Discrete Transistor Computer Is Not Discreet

Every few years, we hear about someone building a computer from first principles. This doesn’t mean getting a 6502 or Z80, wiring it up, and running BASIC. I’m talking about builds from the ground up, starting with logic chips or even just transistors.

[James Newman]’s 16-bit CPU built from transistors is something he’s been working on for a little under a year now, and it’s shaping up to be one of the most impressive computer builds since the days of Cray and Control Data Corporation.

The 10,000 foot view of this computer is a machine with a 16-bit data bus, a 16-bit address bus, all built out of individual circuit boards containing single OR, AND, XOR gates, decoders, multiplexers, and registers.  These modules are laid out on 2×1.5 meter frames, each of them containing a schematic of the computer printed out with a plotter. The individual circuit modules sit right on top of this schematic, and if you have enough time on your hands, you can trace out every signal in this computer.

The architecture of the computer is more or less the same as any 16-bit processor. Three are four general purpose registers, a 16 bit program counter, a stack pointer, and a status register. [James] already has an assembler and simulator, and the instruction set is more or less what you would expect from a basic microprocessor, although this thing does have division and multiplication instructions.

The first three ‘frames’ of this computer, containing the general purpose registers, the state and status registers, and the ALU, are already complete. Those circuits are mounted on towering frames made of aluminum extrusion. [James] already has 32 bytes of memory wired up, with each individual bit having its own LED. This RAM display will be used for the Game of Life simulation once everything is working.

While this build may seem utterly impractical, it’s not too different from a few notable and historical computers. The fastest computer in the world from 1964 to ’69 was built from individual transistors, and had even wider busses and more registers. The CDC6600 was capable of running at around 10MHz, many times faster than the estimated maximum speed of [James]’ computer – 25kHz. Still, building a computer on this scale is an amazing accomplishment, and something we can’t wait to see running the Game of Life.

Thanks [aleksclark], [Michael], and [wulfman] for sending this in.

Increasing The Brightness Of A Philips LivingColors Lamp

[Martin] recently purchased a Philips LivingColors lamp. It’s a commercial product that basically acts as mood lighting with the ability to change to many different colors. [Martin] was disappointed with the brightness of his off-the-shelf lamp. Rather than spend a few hundred dollars to purchase more lamps, he decided to modify the one he already had.

[Martin] started by removing the front cover of his lamp. He found that there were four bright LEDs inside. Two red, one green, and one blue. [Martin] soldered one wire to the driver of each LED. These wires then connected to four different N-channel MOSFET transistors on a piece of protoboard.

After hooking up his RIGOL oscilloscope, [Martin] was able to see that each LED was driven with a pulse width modulated signal. All he had to do was connect a simple non-addressable RGB LED strip and a power source to his new driver board. Now the lamp can control the LED strip along with the internal LEDs. This greatly extends the brightness of the lamp with minimal modifications to the commercial product. Be sure to check out the video below for a complete walk through. Continue reading “Increasing The Brightness Of A Philips LivingColors Lamp”

Adding A Backlight To A Cheap Multimeter

We don’t all need super high quality electronic testing gear. Sometimes second-hand or inexpensive equipment is accurate enough to get the job done. Though it can be a bit annoying to miss out on some of those “luxury” features. [Ekriirke] had this problem with his cheap multimeter. He wished the LCD screen had a backlight for easier visibility, so rather than upgrade to a more expensive unit he just added one himself.

After opening up the multimeter [Ekriirke] found that it ran on a single 12V battery. He realized that the simplest thing to do would be to wire up four white LEDs in series. The four LEDs were arranged within the case off to each side of the LCD, one in each corner. The leads were bent at 90 degree angles and soldered together “dead bug” style. Thin strips of copper foil tape were attached to the PCB in such a way that the anode and cathode from the LEDs would make contact when the case was closed back up.

The tape wraps around to the other side of the PCB where there was more room for the next piece of the circuit. A capacitor, resistor, and transistor are used in conjunction with a momentary switch. This circuit allows [Ekriirke] to turn on the light for about ten seconds by pressing the button one time. The circuit also runs through the meter’s dial switch, preventing the LEDs from being turned on while the meter itself is turned off.

[via Reddit]

Retrotechtacular: The Genesis of the Transistor

Few births are easy. Even fewer result in a Nobel Prize, and hardly any at all are the work of three men. This 1965 film from the AT&T archives is a retrospection on the birth of the transistor nine years after its creators, [Walter Brattain], [John Bardeen], and [William Shockley] received a Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery and implementation of the transistor effect.

The transistor is the result of the study of semiconductors such as germanium. Prior to the research that led directly to the transistor, it was known that the conductivity of semiconductors increases when their temperature is raised. The converse is true for metals such as tungsten. Semiconductor conductivity also increases when they are exposed to light. Another key to their discovery is that when a metal such as copper is in contact with a semiconductor, conductivity is less in one direction than the other. This particular property was exploited in early radio technology as seen in crystal radios, for copper oxide rectifiers used in telephony, and for microwave radar in WWII.

After WWII, AT&T’s Bell Labs put a lot of time and research into the study of semiconductors, as their properties weren’t fully understood. Researchers focused on the simplest semiconductors, silicon and germanium, and did so in two areas: bulk properties and surface properties. During this time, [Shockley] proposed the field effect, supposing that the electrons near the surface of a semiconductor could be controlled under the influence of an external electric field.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Genesis of the Transistor”

What’s inside a 555?

555

The 555 timer chip is a ubiquitous piece of technology that is oft-considered the hardcore way of doing things. Of course, the old timers out there will remind us that discrete transistors are the badass way of doing things, and tubes even more so. It’s not quite at the level of triodes and transformers, but Evil Mad Scientist’s discrete 555 kit is still an amazing piece of kit.

Instead of transistors and resistors etched into silicon as in the OG 555, [Windell] over at EMS turned the basic circuit inside a 555 into a mega-sized version using discrete components. Your parts bins need new scale if you’re going to work with this and other up-scaled hobby electronic components.

Although the integrated stand that makes the whole package look like an overgrown DIP doesn’t break out the signals on the board, it does include some neat screw terminals for alligator clips and bits of wire so this kit can be used in a circuit. Because it uses discrete components, you can also take a meter or scope to check out how a 555 chip works from the inside.

Organizing transistors

SAMSUNG

Late last year, [matseng] set up an interesting challenge for himself: design a new PCB every week, send it off to a fab house, and build a new project. It’s a grueling endeavor, but some of these projects are actually very useful and cool. One of the best so far is the TraId – a board that identifies a transistor type and pinout with a nice LED interface.

This build was partly inspired by Dangerous Prototypes’ Part Ninja, a board that determines the pinouts and values of transistors, resistors, caps, and diodes. The TraId is a much more cut down version usable only for transistors, displaying the orientation of the pins and type of transistor on a set of 8 LEDs.

Although the design is very sparse, we could imagine something like this being very useful in a hackerspace, lab, or anywhere else the gremlins of chaos come to reorganize parts drawers. If you’d like to build your own, all the required files are up on the gits.

Avalanche pulse generator design

avalanche-pulse-generator

This avalanche pulse generator is a great way to test your mettle as an Electronics Engineer. The challenge is to truly understand how each part of the design works. We certainly got a failing grade when first studying the schematics more than a week ago. But we’re slowly beginning to understand what’s going on under the hood.

The concept of an avalanche transistor is some wicked voodoo from the analog side of the street which leverages a transistor’s breakdown voltage to achieve a predictable result. In laymen’s terms it (mis)uses a transistor to produce a really fast pulse. The write-up linked above references several previous avalanche pulse generator designs, but this one is a bit different in how it produces about 50V from a pair of AAA batteries using a multivibrator circuit.

Even if you have no idea what’s going on here you may be interested in the last few paragraphs where the circuit is measured using a cutting-edge Teledyne LeCroy Wavemaster 820Zi-A. That’s a 20 GHz scope with a 15.3″ screen which you’ll never ever own.