Sometimes a kid wakes up on Christmas morning and runs downstairs, only hoping to see one thing: a shiny new wind tunnel. This past December, that’s exactly what [SparksAndCode]’s son found under beside the tree, complete with a bag of scarves, ping-pong balls, and other fun things to launch through it (in the name of physics, of course).
The real story here starts about a week before Christmas, when [SparksAndCode]’s son was enthralled by a similar device at a science museum. At his wife’s suggestion, [SparksAndCode] got to work designing a and building a wind tunnel with hardware-store parts, his deadline looming ahead. The basic structure of the tunnel is three rods which support plywood collars. The walls are formed by plastic sheets rolled inside the collars to make a tube. Underneath, a Harbor Freight fan supplies a nice, steady stream of air for endless entertainment.
After finding a few bugs during his son’s initial beta testing on Christmas morning, [SparksAndCode] brought the wind tunnel back into the shop for a few tweaks and upgrades, including a mesh cover on the air intake to stop things from getting sucked into the fan. The final result was a very functional (and fun!) column of air. Looking for even more function (but not necessarily less fun)? We’ve got you covered too with this home-built research wind tunnel from a few years back.
LXI, or LAN eXtensions for Instrumentation is a modern control standard for connecting electronics instrumentation which supports ethernet. It replaces the older GPIB standard, giving much better performance and lower cost of implementation. This is a good thing. [Martin Lund] has created the open source lxi-tools project which enables us to detach ourselves from the often bloated vendor tools usually required for talking LXI to your bench equipment. This is a partial rewrite of an earlier version of the tool, and now sports some rather nice features such as mDNS for instrument discovery, support for screen grabbing, and a LUA-based scripting backend. (API Link)
SCPI or Standard Commands for Programmable Instruments is the text-based language spoken by many instruments, allowing control and querying of an instrument. Just to be clear, SCPI is not at all a new thing, and older instruments that have GPIB or RS232 connectors, still could talk SCPI. lxi-tools is not for those. Some instruments can also be very picky about the formatting of commands, especially if they’re buggy, so the ability to interactively debug commands is very desirable. It is quite possible to make poor use of SCPI commands in your test script and end up with tests that just take far longer to execute that they need to. lxi-tools has a benchmarking tool too, which helps you to dig in and find out where all the time is going and make suitable adjustments.
With all the futuristic technology currently at our disposal, it seems a little bizarre that most passenger vehicles are essentially the same thing that they were a century ago. Four wheels, a motor, and some seats would appear to be a difficult formula to beat. But in the 3D printing world where rapid prototyping is the name of the game, some unique vehicle designs have been pushed out especially in the RC world. One of the latest comes to us from [RCLifeOn] in the form of a single-wheeled RC snowmobile.
While not a traditional snowmobile with tracks, this one does share some similarities. It has one drive wheel in the back printed with TPR for flexibility and it also includes studs all along its entire circumference to give it better traction on ice. There are runners in the front made from old ice skates which the vehicle uses for steering, and it’s all tied together with an RC controller and some lithium batteries to handle steering and driving the electric motor.
There were some design flaws in the first iteration of this vehicle, including a very large turning radius, a gearing setup with an unnecessarily high torque, and a frame that was too flexible for the chain drive. [RCLifeOn] was also testing this on a lake which looked like it was just about to revert to a liquid state which made for some interesting video segments of him retrieving the stuck vehicle with a tree branch and string. All in all, we are hopeful for a second revision in the future when some of these issues are hammered out and this one-of-a-kind vehicle can really rip across the frozen wastes not unlike this other interesting snowmobile from a decade ago.
Restoring classic hardware of any sort is a great hobby to have, whether it’s restoring vintage cars, tools, or even antique Apple or Commodore computers. Understanding older equipment can help improve one’s understanding of the typically more complicated modern equivalents, plus it’s just plain fun to get something old up and running again. Certainly we see more retro computing restorations around here, but one thing that we don’t typically see much of is the networking equipment that would have gotten those older computers onto the early Internet. [Retrocet] has a strong interest in that area, and his latest dial-up server really makes us feel like we’re back in the 90s.
This home networking lab is built around a Cobalt Qube 2 that was restored after it was gifted to him as a wedding present. The Qube had a cutting edge 250 MHz 64-bit processor with up to 256 MB of RAM, and shipped with a customized Linux distribution as an operating system. The latest upgrade to this build sped up the modems to work at their full 56k rates which involved the addition of a DIVA T/A ISDN terminal and some additional hardware which ensures that incoming calls to the modems are digital. Keeping the connections digital instead of analog keeps the modems from lowering their speed to 33k to handle the conversions.
Until recently, [Retrocet] was running some of the software needed for this setup in a custom virtual machine, but thanks to the full restoration of the Qube and some tweaking of the Red Hat Linux install to improve the Point-to-Point Protocol capabilities of the older system, everything is now running on the antique hardware. If you are like [Retrocet] and have a bunch of this older hardware sitting around, there are still some ISPs available that can provide you with some service.
The future we know today looks very different than the one envisioned in the 60s and 70s. For starters, it has far too few Nixie tubes. An oversight [nixiebunny] wants to address with his Nixie tube instrument panel.
All the essential info is there: engine temperature, tachometer, speed, battery voltage, and even odometer. You might have noticed that there isn’t a clock. The justification that [nixiebunny] gives is that he’s always wearing his Nixie watch, so a clock in his car seems redundant. There is also a gap in the panel to allow an oil pressure display. Corvairs are known for throwing belts next to the oil sender, so any attached sensor needs to be designed well and thought through. A Teensy receives engine telemetry data (no OBDII port to hook into — GM didn’t come out with the first OBD port until the 80s) from the engine bay. The data is transformed into SPI data sent to the 74HC595 shift register chain via a CAT5 cable. Details are a little sparse, but we can see a custom PCB to fit the shape of the hole in the dash with the different Nixie tube footprints silkscreened on.
Among the many facets of modern technology, few have evolved faster or more radically than the computer. In less than a century its very nature has changed significantly: today’s smartphones easily outperform desktop computers of the past, machines which themselves were thousands of times more powerful than the room-sized behemoths that ushered in the age of digital computing. The technology has developed so rapidly that an individual who’s now making their living developing iPhone applications could very well have started their career working with stacks of punch cards.
With things moving so quickly, it can be difficult to determine what’s worth holding onto from a historical perspective. Will last year’s Chromebook one day be a museum piece? What about those old Lotus 1-2-3 floppies you’ve got in the garage? Deciding what artifacts are worth preserving in such a fast moving field is just one of the challenges faced by Dag Spicer, the Senior Curator at the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, California. Dag stopped by the Hack Chat back in June of 2019 to talk about the role of the CHM and other institutions like it in storing and protecting computing history for future generations.
To answer that most pressing question, what’s worth saving from the landfill, Dag says the CHM often follows what they call the “Ten Year Rule” before making a decision. That is to say, at least a decade should have gone by before a decision can be made about a particular artifact. They reason that’s long enough for hindsight to determine if the piece in question made a lasting impression on the computing world or not. Note that such impression doesn’t always have to be positive; pieces that the CHM deem “Interesting Failures” also find their way into the collection, as well as hardware which became important due to patent litigation.
Of course, there are times when this rule is sidestepped. Dag points to the release of the iPod and iPhone as a prime example. It was clear that one way or another Apple’s bold gambit was going to get recorded in the annals of computing history, so these gadgets were fast-tracked into the collection. Looking back on this decision in 2022, it’s clear they made the right call. When asked in the Chat if Dag had any thoughts on contemporary hardware that could have similar impact on the computing world, he pointed to Artificial Intelligence accelerators like Google’s Tensor Processing Unit.
In addition to the hardware itself, the CHM also maintains a collection of ephemera that serves to capture some of the institutional memory of the era. Notebooks from the R&D labs of Fairchild Semiconductor, or handwritten documents from Intel luminary Andrew Grove bring a human touch to a collection of big iron and beige boxes. These primary sources are especially valuable for those looking to research early semiconductor or computer development, a task that several in the Chat said staff from the Computer History Museum had personally assisted them with.
Towards the end of the Chat, a user asks why organizations like the CHM go through the considerable expense of keeping all these relics in climate controlled storage when we have the ability to photograph them in high definition, produce schematics of their internals, and emulate their functionality on far more capable systems. While Dag admits that emulation is probably the way to go if you’re only worried about the software side of things, he believes that images and diagrams simply aren’t enough to capture the true essence of these machines.
Quoting the the words of early Digital Equipment Corporation engineer Gordon Bell, Dag says these computers are “beautiful sculptures” that “reflect the times of their creation” in a way that can’t easily be replicated. They represent not just the technological state-of-the-art but also the cultural milieu in which they were developed, with each and every design decision taking into account a wide array of variables ranging from contemporary aesthetics to material availability.
While 3D scans of a computer’s case and digital facsimiles of its internal components can serve to preserve some element of the engineering that went into these computers, they will never be able to capture the experience of seeing the real thing sitting in front of you. Any school child can tell you what the Mona Lisa looks like, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from waiting in line each year to see it at the Louvre.
The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.
This week, Hackaday Editor-in-Chief Elliot Williams and Assignments Editor Kristina Panos fawn over a beautiful Italian split-flap clock that doesn’t come cheap, and another clock made of floppies that could be re-created for next to nothing. We’ll also sing the praises of solderless circuitry for prototyping and marvel over a filament dry box with enough sensors to control an entire house. The finer points of the ooh, sparkly-ness of diffraction gratings will be discussed, and by the end of the show, you’ll know what we each like in a microscope.
Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!
(And if you’re wondering about what my joke about not having Kristina on the show for 28 seconds, and all the professionalism, was about — we both forgot to press record the first time through and got ~15 minutes into the show before noticing. Yeah. But we had a good time the second time around anyway.)