Ask Hackaday: Your Very First Microcontroller

Necessity is the mother of invention. It is also true that invention necessitates learning new things. And such was the case on the stormy Tuesday morning our story begins.  Distant echos of thunder reverberated in the small 8 x 16 workshop, drawing my attention to the surge suppressor powering my bench.  With only a few vacation days left, my goal of finishing the hacked dancing Santa Claus toy was far from complete. It was for a Secret Santa gift, and I wanted to impress. The Santa moved from side to side as it sang a song. I wanted to replace the song with a custom MP3 track. In 2008, MP3 players were cheap and ripe for hacking. They could readily be picked up at local thrift shops, and I had picked up a few. It soon became clear, however, that I would need a microcontroller to make it do what I wanted it to do.

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Persistence of Vision Clock on a Propeller

If you have a spare DC motor, a PIC16F84A microcontroller, and a lot of patience, then [Jon] has a great guide for building a persistence of vision clock that is sure to brighten up any room. For those who are unfamiliar with this type of clock, the principle is simple: a “propeller” with LEDs spins, and at just the right moment the LEDs turn on and display the time.

We’ve featured persistence of vision projects before (many times), and have even featured [Jon]’s older clocks, but the thing that makes this POV clock different is the detail of the project log. [Jon] wasn’t satisfied with the documentation of existing projects, and went through great pains to write up absolutely everything about his clock. The project log goes through four major versions of the hardware and goes into great depth about the software as well, making it easy for anyone to recreate this robust clock.

As for the clock itself, the final revision of the hardware has a PCB for all of the components, and uses a PC fan motor to spin the propeller. Power delivery eliminates slip rings or brushes in favor of wireless power transfer, which is an impressive feat on its own. Indeed, the quality of the clock is only surpassed by the extreme level of detail!


[Chris] is getting his feet wet with Computer Numerical Control starting with an Etch-a-Sketch interface. This is a great way to start out because the really tough parts of the project are already inside of the toy. He’s replaced the two white knobs with stepper motors and connected them through a mosfet network to a PIC 16f84a. The PIC then gets its commands from a computer via the parallel port.

A video of the CNC machine can be seen after the break. He needs to add a frame to increase the precision of the images drawn but this first attempt is pretty good. We prefer to have the computer in charge of the design because controlling an Etch-a-Sketch with a mouse doesn’t make our drawings any better. Continue reading “Step-a-sketch”

Tiny GSM alarm system

We’ve covered this sort of thing before, but there is something to be said for the simplicity of this tiny GSM alarm system by [trax]. The alarm system is designed to send the owner a text message when a sensor is triggered. This alarm only works with Siemens phones, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find one.  The alarm is configured via a dip switch on the board and can also be armed and disarmed by text. The brains of this system is a PIC16F84A. The code and schematics are included at the bottom of the page.

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