Retrotechtacular: New York City’s Secret Computer

Over 750,000 people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal each day. Located in the heart of the city, it’s one of the largest train stations in the world. Its historic significance dates back to 1913, when it opened its doors to the public. At the time, few were aware of the secret computer that sat deep in a sub basement below the hustle and bustle of the city’s busy travelers. Its existence was kept secret all the way into the 1980’s.

Westinghouse had designed a system that would allow authorities to locate a stuck train in a tunnel. There were cords stretched the length of the tunnels. If a train stalled, the operator could reach out and yank on the cord. This would set off an alarm that would alert everyone of the stuck train. The problem being that even though they knew a train was down, they did not know exactly where. And that’s where the computer come in. Westinghouse designed it to calculate where the train was, and write its location on some ticker tape.

So this is the part of the post where we tell you how the computer established where exactly the train breakdown occurred. Although the storyteller in the video is admirably enthusiastic about telling the story, our depth of detail on the engineering that went into this seems nowhere to be found. Let us know in the comments below if you have a source of more information. Or just post your own conjecture on how you would have done it with the early 20th century tech.

The invention of the two way radio made the whole thing obsolete not long after is was built. Never-the-less, it remains intact to this day.

Thanks to [Greg] for the tip!

Hardware You Might See in a Bar in New York

Our New York City trip for the TechCrunch hackathon is just about wrapped up, and this weekend we’re hosting a hardware hackathon at the Hackaday Design Lab in Pasadena, but there’s still one more event from NYC left to cover: our drink-up in the city.

Our drink-up took over about 90% of the Antler Beer and Wine Dispensary, with the usual, not electronically enabled patrons sufficiently annoyed.

datarecorderWhile this meetup was really just a meet-and-greet pregame for the TechCrunch hackathon, and not a proper ‘bring a hack’, that didn’t stop a few people from toting out some very cool hardware. [Katie Fortunato] trucked out a flight data recorder (or an airplane’s black box, painted orange for visibility) that is supposedly from a 747.

This flight data recorder keeps relevant data on a loop of mylar tape. We didn’t crack into that part of the black box, but we did manage to dig into the electronics. Very weird stuff in there; the control electronics have a backplane design, where each card has a connector that’s basically 2 rows of 50 or 75 female pin sockets. These cards aren’t keyed in any way, and they must be placed in the backplane in a certain order. The circuits are extremely simple; just a mix of op-amps, 74- and 54-series logic (no, we can’t figure that one out, either), buffers, and inverters. The latest date code was some time in the early 80s, and all the boards had a conformal coating on them. There’s a weird connector on the outside of the black box [Katie] promises to document on her profile.

Also at the event were a few folks from NYC Resistor, a few people from the IoTGotham meetup, some of the crew from littleBits. Somewhere in the pictures below is a Ms. PacMan/Galaga cabinet. Yes, I tested the bee overflow cheat, it works, but the high score was above 500,000.

Continue reading “Hardware You Might See in a Bar in New York”

More Hackathon Tickets Just Made Available

We had a number of people tell us they weren’t able to get tickets to our Hackathon in New York on Saturday. A block of tickets was just made available. Head on over and grab yours right now!

We’re bringing a mini-van-load of hardware along with us for this one. Our hope is to see a hardware hacker claim the top prize of $5000, but we do have other prizes just for the teams that create something with hardware. You can team up with other creative hackers from the area, all while being wined and dined (well, fed and hydrated anyway) through the entire thing. We can’t wait to see what you can get working with just twenty-hours of build time! You can find out a bit more about the hardware we’re supplying and what we have planned over on our event page.

That’s on Saturday, but the fun actually starts this evening. Join us at 7pm this evening at Antler Wine & Beer Dispensary. We’d appreciate a quick RSVP if you’re coming, and don’t forget to bring some hardware you been working on lately. See you there!

Thursday Drink-Up in The City

Hackaday is headed to New York this week. Grab your projects and catch up with us for a tasty beverage. We’ll be hanging out at the Antler Beer & Wine Dispensary on Thursday night starting at about 7. Be part of Hackaday’s first ever social event in NYC!

This is the pre-game for our Hackathon which starts on Saturday afternoon. So far we have eight of the Hackaday crew confirmed for evening: [Brian Benchoff], [Adam Fabio], [Bil Herd], [Sophi Kravitz], [Aleksandar Bradic], [Matt Berggren], [Jasmine Brackett], and [Rob Vincent]. But hey, it wouldn’t be any fun without you there too! We want to pack the place with hardware hackers so grab your friends and RSVP using the link at the top.

This is part of our 2015 Hackaday Prize Worldwide tour. Start your entry now by hammering out a few quick ideas about a future build and we can gab about it on Thursday. See you soon!

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Hack with Us in the City that Never Sleeps

We’re hosting one day of hacking in New York City next week. Stretch your skills with the power of deadlines and you can be immortalized in Hackaday history. If that kind of cred doesn’t do it for you, Hackaday is bringing along $1500 in prizes and there’s another $5000 cash prize at stake as well.

Only Hackaday can bring hardware to the TechCrunch NYC Hackathon on May 2nd. We need you to make it happen. Get your free ticket now (UPDATE: Our special tickets are all sold out but you might still be able to get some in the last few ticket releases. Check back often.). From there join the comment thread on our events page to connect with the rest of us who will be there.

Break the Hardware and Software Divide

techcrunch-disrupt-hackathon-2014Check out these pictures of last year’s TechCrunch hackathon. There’s a ton of people, they all seem to be having fun, but when it comes down to the end, they’re pointing to the screens of their Macbooks. This year you need to break that mold and and rise to the top with a hardware product to hold up as you are awarded TechCrunch’s comically large $5000 check.

Holding a hunk of hardware with electrons running through its veins is way more hardcore than software alone. We will end the segregation of software-only and hardware-only hackathons. After all, most hardware hacks these days are also software hacks. Team up with one of the iOS/Android app groups and add hardware to the mix. We want to see at least twenty of those tables strewn with jumper wires, breakout boards, and soldering irons. And we want to see someone from the Hackaday Community win this thing. So here’s the agreement — we’ll get you in, we’ll bring the hardware, you bring the awesome.

All Work and No Play (yeah right)

Ha! Like that has ever been our mantra. This is going to be a blast and because of it the Hackaday crew is flocking to town from all over the country. Confirmed so far are [Adam], [Alek], [Amar], [Brian], [Chris], [Jasmine], [Matt], [Mike], [Rob], [Sophi], and [Theodora]. We’re there to have fun, and you’re invited.

Most of the crew will arrive in town on Thursday night and we’ll definitely be meeting up. Anyone who registers for the Hackathon is invited for these pre-game festivities. Drop a comment on the events page and we’ll PM you details about where and when. But at the event our collective skills will be available to get your project past the sticking points. Of course we also need many hands to distribute all the swag we’re bringing along.

Hackaday part of TechCrunch NY Hackathon

The Hackaday Prize Worldwide is coming to New York! Hackaday is adding a hardware-centric twist to the TechCrunch Disrupt in May. They’re kicking off the conference with a weekend hackathon which traditionally has been a software event. This year Hackaday is partnering with TC to make a change. If you’re a software-only sort of person, grabbing a ticket to the event is extremely tough. But those Hackaday community members who want to prove they can make electrons do their bidding still have hope; Hackaday can get you in!

Twenty Hours of Hardware

Show up at 12:30pm on Saturday, May 2nd. By 9:30am the next morning you must have a working piece of hardware having been totally built on-site. Starting at 11am on Sunday you have 60-seconds to show off your build. We’re not kidding around when we say the judging criteria for this hackathon is “Awesomeness”. TC is putting up $5,000 to the winning team. Obviously someone who hangs out around Hackaday should be the winner here so go sign up!

Ticket Registration is a Hack:

TC hackathon tickets are released in shifts and gobbled up immediately, but because you are a friend of Hackaday we’ll can get you in for some epic hardware hacking. Even signing up is a bit of hack but here’s how:

  1. Follow this link which includes a promo code to get a Hackers – Friends of TC ticket
  2. Form/Find a team (up to 5 people) in advance through ChallengePost or you may do so onsite. You’ll notice the tags are software-related so put in “other” and add “hardware” and specific tags you can think of.

The Hardware

We’ll be bringing the basics: lots of dev boards, sensor breakout boards, and tools you need to hook them together. We’ll be posting information about the items we are bringing on our Hackaday Prize Worldwide: New York City page. Make sure you check in for updates so that you can familiarize yourself with what we’ll have on-hand. It is highly recommended that you set up any IDE or other dev tools before arriving at the event.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Octoscroller takes the Hexascroller to the next level


The folks at NYCResistor have a new toy in the Octoscroller. For a couple of years now the NYCResistor crew has used the HexaScroller as a clock and general alert system. Now that RGB LED panels are cheaply available, the group decided to upgrade both the number of sides and the number of colors.

Octoscroller uses eight 16×32 RGB LED panels. These panels are relatively easy to interface to, but require constant refresh even to display a static image. This makes them both memory and CPU intensive for smaller microcontrollers. Brightness control via PWM only increases the difficulty.

On the plus side, the panels are structurally strong. This allows the Octoscroller to avoid the plywood ring which made up the frame of the Hexascroller. 3D printed brackets and hardware were all that was needed to complete the Octoscroller frame.

The brain of the this beast is a BeagleBone Black running LEDscape along with some custom software. Imagery comes from the Disorient Pyramid.

If you’re in the New York area, NYCResistor plans to offer classes on building your own Octoscroller.  You can also see the Octoscroller in person at MakerFaire NYC this weekend.