without a microcontroller”