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.

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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.

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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.

Hot Russian Tubes

On the heels of our post on retro-Soviet transistor teardowns and die-shots, [nikitas] wrote in to tell us about a huge thread on rare vacuum devices of all varieties: oddball cathode-ray tubes, obscure Nixies, and strange Soviet valves. We thought the other forum post was overwhelming at just over 110 pages, but how about 391 pages (and counting) of blown-glass electronics?

If you read through the decaptholon, we mentioned that a particularly enthusiastic poster, [lalka], looked to be cataloguing every Soviet oscillator circuit. It turns out that he’s also the one behind this incredible (random) compendium of everything that’s had the air sucked out of it.

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45-Year Old Nixie Calculator Turned UDP Server

In this beautiful and well-documented reverse engineering feat of strength, [Eric Cohen] reverse-engineered a 1971 Singer calculator to gain control of the fabulous Nixie tubes inside. Where a lesser hacker would have simply pulled the tubes out and put them in a more modern housing, [Eric] kept it all intact.

Not even content to gut the box and toss some modern brains inside, he snooped out the calculator’s internal wiring, interfaced a Raspberry Pi to it, and overrode the calculator’s (860 Hz) bus system. With the Pi on the inside, controlling the Nixie tubes, he did what any of us would do: set up a UDP server and write an Android app for his phone to push ASCII data over to the former calculator. When it’s not running in its default clock mode, naturally.

nixie-internals

All of this is extraordinarily well documented both on his website, in a slide presentation (PDF), and in video (embedded below). Our hats are tipped to the amazing attention to detail and fantastic documentation.

Now where is that Singer EC1117 calculator from 1971 that we’ve been saving for just such an occasion?

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Microcontrollers now substitute for CPUs

Microcontrollers are getting faster and faster, as is most of the rest of the computing world. Just like you can play Nintendo console games on the newest Nintendo handhelds, it seems that modern microcontrollers can replace CPUs on personal computers from the 80s. At least, that’s what [Dave] has shown with his latest project: an Atmel microcontroller that directly attaches to the CPU slot on a Commodore PET.

Essentially, the project started out as a test rig of sorts for the Commodore. [Dave] wanted to see if some of the hardware on the Commodore was still functional and behaving properly. From there, it somewhat snowballed. The address bus was easy enough to investigate, but adding only a few more pins on the microcontroller he was already using would be enough to access the databus too. A character table was soon added, a test algorithm, and more useful insights. It’s a masterful manipulation of this older hardware with modern technology and is definitely worth a look.

There’s a lot more going on in the retrocomputing world than meets the eye. One might think these old computers were all in landfills by now, but there is a devoted fanbase that does everything from building new hard drives for old computers or investigating their true audio-visual potential.

Thanks to [Mike w] for the tip!