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?
I was a bit of a lost soul after high school. I dabbled with electrical engineering for a semester but decided that it wasn’t for me – what I wouldn’t give for a do-over on that one. In my search for a way to make money, I stumbled upon radiologic technology – learning how to take X-rays. I figured it was a good way to combine my interests in medicine, electronics, and photography, so after a two-year course of study I got my Associates Degree, passed my boards, and earned the right to put “R.T.(R) (ARRT)” after my name.
That was about as far as that career went. There are certain realities of being in the health care business, and chief among them is that you really have to like dealing with the patients. I found that I liked the technology much more than the people, so I quickly moved on to bigger and better things. But the love of the technology never went away, so I thought I’d take a look at exactly what it takes to produce medical X-rays, and see how it’s changed from my time in the Radiology Department.
The triode is one of the simplest kinds of vacuum tubes. Inside its evacuated glass envelope, the triode really is just a few bits of wire and metal. Triodes are able to amplify signals simply by heating a cathode, and modulating the flow of electrons to the anode with a control grid. Triodes, and their semiconductor cousin the transistor, are the basis of everything we do with electricity.
The light bulb in your car’s tail light has two filaments inside: one for the normal tail light, and a second one that comes on when you brake. By burning out the dimmer filament, [Marcel] created the simplest vacuum tube device possible. In his first experiment, he turned this broken light bulb into a diode by using the disconnected filament as the anode, and the burning filament as the cathode. [Marcel] attached a 1M resistor and measured 30mV across it. It was a diode, with 30μA flowing.
The triode is just a diode with a grid, but [Marcel] couldn’t open up the light bulb to install a piece of metal. Instead, he wrapped the bulb in aluminum foil. After many attempts, [Marcel] eventually got some amplification out of his light bulb triode.
The performance is terrible – this light bulb triode actually has an “amplification” of -108dB, making it a complete waste of energy and time. It does demonstrate the concept though, even though the grid isn’t between the anode and cathode, and this light bulb is probably filled with argon. It does work in the most perverse sense of the word, and makes for a very interesting build.
TubeTime is back at it this year and we had the opportunity to speak with them at Bay Area Maker Faire. The group specializes in working with old tube displays and this year’s offering was spectacular in many ways. First off, the software side of things is an emulator running on an STM32 F4 Discovery board. The chips on these boards have a pair of 12-bit DACs which are driving the X and Y of the vector displays. Code to run the original ROMs was ported from existing projects, but the audio for the games was kind of a hack to get working.
This particular display is where things get really fascinating. The tube itself was originally manufactured as test equipment for television repairmen. What’s fascinating about this is that [Eric] had to rewind the deflection yokes himself to get it working again. Luckily he documented quite a bit about his initial research into this process and his experiments to remedy some distortion issues he encountered once it was working.
The tubes you’ll find in guitar amps and high-end stereos were first designed in the 30s and 40s, and when you get to really, really advanced tube technology you’d be looking at extremely small tubes made in the 70s for military applications. For 40 years, there really haven’t been many advances in tube technology. Now, at last, there’s something new.
The Nutube 6P1, as this curious invention is called, is a full triode or half of a 12ax7 you’ll find in just about every tube amp ever. Unlike the 12ax7, it consumes 2% of the power required of a normal tube, is 30% of the size of the normal tube, and lasts for 30,000 hours.
This new tube-chip thing was brought to life by Korg, makers of fine musical equipment and Noritake Co., manufacturers of vacuum fluorescent displays. There’s no word on what these tubes will be used in and there’s no data sheet. There will be further announcements this year, so don your speculation spectacles and head to the comments.
In the early days of transistors, RCA and GE were battling against silicon with ever smaller vacuum tubes. These tubes – Nuvistors, Compactrons, and some extremely small JAN triodes were some of the tiniest tubes to ever be created. [glasslinger], YouTube’s expert on DIY valves, is pretty close to beating the tiniest tubes that were ever manufactured. He’s created a miniature diode and triode that are about 1/4″ in diameter and 1″ long.
The most difficult part of making a vacuum tube is getting a perfect glass seal around the pins. For this, [glasslinger] is using very fine tungsten wire and glass beads. A bead is placed around each wire, mounted in a stand, and melted together with a torch.
A diode is simple as far as tubes go, requiring only a filament between two pins. [glasslinger] is just stringing a fine piece of wire between two pins and welding them on with a miniature spot welder. After that, it’s just an issue of melting a 1/4″ glass tube to the base of the tube, putting it under vacuum overnight, and sealing it shut.
About a decade ago I started a strange little journey in my free time that cut a path across electronics manufacturing from over the last century. One morning I decided to find out how the little glowing glass bottles we sometimes call electron tubes worked. Not knowing any better I simply picked up an old copy of the Thomas Register. For those of you generally under 40 that was our version of Google, and resembled a set of 10 yellow pages.
I started calling companies listed under “Electron Tube Manufacturers” until I got a voice on the other end. Most of the numbers would ring to the familiar “this number is no longer in service” message, but in one lucky case I found I was talking to a Mrs. Roni Elsbury, nee Ulmer of M.U. Inc. Her company is one of the only remaining firms still engaged in the production of traditional style vacuum tubes in the U.S. Ever since then I have enjoyed occasional journeys down to her facility to assist her in maintenance of the equipment, work on tooling, and help to solve little engineering challenges that keep this very artisanal process alive. It did not take too many of these trips to realize that this could be distilled down to some very basic tools and processes that could be reproduced in your average garage and that positive, all be it rudimentary results could be had with information widely available on the Internet.