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.

[Read more...]

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.

Water tank level meter prevents overflow

roof-water-tank-level-meter

Most of the homes in the area where [Raikut] lives have tanks on the roof to hold water. Each is filled from a well using a pump, with gravity serving as a way to pressurize the home’s water supply. The system isn’t automatic and requires the home owner to manually switch the pump on and off. [Raikut] made this process a lot easier by designing an LED bar indicator to monitor the water level.

The sensor is very simple. Each LED is basically its own circuit controlled by a transistor and a few resistors. A 5V signal is fed from 7805 linear regulator into the tank. The base of each transitor is connected to an insulated wire, each extending different depths in the tank. As the water rises it completes the circuit, illuminating the LED.

[Raikut] is conservation minded and built a buzzer circuit which is activated by the LED indicating the highest water level. If someone walks away from the pump switch while it’s filling the alarm will sound as it gets to the top and they can turn it off before it wastes water.

[via Reddit]

Bluetooth headset garage door opener update

bluetooth-headset-garagedoor-opener-update

[Lou Prado] sent in a link to his new video on using a Bluetooth headset as a garage door opener for your Android device. This isn’t a new hack, and we’ve actually seen him pull it off once before back in 2011. But we’re running this as an update for a couple of reasons. First off, we had forgotten about the hack and it’s worth revisiting. Secondly, the headset which he used with the initial hack has gone out of production. He chose a new model, and the assembly video (embedded after the break) which he made is a treasure trove of best practices to use when hacking consumer electronics.

Here’s how the hardware part of the hack goes. He removes the speaker from the headset and solders the base of a transistor in-line with a resistor to the red wire. The emitter connects to the grounded frame of the USB charging cable which is plugged into an outlet next to your garage door opener. The collector of the transistor is then connected to the garage door opener, along with a common ground connection, allowing audio from the headset to trigger the transistor to open the door.

The systems is secure based on Bluetooth pairing, which was done with his phone before starting the hardware hack.

[Read more...]

How computers work, starting with transistor gates

[Andrew Gibiansky] has just started a tutorial series called Computing with Transistors. It’s purpose is to pull back the many veiled layers between high level languages and the controlling of electrons. And fittingly this first post starts off by explaining voltage source, load, and current. Don’t be thrown by its simplicity though. [Andrew] quickly moves on to talk about switching transistors and how they are used to build gates like the OR NOR gate seen above.

If this is the least bit interesting you should also look back at the post about Nand 2 Tetris. It’s an online course that works its way through The Elements of Computing Systems text book. We’ve been following that journey ourselves, having made it through the hardware build in about a week. The assembler took about the same amount of time, and right now we’re in debugging hell trying to get the last function call and return parts of the VM translator to work right. We’ve used most of the skills needed in this journey before, but never all in one project. It really has shed a lot of light on the gaps in our knowledge, and we’re having a lot of fun at the same time!

[via Reddit]

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