Junkbox Confidential

Thomas Edison famously quipped “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” Amen, brother. My personal junk pile (ahem, collection of pre-owned electromechanical curiosities) is certainly a source of spare parts, but also a source of surprise and wonder. Sometimes the junk itself spurs the imagination, but sometimes junk is just junk.

There are pieces of used gear that I bought for some particular plan, maybe a decade ago?, and totally forgot. While it’s fun to rediscover them — I bought six used super-soaker pump assemblies, and summer is just around the corner — the sad truth is often that the forgotten pieces were forgotten for a reason. Whatever kooky idea I had at the time has faded, and the parts are all that’s left.

But among these miserable creatures, there are some absolute gems. Parts that continually call out to be used. Bits that would fire even Thomas Edison’s imagination. Unforgetable junk.
Mostly, it’s their physicality that calls out to me. I have a stack of old 5″ hard drive platters, gutted, and converted into essentially a rotary encoder. For years, I used it as a USB scroll wheel on my desk, but most recently it has made reappearances in other goofy projects — a music box for my son that played notes in a row depending on how fast you spun it, and most recently a jog wheel for a one-meter linear motion project that hasn’t really found its full expression yet, but might become a camera slider. Anyway, when I needed a nice physical rotary encoder knob, the hard drive was just sitting there waiting to be used.

An old rotary dial phone also falls in this category. It ends in a barrel jack instead of an RJ45, so it’s easy to incorporate into other projects. Previously, it’s been the interface for a USB dial-a-password device, but it got supplanted by software that takes up less desk space. I’m sure I’ll come up with something else for it to do.

The undisputed kings of my unforgettable junk, that I haul out year after year, are two Magellan Space Mice. They are the old serial port kind, speaking 9600 baud to any microcontroller, and are easy to interface with. They put out six axes of control plus a few buttons, and they’re frankly a technological marvel. These have been used for remote control cars, and even once for a ride-on vehicle, but only briefly because it was too dangerous. I’ve never managed to use more than four axes at once, but that implicit challenge is part of their charm.

In the strangest turn of events, the maintainer of the Linux Spacenav driver project, John Tsiombikas, pulled the serial Space Mice into the code base in December. So now I’m using both of them for their intended purpose — manipulation of 3D designs in CAD/CAM software — one in the office and one in the workshop. Not a hack!

It was great to have the Space Mice in the junk box; they were truly inspirational. On one hand, being promoted into everyday use is the ultimate goal, I guess, but it still leaves a hole in my heart. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for a couple more, I think. The junk box hungers.

42 thoughts on “Junkbox Confidential

      1. I think that somewhat depends on your memory, if your memory is awful but whenever you need something a short rummage through the boneyard gets you a useable thing – though almost certainly not the most ideal one in the collection, it’ll still work so it doesn’t matter and you are happy to have the bit in hand for ‘free’ right now. But that method only works if you have a really big pile so its near certain to contain multiple just about rights for any task…

        And if you are photographic in your memory you will know where each and every widget was left, so as long as nobody else is rummaging in your junk its quickly to hand…

        I’m not quite at either end, though I haven’t yet found junk I didn’t remember having, and that’s with an annoyingly huge level of dissarray in my personal situation, which knocks on to everything in my life being very much more chaotic and stressful than I would choose… But still getting things done as life allows, so can’t complain too much I suppose…

        1. I agree. I might have tens of containers and Rubbermaids all over my creation, but I know what I have and where it is 99% of the time. The trick is to organize by how often you predict you’ll need to dig into any given “bin”, if you find yourself using “x” type of proverbial junk widget more often than “y” type, prioritize type of storage and depth of organization.

  1. That thing? I’d give anything to find one. Why? Because it looks interesting. And for a while I had bags of stuff that my family was convinced was junk. Now? It’s a set of storage shelves and a big crowd of chips that give my sister something to kvetch about.

    1. I’ve found myself not wanting anything to do with physical junk for exactly that reason. It’s one reason I love smartphones. Software doesn’t take up space and disk space is cheap.

      Hacking has honestly become more of a spectator sport for me. All my new projects are a combination of software, off the shelf stuff, with all the true custom stuff made in the least hacky way I can manage.

      I just…. Don’t actually want analog junk or a collection of obscure hand tools in my life all that much.

        1. Lol yeah, just had my big disk fail… That’s two projects worth of money minimum just to replace it, and it can’t wait being one of the 3 easy access copies of my important data (some of the rest of it is duplicated a few times more, but the whole collection as a convenient archive isn’t)….

          And I never have enough space either, games are getting stupidly huge with the high resolution textures and far greater quantity of scenic clutter that needs textures..

    2. A coworker (radio amateur/antique electronics collector/packrat) died unexpectedly and I helped his next of kin clean out his two houses. It cured me. For the most part.

      1. Ouch. My friend and neighbour is verging on being a hoarder. it cost him his marriage. I am always encouraging him to focus on actually completing a project and putting it to use, and tossing anything he hasn’t touched in years.

        I have some problems myself, but am getting better. My operating principle is: if I look at my acquired stuff and it inspires ideas that I get working on, then it’s OK. If I look at my stuff and I feel bad or overwhelmed about any of it, I have got too much and need to free myself.

        COVID has been an opportunity to revisit and continue some neglected projects, and it’s also helped me look at something and say… naaah, I won’t ever use that… and it gets dissected and tossed.

        Remember – you don’t own stuff; stuff owns you.

        1. … with all that being said, I must say that it’s pretty cool to have a project idea, and then to be able to build that project quickly because you have 80% to 100% of the required parts on hand. :^)

          1. That’s how I look at schematics, what parts do I have to build it. Sometimes it’s small things, other times it’s getting the basic idea and doing things differently.

            The first things I tried to build never worked. Soldering, maybe different pinouts, maybe the substitutes they sold me at the store. The first things that did work were from parts off scrap boards, me having gained enough knowledge to use what was available.

            The junk box starts then. Things that come your way, parts you had to buy in multiple quantities, deals you came across that were too good to pass by. I still have some exotic ICs like the GI speech synthesizer bought cheap when Radio Shack cleared them out for the next catalog.

            I once needed a 24v power supply to run a Mac Powerbook. The first scrap inkjet printer I opened offered one up, and on its own board.

            Some times it was worth carrying tools around, because that junk radio in the garbage wasn’t worth hauling home, but the power transformer and variable capacitor was.

            Some parts never appear except in specific bits of equipment. And some other parts you’ll always have to buy.

    1. You would think so, but it gets hard to control each axis precisely/independently — they kinda interact. So when you try to tip it forward, for instance, you’ll press down as well unless you’re careful to also pull up just the right amount on the back side.

      In a CAD program, the feedback loop between slight wrong motions in any given axis is so quick that you learn to autocorrect for it on a muscle level, and it’s pretty intuitive. Maybe you could do this with a drone? But it’ll take a lot of practice, and the feedback loop is a lot slower.

      If you have a tall stack of propellers that you need to burn through, it’d be a great idea. :)

  2. The videogame equivalent of space mouse, the Ascii Sphere controller, was able to play the 6DOF game Descent, not sure if this requires windows 95 or 98 and what type of unobtainable drivers. But since the source of Descent is out there it may be possible to get all those axis in use!

    Also the current Netflix ‘vehicle’ starring Clooney uses space mouse for the spaceship controls XD

    I’ve got a spacemouse, USB even, but havent got a decent CAD station right now. Lenovo 460p, but on a couch, its terrible.

  3. Now that I think about it, the same sibling is still worried I’m going to continue to accumulate stuff until our sun goes nova or something like that. Note to Elliot: The VCF East is throwing a Swap Meet next weekend. And the VCF East is going on (or trying to) in October.

  4. These beauties are one of those few pieces of hardware where the Linux support is leagues ahead of their Windows counterparts. The SpaceNav drivers are AMAZING and make the Windows users sad.

  5. Thomas Edison famously quipped “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” is a misquote. It was actually “To invent, you need Nikola Tesla and a pile of junk.”

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