The Primordial Sinclair ZX Spectrum Emerges From The Cupboard

The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, UK, receive many donations from which they can enrich their collection and museum displays. Many are interesting but mundane, but the subject of their latest video is far from that. The wire-wrapped prototype board they reveal with a flourish from beneath a folded antistatic mat is no ordinary computer, because it is the prototype Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

It came to the museum from Nine Tiles, a local consultancy firm that had been contracted by Sinclair Research in the early 1980s to produce the BASIC ROM that would run on the replacement for their popular ZX81 home microcomputer. The write-up and the video we’ve placed below the break give some detail on the history of the ROM project, the pressures from Sinclair’s legendary cost-cutting, and the decision to ship with an unfinished ROM version meaning that later peripherals had to carry shadow ROMs with updated routines.

The board itself is a standard wire-wrap protoboard with all the major Spectrum components there in some form.  This is a 16k model, there is no expansion connector, and the layout is back-to-front to that of the final machine. The ULA chip is a pre-production item in a ceramic package, and the keyboard is attached through a D connector. Decent quality key switches make a stark contrast to the rubber keys and membrane that Spectrum owners would later mash to pieces playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon.

This machine is a remarkable artifact, and we should all be indebted to Nine Tiles for ensuring that it is preserved for those with an interest in computing to study and enjoy. It may not look like much, but that protoboard had a hand in launching a huge number of people’s careers in technology, and we suspect that some of those people will be Hackaday readers. We’ll certainly be dropping in to see it next time we’re in Cambridge.

If you haven’t been to the Centre for Computing History yet, we suggest you take a look at our review from a couple of years ago. And if prototype home computers are your thing, this certainly isn’t the first to grace these pages.

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Reducing Carbon Emissions With Coal

It might seem like a paradox, but coal might hold the answer to solving carbon emission problems. The key isn’t burning it, but creating it using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  While this has always been possible in theory, high temperatures make it difficult in practice. However, a recent paper in Nature Communications shows how a special liquid metal electrocatalyst can convert the gas into a solid form of carbon suitable for, among other things, making high-quality capacitor electrodes. The process — you can see more about it in the video below — works at room temperatures.

It isn’t that hard to extract carbon dioxide from the air, the problem is what to do with it. Storing it as a gas or a liquid is inefficient and expensive, while converting it to a solid makes it much easier to store or even reuse for practical applications.

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Simple Hack Completely Changes The Sound Of This Piano

We’re partial to musical instrument hacks around here, mainly because we find instruments to be fascinating machines. Few are more complex than the piano, and, as it turns out, few are quite so hackable. Still, we have to admit that this ragtime piano hack took us by surprise.

We always thought that the rich variety of tones that can be coaxed from a piano, from the tinny sound of an Old West saloon piano to the rich tones of a concert grand, were due mainly to the construction of the instrument and the way it’s played. Not so, apparently, as [Measured Workshop] demonstrated by installing a “mandolin rail” in a small upright piano. The instrument had seen better days, so step one was disassembly and cleaning. A wooden rail spanning the entire width of the string board was added, with a curtain of fabric draping down to the level of the hammers. The curtain was cut into a fringe in the same spacing as the hammers – marking the hammer locations with cornstarch was a nice trick – and metal clips were crimped to each fringe. The completed mandolin rail can be raised and lowered using a new foot pedal, completely changing the tone as the hammers hit the strings with the metal clips rather than their soft felt heads. It makes the piano sound a little like a harpsichord, or the aforementioned saloon instrument, and at the touch of a foot, it’s back to its original tone.

Most of the piano hacks we offer tend toward the electronic variety, so it’s nice to see a purely mechanical piano hack for a change. And if the hacked piano doesn’t work out as an instrument, you can always turn it into a workbench.

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Sim Panel Proves You Can Always Use More Buttons

Many people enjoy playing flight simulators or making the occasional orbit in Kerbal Space Program, but most are stuck controlling the onscreen action with nothing more exotic than a keyboard and mouse. A nice compromise for those that don’t have the space (or NASA-sized budget) to build a full simulator cockpit is a USB “button box” that you can plug in whenever you need a couple dozen extra knobs, switches, and lights.

If you’ve been considering building one for yourself, this incredible build by [nexprime] should prove quite inspirational. Now at this point, a box of buttons hooked up to a microcontroller isn’t exactly newsworthy. But there are a few features that [nexprime] packed in which we think make this particular build worth taking a closer look at.

For one, the powder coated 8.5” x 10” enclosure is absolutely gorgeous. The console itself was purchased from a company called Hammond Manufacturing, but of course it still took some work to turn it into the object you’re currently drooling over. A CNC machine was used to accurately cut out all the necessary openings, and the labels were laser etched into the powder coat.

But not all the labels. One of the things we like best about this build is that [nexprime] thought ahead and didn’t just design it for one game. Many of the labels are printed on strips of paper which slide into translucent plastic channels built into the front of the box. Not only does this allow you to change out the overlays for different games, but the paper labels look fantastic when lit with the LED strips placed behind the channels.

Internally, [nexprime] used a SparkFun Pro Micro paired with a SX1509 I/O expander. The electronics are all housed on professionally manufactured PCBs, which gives the final build an incredibly neat look despite packing in 68 separate inputs for your gaming pleasure. On the software side this box appears as a normal USB game controller, albeit one with a crazy number of buttons.

If this build doesn’t have enough switches and buttons for you, don’t worry. This Kerbal Space Program cockpit has banks of switches below and above the player, so one can more realistically scramble for the correct onet to flip when things start going sideways. On the other hand, we’ve seen slightly less intense builds if you’re not quite ready to take out a loan just to get into orbit.

Justin McAllister’s Simple, Post-Apocalypse-Friendly Antennas

Watch Justin McAllister’s presentation on simple antennas suitable for a zombie apocalypse and two things will happen: you’ll be reminded that everything antennas do is amazing, and their reputation for being a black magic art will fade dramatically. Justin really knows his stuff; there is no dangle-a-wire-and-hope-for-the-best in his examples. He demonstrates that it’s possible to communicate over remarkable distances with nothing more than an off-the-shelf radio, battery pack, and an antenna of simple design.

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When New Space Loses Out to NASA Pragmatism

You’ve got to admit, things have been going exceptionally well for SpaceX. In the sixteen years they’ve been in operation, they’ve managed to tick off enough space “firsts” to make even established aerospace players blush. They’re the first privately owned company to not only design and launch their own orbital-class rocket, but to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. The first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket is the world’s only orbital booster capable of autonomous landing and reuse, and their Falcon Heavy has the highest payload capacity of any operational launch system. All of which they’ve managed to do at a significantly lower cost than their competition.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V

So it might come as a surprise to hear that SpaceX recently lost out on a lucrative NASA launch contract to the same entrenched aerospace corporations they’ve been running circles around for the last decade. It certainly seems to have come as a surprise to SpaceX, at least. Their bid to launch NASA’s Lucy mission on the Falcon 9 was so much lower than the nearly $150 million awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a flight on their Atlas V that the company has decided to formally protest the decision. Publicly questioning a NASA contract marks another “first” for the company, and a sign that SpaceX’s confidence in their abilities has reached the point that they’re no longer content to be treated as a minor player compared to heavyweights like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

But this isn’t the first time NASA has opted to side with more established partners, even in the face of significantly lower bids by “New Space” companies. Their decision not to select Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane for the Commercial Crew program in 2014, despite it being far cheaper than Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, triggered a similar protest to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). In the end, the GAO determined that Boeing’s experience and long history justified the higher sticker price of their spacecraft compared to the relative newcomer.

NASA has yet to officially explain their decision to go with ULA over SpaceX for the Lucy mission, but in light of what we know about the contract, it seems a safe bet they’ll tell SpaceX the same thing they told Sierra Nevada in 2014. The SpaceX bid might be lower, but in the end, NASA’s is willing to pay more to know it will get done right. Which begs the question: at what point are the cost savings not compelling enough to trust an important scientific mission (or human lives) to these rapidly emerging commercial space companies?

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From Software to Tindie Hack Chat with Brian Lough

Join us Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the From Software to Tindie Hack Chat!

Brian Lough has followed a roundabout but probably not unusual route to the hardware hacking scene. Educated in Electronic and Computer Engineering, Brian is a software developer by trade who became enamored of Arduino development when the ESP8266 hit the market. He realized the microcontrollers such as these offered incredible capabilities on the cheap, and the bug bit him.

Since then, Brian has fully embraced the hardware hacking way, going so far as to live stream complete builds in a sort of collaborative “hack-along” with his viewers. He’s also turned a few of his builds into legitimate products, selling them on his Tindie store and even going so far as to automate testing before shipping to catch errors and improve quality.

Please join us for this Hack Chat, where we’ll discuss:

  • How software hacking leads to hardware hacking;
  • The creative process and how live streaming helps or hinders it;
  • The implications of going from project to product; and
  • What sorts of new projects might we see soon?

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