Differential Analyzer Cranks out Math like a Champ at VCF 2016

Here at VCF, we stumbled across a gigantic contraption that spanned several tables. Rube Goldberg machine this was not. Instead, this device actually does something useful! [Tim Robinson’s] differential analyzer can solve differential equations through several stages of mechanical integrators. The result is a pen-plot graph of the solution to the input equation, input by displacing a rod as a function of time.

Differential analyzers have been around for over a century. [Tim’s] claim to fame is that this particular DA is constructed entirely from Meccano-branded parts. We’re thrilled to see Meccano, over 100 years old at this point, continue to find new uses outside the toy box.

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The Torque Amplifier

The differential analyzer is riddled with mechanisms that are bound to swing some heads for a double-take. Since the input shaft that transmits the input function f(x), has very little friction, the result can only be carried through the remainder of the machine with some means of torque amplification. To do so, [Tim], and most other DA designers implement a torque analyzer. For [Tim], though, this feat proved to be more difficult (and more triumphant) than other solutions, since he’s using a set of parts that are entirely from Meccano. In fact, this feature took [Tim] through about 20 iterations before he was finally satisfied.

VCF West continues to run through the end of the weekend at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. If you haven’t already packed your bags for DEF CON, stop by for a few more bewildering brain teasers.

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!

Smallest BASIC Computer?

This may be the most minimal computer that we’ve ever seen running BASIC. Hackaday.io user [Kodera2t] has been working through the history of computing, so after his 4-bit CPU, he stepped up his game to eight bits. It’s amazing how much can be done with so little. It’s basically a Z80 on a single PCB.

[Kodera2t] is careful to give credit where credit is due: the design of this computer is by [Grant Searle]. It’s amazing what you can do with an old CPU (6809), some SRAM, a controller-interface chip, and an EPROM for your BASIC. Check out the GitHub for the computer’s PCB files if you want to make your own — it’s a very hobbyist-friendly two-layer board with fat traces. Or you could put it all together on a breadboard. It’s that non-critical.

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The other sweet touch is this monochrome CRT build that pairs up with the tiny computer.

[Kodera2t] is doing some really clever retro and minimalistic hacks, and putting them all up on Hackaday.io. You should really give his whole portfolio a look. We recently wrote up his experimentations with the Atmel ATtiny10 if you’re in the mood for something more modern.

Restoring The Groundbreaking Xerox Alto

The Xerox Alto was a minicomputer that had a lot of firsts to its name: first GUI, first Ethernet connection, and first computer to use a laser printer. This is the computer that inspired Steve Jobs to build the Lisa. And this was built all back in 1973! So when [Ken Shirriff] and a team of other old-computer aficionados got their hands on one, you know they’d get to work.

[Ken]’s blog describes the start of what’s sure to be a long journey. It mostly describes the Alto system and locates its place in computer history, but there are some interesting sidelines as well — like how [Alan Kay] also basically outlined all of the functionality of the modern laptop / tablet along the way to the Alto; it was supposed to be an interim Dynabook.

Work on this grandfather-of-modern-computers is just getting started, and [Ken] and crew are dusting off the power supplies and cataloguing memory boards. You can be sure that we’ll follow along with this restoration project, and keep you informed.

New Hard Drives for Old Computers

After a certain age, computers start to show signs that they might need to be replaced or upgraded. After even more time, it starts getting hard to find parts to replace the failing components. And, as the sands slip through the hourglass, the standards used to design and build the computer start going obsolete. That’s the situation that [Drygol] found himself in when he was asked to build a SD-card hard drive for an Atari.

The 8-bit Atari in question was a fixture of home computing in the 80s. In fact, if you weren’t on the Commodore train, it’s likely that your computer of choice was an Atari. For the nostalgic among us, a new hard drive for these pieces of history is a great way to relive some of the past. Working off of information from the SIO2SD Wiki page, [Drygol] used the toner transfer method to build a PCB, 3D printed a case, and got to work on his decades-old computer.

Resurrecting old hardware is a great way to get into retrocomputing. Old protocols and standards are worth investigating because they’re from a time where programmers had to make every bit count, and there are some gems of genius hidden everywhere. Whether you’re reworking SIO from an old Atari, or building a disk emulator for an Apple ][, there are lots of options.

Punch Cards

Before the Commodore 64, the IBM PC, and even the Apple I, most computers took input data from a type of non-magnetic storage medium that is rarely used today: the punched card. These pieces of cardstock held programs, data, and pretty much everything used to run computers in the before-time. But with all of that paper floating around, how did a programmer or user keep up with everything? Enter the punch card sorter and [Ken Shirriff[‘s eloquent explanation of how these machines operate.

Card sorters work by reading information on the punched card and shuffling the cards into a series of stacks. As [Ken] explains, the cards can be run through the machine multiple times if they need to be sorted into more groups than the machine can manage during one run, using a radix sort algorithm.

The card reader that [Ken] examines in detail uses vacuum tubes and relays to handle the logical operation to handle memory and logic operations. This particular specimen is more than half a century old, rather robust, and a perfect piece for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

It’s always interesting to go back and examine (mostly) obsolete technology. There are often some things that get lost in the shuffle (so to speak). Even today, punched cards live on in the automation world, where it’s still an efficient way of programming various robots and other equipment. Another place that it lives on is in voting machines in jurisdictions where physical votes must be cast. Hanging chads, anyone?

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The Man Who Didn’t Invent The Personal Computer

[John Blankenbaker] did not invent the personal computer. Museums, computer historians, and authors have other realities in mind when they say [John]’s invention, the KENBAK-1, was the first electronic, commercially available computer that was not a kit, and available to the general population.

In a way, it’s almost to the KENBAK’s detriment that it is labelled the first personal computer. It was, after all, a computer from before the age of the microprocessor. It is possibly the simplest machine ever sold and an architecturally unique machine that has more in common with the ENIAC than any other machine built in the last thirty years..

The story of the creation of this ancient computer has never been told until now. [John], a surprisingly spry octogenarian, told the story of his career and the development of the first personal computer at the Vintage Computer Festival East last month. This is his story of not inventing the personal computer.

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