Retrotechtacular: Voice Controlled Robot From 1961

We like to think that all these new voice-controlled gadgets like our cell phones, Google Home, Amazon Echo, and all that is the pinnacle of new technology. Enabled by the latest deep learning algorithms, voice-controlled hardware was the stuff of science fiction back in the 1961s, right? Not really. Turns out in around 1960, Ideal sold Robot Commando, a kid’s toy robot that featured voice control.

Well, sort of. If you look at the ad in the video below, you’ll see that a kid is causing the robot to move and fire missiles by issuing commands into a microphone. How did some toy company pull this off in 1961?

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Silicon Bugs In The FTDI FT232R, And A Tidy RF VCO Project

[Scott Harden] wrote in to tell us of some success he’s having using the FT232 chip to speak SPI directly from his laptop to a AD98850 digital signal generator. At least that was his destination. But as so often in life, more than half the fun was getting there, finding some still-unsolved silicon bugs, and (after simply swapping chips for one that works) potting it with hot glue, putting it in a nice box, and putting it up on the shelf.

In principle, the FTDI FT232 series of chips has a bit-bang mode that allows you to control the individual pins from a fairly simple API on your target computer, using their drivers and without installing anything on basically any platform. We wrote this feature up way back in 2009, and [Scott] was asking himself why he doesn’t see more hacks taking advantage of bit-bang mode.

“Square” waves

Then he answered his own question the hard way, by spending hours “debugging” his code until he stumbled on the FTDI errata note (PDF), where they admit that bit-bang mode doesn’t get timings right at all on the FT232R and FT232RL parts. FTDI has made claims that they fixed the bug in subsequent chip revisions, but the community has not been able to confirm it. If you want to use bit-bang mode, which is plenty cool, steer clear of the FT232R chips — the ones found in the ever-popular FTDI cables and many adapter dongles.

The good news here is twofold. First, now you know. Second, bit-bang mode is tremendously useful and it works with other chips from the vendor. Particularly, the FT232H and FT230X chips work just fine, among others. And [Scott] got his command-line controlled digital VCO up and running. All’s well that ends well?

We’ll wrap up with questions for the comment section. Do other manufacturers’ cheap USB-serial chips have an easily accessible bit-bang mode? Are any of you using USB bit-bang anyway? If so, what for?

Move Over Aluminum: Cast Iron For The Home Foundry

When it comes to choice of metals that can be melted in the home foundry, it’s a little like [Henry Ford]’s famous quip: you can melt any metal you want, as long as it’s aluminum. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; there’s a lot you can accomplish by casting aluminum. But imagine what you could accomplish by recycling cast iron instead.

It looks like [luckygen1001] knows a thing or two about slinging hot metal around. The video below shows a fairly expansive shop and some pretty unique tools he uses to recycle cast iron; we were especially impressed with the rig he uses to handle the glowing crucibles from a respectful distance. The cast iron comes from a cheap and abundant source: car disc brake rotors. Usually available free for the asking at the local brake shop, he scores them with an angle grinder and busts them into manageable chunks with a hammer before committing them to the flames. The furnace itself is quite a thing, running on a mixture of diesel and waste motor oil and sounding for all the world like a jet engine starting up. [luckygen1001] had to play with the melt, adding lumps of ferrosilicon alloy to get a cast iron with better machining properties than the original rotors. It’s an interesting lesson in metallurgy, as well as a graphic example of how not to make a flask for molding cast iron.

Cast iron from the home shop opens up a lot of possibilities. A homemade cast aluminum lathe is one thing, but one with cast iron parts would be even better. And if you use a lot of brake rotors for your homebrew cast iron lathe, it might require special handling.

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