Retrotechtacular: The Cryotron Computer

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Have you ever heard of a Cryotron Computer before? Of course not. Silicon killed the radio star: this is a story of competing technologies back in the day. The hand above holds the two competitors, the bulkiest one is obviously the vacuum tube, and the three-legged device is what became a household name. But to the right of that tube is another technological marvel that can also be combined into computing machines: the cryotron.

[Dudley Allen Buck] and his contributions to early computing are a tale of the possible alternate universe that could have been cryotrons instead of silicon transistors. Early on we find that the theory points to exotic superconductive materials, but we were delighted to find that in the conception and testing stages [Buck] was hacking. He made his first experimental electronic switches using dissimilar metals and dunking them in liquid helium. The devices were copper wire wrapped around a tantalum wire. The tantalum is the circuit path, the copper wire acts as the switch via a magnetic field that alters the resistance of the tantalum.

The name comes from the low temperature bath necessary to make the switches work properly. Miniaturization was the key as it always is; the example above is a relatively small example of the wire-wound version of the Cryotron, but the end goal was a process very familiar to us today. [Buck] was searching for the thin film fabrication techniques that would let him shoe horn 75,000 or more into one single computing platform. Guess who came knocking on his door during this period of his career? The NSA. The story gets even more interesting from there, but lest we rewrite the article we leave you with this: the technology may beat out silicon in the end. Currently it’s one of the cool kids on the block for those companies racing to the quantum computing finish line.

[Thanks Frederick]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

Retrotechtacular: Tube Amplifiers

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It’s hard to beat this vintage reel for learning about how vacuum tube amplifiers work. It was put together by the US Army in 1963 (if we’re reading the MCMLXIII in the title slide correctly). If you have a basic understanding of electronics you’ll appreciate at least the first half of the video, but even the most learned of radio enthusiasts will find something of interest as they make their way through the 30-minute presentation.

The instruction begins with a description of how a carbon microphone works, how that is fed to a transformer, and then into the amplifier. The first stage of the tube amp is a voltage amplifier and you’ll get a very thorough demo of the input voltage swing and how that affects the output. We really like it that the reel discusses getting data from the tube manual, but also shows how to measure cut-off and saturation voltage for yourself. From there it’s off to the races with the different tube applications used to make class A, B, and C amplifiers. This quickly moves onto a discussion of the pros and cons of each amplifier type. See for yourself after the jump.

[Read more...]

Building a miniature x-ray tube

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We’ve seen homemade x-ray devices and we’ve seen people making vacuum tubes at home. We’ve never seen anyone make their own x-ray tube, though, and it’s doubtful we’ll ever see the skill and craftsmanship that went into this build again.

An x-ray tube is a simple device; a cathode emits electrons that strike a tungsten anode that emits x-rays. Most x-ray tubes, though, are relatively large with low-power mammography tubes being a few inches in diameter and about 6 inches long. In his amazing 45-minute-long video, [glasslinger] shows us how to make a miniature vacuum tube, a half-inch in diameter and only about four inches long.

For those of you who love glass lathes, tiny handheld spot welders and induction heaters, but don’t want your workshop bathed in x-rays, [glasslinger] has also built a  few other vacuum tubes, including a winking cat Nixie tube. This alternate cat’s eye tube was actually sealed with JB Weld, an interesting technique if you’d ever like to make a real home made tube amp.

Retrotechtacular: Donner 3500 portable analog computer

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What if we told you we had a computer you can take with you? What if it only weighed 28 pounds? This is a pretty hard sell when today you can get a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor packing computer to carry in your pocket which weighs less than 5 ounces. But back in the day the Donner 3500 was something to raise an eyebrow at, especially for tinkerers like us.

The machine was unveiled in 1959 as an analog computer. Instead of accepting programs via a terminal, or punch cards, it worked more like a breadboard. The top of the case features a grid of connectors (they look like banana plugs to us but we’re not sure). The kit came with components which the user could plug into the top to make the machine function (or compute) in different ways.

We’re skeptical as to how portable this actually was. It used vacuum tubes which are not fans of being jostled. Still, coming during the days when most computers were taking up entire buildings we guess the marketing claim holds up. If you’d like to see a bit more about the machine’s internals check out this forum post.

3D printing vacuum tube sockets

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With the popularity of 3D printers and the current cult of vacuum tubes, it’s shocking we haven’t seen someone do this before.

[Peter] printed his own sockets for a few vacuum tubes he had lying around. After designing them on his computer, [Peter] printed them out on his local hackerspace’s 3D printer.

After printing out the plastic parts, [Peter] needed to add a few strips of metal for a conductor. He used a few pieces of an ATX power supply; a little difficult to fit, but something that works all the same.

So far, [Peter] has whipped up a few sockets for UX5 and VT76 tubes, UX6, B7G (7 pin mini), and B9D  Magnoval tubes. No Nixie sockets yet, but it’s enough diversity to build your own tube amp using the most common designs. Now if we could only make our own transformers with laser cutters and 3D printers…

The making of a Vacuum Tube

With the death of Heathkit looming  in our minds it’s high time for a a heartwarming story. [Ronald Dekker] has done a wonderful job documenting the history of the E1T beam counting tube, detailing everything from the work led up to the invention of the tube to the lives of the inventors themselves.

For those who are unaware, the E1T is a rather strange vacuum tube capable counting from 0 to 9. While that’s nothing too special in itself, the tube also displays the numbers on a phosphor screen, much like a miniature cathode ray tube. In fact, this phosphor screen and the secondary emission caused by it is critical to the tubes operation. To put it bluntly, it’s a dekatron and a magic eye tube smashed together with the kind of love only a group of physicists could provide.

Now, who wants to have the honor of transposing Ronald’s story into a wikipedia article?

Hackaday Links: December 25, 2011

Ah, Christmas. That wonderful time of year when you can roll out of bed to the screams and wails of children, grab a hot cocoa, and spend several hours arguing with an 8-year-old about which LEGO set to build first. Simply magical. While you’re waiting for the Doctor Who Christmas special to come on, settle down with these wonderful Christmas-themed builds that came in over the last few weeks.

One step closer to Robot Santa

Here’s an interesting way to spice up your seasonal headwear. [Mark] took a Santa hat and added a string of multicolored LEDs to the brim. The lights were picked up at a drug store for a dollar. Control is through a simple push button connected to an ATtiny13. Press the button, the lights cycle in a different pattern. Very cool, so check out the video.

A holographic holiday tree

[Auger] posted this very cool light up Christmas tree decoration on Instructables. This tree is made up of three pieces of acrylic. Different designs were laser cut into each piece of plastic – candy canes for the ‘red’ piece, stars and tinsel for the ‘yellow’ piece, and the tree for the ‘green’ piece. LEDs of the respective colors are cemented to the bottom of each bit of plastic. It’s called light piping and is used everywhere. This is the first time we’ve seen three colors, though.

This is what nerds do, and it’s awesome

[Rickard Dahlstrand] was playing around with his phone trying to take deliberately fuzzy pictures of his tree. He noticed the dashes produced from the LED Christmas lights must be produced from PCM dimming. Going through the EXIF data in the picture, he found the exposure time was 1/17th of a second. 1/17 of a second = ~ 58 ms / 5 (cycles on the picture) = ~11 ms per cycle = ~100 Hz frequency on the PCM dimming. Of course this is just about 2 times the line frequency in [Rickard]‘s native Sweden, so we’ll call this confirmed. There’s no blog post for this, but we’ve never seen a clearer example of applied geekery. Simply awesome.

Yeah, we measured [Rickard] on a nerd meter

In the spirit of giving, [Johannes] decided to tell the entire world exactly how nerdy he is. He built a ‘Nerd Alert’ meter out of an old 1950s Japanese multimeter. The old guts of the meter were chucked, and a simple amp made out of a transistor amplifies the current flowing through the user’s fingers. A neat scale ([Johannes] measures somewhere between Amiga Workbench and Space invaders) replaces the old, boring, number-based one. Again, no write-up, but here’s some awesome build pictures.

Finally a use for all those old radio tubes

[AUTUIN] took apart a vacuum tube with a blow torch and a diamond cutting wheel. Surprisingly, he was able to put it back together, but not before making a wonderful Christmas ornament. There are two copper wires inside the envelope that are the leads to a single orange-red LED. The whole thing is powered by a watch battery. We’ll be sure to reference [AUTUIN] next time we have to take apart a glass bulb, because he managed not to burn, cut or blind himself.

Six things in a links post? It’s a Christmas miracle!

[Darryl] sent in a nice tool to select and display all of the hacker/maker merit badges available from Adafruit. Oh, we’re still trying to figure out who to give 10 badges to. We’re giving away skull ‘n wrench badges to the top ten hacks ever featured here. Leave a note in the comments, or tell us who should win.

Holiday wishes

Now put the computer down and go spend some time with your families, or failing that, strangers. Of course there’s an all day Doctor Who marathon, and that thing isn’t going to watch itself…

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