The insides of a vacuum tube computer

1950s Vacuum Tube Computer Replica Communicates Through USB

When we talk about a “computer” today, we generally picture an electronic machine that can perform various kinds of mathematical operations, manage its program flow, move data from one place to another, and string all these functions together to perform some useful task. But once upon a time there were machines that could perform only a subset of these functions; these might be classified somewhere between computers and calculators.

One such machine was the Elektronensaldierer ES 24, built in 1955 by German computer pioneer Heinz Nixdorf. Its name translates as “electronic balancer”, with “balance” in the accounting sense meaning the difference of assets and liabilities. Designed to interface with a punch card machine from French manufacturer Bull, it contained several hundred vacuum tubes and could be used to add and subtract numbers stored on those punch cards.

[Henry Westphal] decided to make a modern copy of the ES 24 (translated), based on Nixdorf’s original schematics, for display in the HNF computer museum in Paderborn. The result is a huge display containing 204 tubes as well as a massive power supply. Like the 1955 original it can add incoming numbers and output the result as a twelve-digit decimal number. To make its inner workings visible, [Henry] also added a status light to each tube, showing whether it is storing a “0” or a “1”. This makes for a beautiful Blinkenlights display that shows the bits moving through the machine’s inner circuits.

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UV Printing PCBs

We always enjoy [Thomas Sanladerer’s] 3D printing videos. But his latest isn’t only about 3D printing. He shows how he uses a DLP printer — which has UV light, after all — to expose PC board blanks with great results. Honestly, once we heard the idea, we immediately saw how that could work it is surprising more people aren’t taking advantage of their DLP printers like that. Of course, [Thomas] does his usual thorough treatment of the topic.

Really, this isn’t exactly 3D printing even though it uses a 3D printer. Exposing boards with UV light and artwork is an old process that has been around for years, usually using transparency film and a UV light source. With a printer, you can create artwork digitally and the UV light source is already there.

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A 1981 Centaur pinball table rebuilt into a coffee table.

Clear Off The Coffee Table, It’s Pinball Time

Like many of us, [BuildXYZ] has always wanted to own a pinball machine, but doesn’t have the space to justify buying such a big and heavy toy. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. [BuildXYZ] figured that if they could build a pinball machine into a coffee table form factor, they’d be at least halfway to justification.

[BuildXYZ] didn’t choose just any pin. After doing a bunch of research, they settled on 1981’s Bally Centaur because it’s an early solid-state machine, and it’s one of the best. It has no secondary playfield levels to deal with, making it much easier to do this project.

Where do we even start to describe this beautiful labor of love? There are too many details to list, but know that it seems to be equal amounts of restoration work and custom work that brought this table together. The build video after the break is definitely worth your time, and you’ll gain a much better appreciation of the amount of time that went into this, from the custom score decoder chip built on an FPGA to the 3D printed replacement drop targets and new acrylic bits to replace the yellowing ones from the playfield.

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Enter The Matrix With This Custom PC Side Panel

With a new Matrix movie out now, it’s hardly a surprise that we’re starting to see more and more projects centered around the franchise’s iconic “Digital Rain” effect. A few particularly unique examples have floated to the top of this virtual tsunami of green-tinted sushi recipes, such as this very slick RGB LED PC side panel built by [Will Donaldson].

In place of the normal clear window in his PC case, [Will] has mounted a black acrylic sheet that has had all of the “code” characters laser-cut from it. Behind that is an array of WS2812B LED strips, nestled into vertically aligned channels that keep the light from bleeding out horizontally. A sheet of frosted plastic is sandwiched between the two, which helps diffuse the light so the individual LEDs aren’t as visible.

All of the LEDs are connected to a NodeMCU ESP8266 by way of a 74AHCT125 level-shifter, though [Will] notes you could certainly use a different microcontroller with some tweaks to the code. As it stands, the user selects from various lighting patterns using two potentiometers and a button that have been mounted next to the panel. But if you were so inclined, it certainly wouldn’t take much to adapt the firmware so that the lighting effects could be triggered from the PC.

The sticklers will note that this means the characters can’t actually change or move, but as you can see in the video below, it still looks quite impressive when the LEDs get going behind them. If you’re looking to recreate the look on a considerably smaller scale, check out this Arduino library that can make it rain on a TFT display with just a few lines of code.

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DIY Infrared Calculator Printer

[Ziggurat29] had been playing around with infrared protocols, and realized he had a spare point-of-sale printer kicking around in his junk box. So he decided to whip up his own calculator infrared printer by bolting on an STM32 Blue Pill module and an IR receiver. [Ziggurat29] initially thought such a homemade printer would be cheaper than a commercial HP 82240 IR printer, even a used one. In hindsight, these point-of-sale printers can be pricey. If you don’t have one laying around, it may be cheaper to buy one, but not as fun as building it yourself.

It used to be commonplace for calculators to have a printing mechanism — even entirely mechanical adding machines often had them. As electronic calculators became the norm, the printer began to fade away. Back in 1987, HP introduced a portable calculator printer, the HP 82240A (see HP Journal Oct 1987). The calculator could print using a one-way infrared protocol which came to be known as Redeye. This made good sense, since not every one needs a printing calculator. As well, if you had one of these printers, it could be used with multiple calculators. Later in 1991, HP added a bi-directional infrared link called SIR beginning with the HP 48SX calculator (see HP Journal Jun 1991), allowing calculators to communicate with each other or with an IR-equipped PC. Finally HP and other companies teamed up in 1995 to create the IrDA standards you are probably more familiar with. But a bunch of Redeye and SIR devices are still floating around, and even some modern calculators like SwissMicros offerings can still output to these printers.

If you want to make your own IR printer, be sure to check out [ziggurat29]’s project. Also [Martin Hepperle] has an excellent writeup on an Arduino-based project on his site. We also covered a reverse project way back in 2011, an adaptor that prints over IR from wired serial signals. Have you found a printing calculator, or a standalone printer like this, to be useful in your workflow? Let us know in the comments below.

Linux Fu: Don’t Share Well With Others

In kindergarten, you learn that you should share. But for computer security, sharing is often a bad thing. The Linux kernel introduced the concept of namespaces starting with version 2.6.24. That’s been a few years ago, but namespaces are not used by many even though the tools exist to manipulate them. Granted, you don’t always need namespaces, but it is one of those things that when you do need it, the capability is priceless. In a nutshell, namespaces let you give a process its own private resources and — more importantly — prevents a process from seeing resources in other namespaces.

Turns out, you use namespaces all the time because every process you run lives in some set of namespaces. I say set, because there are a number of namespaces for different resources. For example, you can set a different network namespace to give a process its own set of networking items including routing tables, firewall rules, and everything else network-related.

So let’s have a look at how Linux doesn’t share names.

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The Pinouts Book Is Here, And It’s Just What You Need

Updates from the enigmatic [NODE] are unfortunately few and far between these days. In fact his latest post is only the second time we’ve heard from the hacker in 2021. But as we’ve come to expect from his white-on-sorta-black releases, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Just in time to ring in whatever holiday you may celebrate, [NODE] has unveiled The Pinouts Book. A project he’s been working on for some time now with colleague [Baptiste], the free PDF download contains over 300 pages of high-contrast hardware diagrams and their respective pinouts. It’s about as straightforward as you can get, beyond the dedication page in the beginning, there’s not a word of fluff in the entire document. This is a work of hacker minimalism at its best, and we’re all about it.

From audio/video connectors all the way to development boards and single-board computers, The Pinouts Book sticks to the same format of a diagram and accompanying chart, making it exceptionally easy to find what you’re looking for. If you need more information than this streamlined layout can provide, each entry includes a link to a dedicated page on the book’s companion website. This will redirect you to supplemental data such as the manufacturer’s website, the part’s full datasheet, etc.

According to [NODE], the original plan for the Creative Commons BY-SA licensed work was to release it as a physical book, but the project ballooned up to such a scale that they realized it would be much easier to navigate and use as a digital document. While we don’t disagree, a physical release would certainly look lovely on our bookshelf. In the meantime, those who want to support the effort financially can purchase shirts emblazoned with diagrams pulled straight from the book’s pages.

We’ve long believed that a large-format electronic paper device would be an ideal gadget for the hacker’s workbench, as it allows for browsing through schematics and datasheets with a minimum of eye strain. Now we can also add a copy of The Pinouts Book to the list of things we’d install on our hacker-friendly e-ink compendium.

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