Pulley Lamp Stands Up With You

Standing desks are either the best thing since sliced bread, or the fastest way to make your legs tired and get you ridiculed by your coworkers in the bargain. This leads some folks to compromise and make standing desks that can be re-lowered to sitting height when you need to take a break. But now the distance from your desktop to the light source that illuminates it has changed. We can’t have that!

fo6i703itw44bt1-medium[John Culbertson] came up with a very elegant solution to the “problem”. He made lights that are suspended on pulleys that raise and lower with the desk itself. We’re not sure that you’re in the same situation he is, but we’re sure that you’ll agree that he did a nice job.

Besides the pulley mechanism, the light shades are a work of art. [John] clearly wanted a retro feel, so he used low-voltage lightbulbs, but augmented them with LED strips to pump out the lumens. All in all, there’s a tremendous attention to detail in the project, and it shows.

Disclaimer: your humble author is writing you this missive from a standing desk. Ours is just a regular desk put up on bricks — a temporary solution that’s become permanent. We’re always keeping our eyes out for mechanisms to make the desk convertible, but everything that we’ve seen is either overkill or ridiculously overpriced or both. It’s hard to beat 24 bricks at $0.35 apiece. Anyone have any suggestions?

Of course, with an adjustable desk come the problems of moving your lighting along with it, but [John] has solved that one for us.

Running LISP on an ESP8266

LISP is a polarizing language. Either you love it or you hate it. But we’ll put aside our personal preferences to bring you a good hack. In this case a LISP environment running on an ESP8266. [Dmitry] is on the “love it” side of the fence — he’s been waiting for an excuse to code up a LISP interpreter for a while, and he found one in the ESP8266.

there-is-always-a-way-2Actually, [Dmitry] is running LISP inside JavaScript, which is itself presumably coded up in C, before it’s assembled to run on an ESP8266. (It’s turtles all the way down!) This means that he can piggy-back on JavaScript’s garbage collection and console handling and so on. After picking a suitably small LISP implementation (actually a Scheme dialect for those of you who know the difference), he went to work.

One weekend bled into the next, but he got the system running, connected to the network, and had LEDs blinking! In the end, he even managed to squeeze in some optimization for memory’s sake. Pretty cool, and because it takes advantage of an already complete system, it can even be made pretty useful. Not bad for a few weekends’ work!

And finally, if Lots of Irritating Silly Parentheses is your idea of a good time, but the wealth of computing resources available on an ESP8266 seem overkill, have a look at Microlisp, running on an AVR. Or go to the opposite extreme, and run a LISP OS on a Raspberry Pi. Whatever you do, don’t forget to close your parentheses! (We’re told that’s a traditional LISPer farewell.)

Resurrecting the Retro-futuristic Poly-1


[Tez] has acquired and resurrected a piece of New Zealand computing history, the Poly-1. To anyone who went to school in 1980s Britain, the Poly-1 appears to be a cooler, mirror universe version of Acorn’s BBC Micro. Like the humble Beeb, the Poly-1 was designed primarily for educational use. It also used a related, but superior, microprocessor (the Motorola 6809).

However while the legacy of Acorn lives on in the ARM architecture, only a few thousand Poly-1s were ever sold and it appears to have been largely forgotten.


The Poly-1’s demise was likely in part due to its high price tag — around $5,000 USD — its lack of support within New Zealand, and the difficulty that the small New Zealand company had breaking into international markets: issues which eventually killed off many similar 1980s computer companies in the UK, Japan and elsewhere.

But it’s still fascinating to look back, not just in nostalgia, but in admiration of the intrepid 1980s hackers who created these beautiful machines and the dream of a world that might have been.

Retrofitting a Vintage Intercom to Run Amazon Alexa

The Amazon Echo is a pretty cool piece of tech: it lets you ask questions, queue up music, find out the weather, and more, without having to do anything but talk. But, the device itself is a bit pricey, and looks a little boring. What if you could have all the features of the Echo, but in a cool retro case and at a cheaper price?

Well, you can, and that’s exactly what [nick.r.brewer] did, using a ’50s intercom and a Raspberry Pi. He picked the vintage intercom up at an antique store for $20, and the Raspberry Pi Zero is less than $10. So, for about $30 (and some parts most of us have lying around) he was able to build a cool looking device with all of the capabilities of the Amazon Echo.

The hardware portion of the build was pretty straightforward, with the Raspberry Pi, a sound card, WiFi dongle, USB hub, and microphone all fitting nicely inside the case of the intercom. The software side of things is a little more tricky, but with a device like this it runs well with Amazon’s Alexa SDK. Of course, if you want to add more hardware features, that’s possible too.

Continue reading “Retrofitting a Vintage Intercom to Run Amazon Alexa”

Building a Satellite-Tracking System With Cold War Tech

The things Hackaday readers come up with and post over on Hackaday.io never cease to amaze us. If you’ve never checked it out, be careful — you can easily spend hours (or weeks) of your life just skimming through the projects that have been logged there. Many of the builds use modern development tools like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, but every so often we come across a project that takes a more difficult road.

That’s the case with [Keplermatik’s] Cold War-era satellite-tracking project, also aptly named Keplermatik. This a build that’s still in progress, which just means you’ve got the privilege of following along as it progresses! What makes this project so special? Aside from the fact that it’s purpose is to track satellites, we think the sole use of vintage tech is a very cool and very ambitious goal.

IV-22 VFD displays will be used for the "Soviet" side of the console
IV-22 VFD displays will be used for the “Soviet” side of the console

[Keplermatik] plans to split the satellite-tracking console into two sides: an American-tech side for tracking the satellite’s position, and a Soviet-tech side for tuning the radio and positioning the antenna. The idea is that he’ll get to use vintage technology from both sides of the Iron Curtain. That should lead to some very interesting lessons about how these kinds of systems were designed by each side during the Cold War.

The build is still in its adolescence, but is definitely worth following along with. But, if you’re craving more Soviet tech and need it right now, be sure to check out this post on Russian Cold War vacuum tubes.


1980s Toy Robot Arm Converted To Steam And Other Explorations

We were doing our daily harvest of YouTube for fresh hacks when we stumbled on a video that eventually led us to this conversion of a 1980s Armatron robot to steam power.

The video in question was of [The 8-bit Guy] doing a small restoration of a 1984 Radio Shack Armatron toy. Expecting a mess of wiring we were absolutely surprised to discover that the internals of the arm were all mechanical with only a single electric motor. Perhaps the motors were more expensive back then?

The resemblance is uncanny.
The resemblance is uncanny.

The arm is driven by a Sarlacc Pit of planetary gears. These in turn are driven by a clever synchronized transmission. It’s very, very cool. We, admittedly, fell down the google rabbit hole. There are some great pictures of the internals here. Whoever designed this was very clever.

The robot arm can do full 360 rotations at every joint that supports it without slip rings. The copper shafts were also interesting. It’s a sort of history lesson on the prices of metal and components at the time.

Regardless, the single motor drive was what attracted [crabfu], ten entire years ago, to attach a steam engine to the device. A quick cut through the side of the case, a tiny chain drive, and a Jensen steam engine was all it took to get the toy converted over. Potato quality video after the break.

Continue reading “1980s Toy Robot Arm Converted To Steam And Other Explorations”

An Apple II Joystick Fix For Enjoyable Gameplay

We all remember the video games of our youth fondly, and many of us want to relive those memories and play those games again. When we get this urge, we usually turn first to emulators and ROMs. But, old console and computer games relied heavily on the system’s hardware to control the actual gameplay. Most retro consoles, like the SNES for example, rely on the hardware clock speed to control gameplay speed. This is why you’ll often experience games played on emulators as if someone is holding down the fast forward button.

The solution, of course, is to play the games on their original systems when you want a 100% accurate experience. This is what led [Chris Osborn] back to gameplay on an Apple II. However, he quickly discovered that approach had challenges of its own – specifically when it came to the joystick.

The Apple II joystick used a somewhat odd analog potentiometer design – the idea being that when you pushed the joystick far enough, it’d register as a move (probably with an eye towards smooth position-sensitive gameplay in the future). This joystick was tricky, the potentiometers needed to be adjusted, and sometimes your gameplay would be ruined when you randomly turned and ran into a pit in Lode Runner.

The solution [Chris] came up with was to connect a modern USB gamepad to a Raspberry Pi, and then set it to output the necessary signals to the Apple II. This allowed him to tune the output until the Apple II was responding to gameplay inputs consistently. With erratic nature of the original joystick eliminated, he could play games all day without risk of sudden unrequested jumps into pits.

The Apple II joystick is a weird beast, and unlike anything else of the era. This means there’s no Apple II equivalent of plugging a Sega controller into an Atari, or vice versa. If you want to play games on an Apple II the right way, you either need to find an (expensive) original Apple joystick, or build your own from scratch. [Chris] is still working on finalizing his design, but you can follow the gits for the most recent version.