Ever heard of the KENBAK-1? Recognized as the first personal computer, created by John Blankenbaker and sold in 1971 in comparatively small numbers, it’s now a piece of history. But don’t let that stop you if you are curious, because of course there is an emulator on the web.
If the machine looks a bit strange, that’s because early computers of this type did not have the kind of controls (or displays) most people would recognize today. Inputs were buttons and switches, and outputs were lights showing binary values of register contents. The machine could store and run programs, and those programs were entered in pure machine code (no compiler, in other words) by setting individual bit values via the switches. In fact, the KENBAK-1’s invention preceded that of the microprocessor.
The KENBAK was the first electronic, commercially available computer that was not a kit and available to the general population, but the story of how it came to be is interesting. Back in 2016 we covered how that story was shared by John Blankenbaker himself at Vintage Computer Festival East.
Computers are difficult enough to reason about when there’s just a single thread doing one task. There are dozens of cores in today’s modern processor world, and your program might try to take advantage of using more than just one. Things happening concurrently makes the number of states and interactions explode in to a mess we as humans are likely going to have trouble understanding. So, like [Hillel], you might turn to the computer to try and model those interactions.
The finished lamp shade is spherical, but is made entirely from flat-packed pieces of laser-cut wood that have been specifically designed to minimize distortion when assembled into a curved shape. The pieces themselves are reminiscent of puzzle cells; complex, interlocking cellular shapes found in many plants.
As usual, [Nervous System] applied a hefty dose of math and computational design to arrive at a solution. Each unique panel of the lamp is the result of a process that in part implements a technique called variation surface cutting for the shape of the pieces. They also provide a couple of nifty animations that illustrate generating both the piece boundaries as well as the hole patterns in each of the 18 unique pieces that make up each lamp.
As for making the pieces themselves, they are laser-cut from wood veneer, and assembly by the end user takes an hour or two. Watch a video overview, embedded just below under the page break.
We’re glad [Nervous System] takes the time to share details like this, just like the time they figured out the very best type of wood for laser-cutting their unique puzzles and didn’t keep it to themselves.
There’s no shortage of ESP32 development boards out there, with many of them offering some “killer app” feature which may or may not align with whatever it is you’re trying to do. But if you’ve got a project that could benefit from the pairing of a powerful WiFi-enabled microcontroller and a passive infrared (PIR) motion sensor, the Bee Motion created by [Paul Price] is certainly worth a close look.
This breadboard compatible package combines an ESP32-S2 module with a top-mounted PIR sensor, making it a turn key solution for all sorts of motion sensing projects. In addition to the expected onboard voltage regulation, there’s also a LiPo charge controller and status LEDs for mobile or battery-backed operation.
While there’s far too many variables involved for [Paul] to give a specific runtime for the Bee Motion, he’s run some numbers and found that a 1500 mAH cell could potentially keep the board running for over a year if you’re taking advantage of the MCU’s deep sleep capabilities. When it’s time to recharge, whenever that may be, the board’s USB-C connector means you won’t be searching around for the proper cable.
[Nathanial Hendler]’s Apple2Idiot expansion card for the Apple II family of computers is a nifty mix of modern and vintage, and provides a clever means of allowing the host computer to (indirectly) access the internet over WiFi while keeping things simple from the host computer’s perspective.
It does this by embedding an ESP32 module and a dual-port RAM chip onto an expansion card. The Apple2Idiot, when installed into a host machine, presents as a memory location which the host machine can access. The ESP32 then takes care of all the WiFi communications and tasks requiring internet access, and the host computer directs these tasks (and reads their output) via PEEK and POKE commands.
This means that there are two pieces of software for any given task: one running on the ESP32 doing the actual work, and one running on the Apple II that communicates with the ESP32 on the card by reading and writing to memory. It’s a simple system, and one that [Nathanial] thinks works quite well for specific tasks.
Example programs include things like scanning and selecting a WiFi network, fetching weather data, and sending a message to Slack. Making new applications does mean having to write software on two ends, but the simplicity of the system also means flexibility, because anything the ESP32 does can have its complexity abstracted away by the time its data is presented to the host machine. Not that the Apple II is incapable of dealing with the modern internet more directly; we’ve seen a basic Apple II web server written in BASIC.
Tom Nardi and I were talking about his trip to the Vintage Computer Festival on the podcast, and he admitted to not having been a retrocomputer aficionado before his first trip. But he ended up keying some binary machine code into some collection of archaic silicon, and he got it. In the same episode, the sound of the week was a Strowger switch — the old electromechanical “brain” of telephone switching centers of old. The sample I used was from Sam of Look Mum No Computer on YouTube, who got one for his museum and thinks it’s just awesome.
Why do people like this kind of old (obsolete?) tech? It’s certainly not because it’s overwhelmingly capable — the giant old switch is replaced easily by a stack of silicon, and don’t even get me started on the old blinkenlights computer that Tom was keying on. In both of these cases, the people are significantly younger than the tech they’re playing around with, so that rules out nostalgia. What’s left?
I think it’s that sometimes the older technology is more immediate, more understandable, more tangible, and that resonates with people. In a time when we all have wonder devices that can do anything, programmed in languages that are pleasant, using libraries that are nothing short of magical in terms of making difficult things easy, understanding how things work down to the ground is a rare commodity.
But it’s a strange position to find ourselves in, technologically, where there’s almost necessarily a trade-off between the usefulness and functionality of a device with the ability to understand fundamentally how it works.
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Trust me, you don’t have to build your own keyboard from the deskpad up to be happy or feel like one of the cool kids. Sure, it doesn’t hurt, but not everyone is able to or even wants to start from next to nothing. Take [Roger] for example. [Roger] started with a stock mechanical keeb — the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard (UHK) — which can be outfitted with magnetic add-on modules such as a thumb key cluster, trackball, trackpoint, and touch pad, and made it his own.
While the stock board that you choose may not be so option-laden, there are plenty of other things one can do to customize things, and [Roger] did basically all of them. The Kailh browns that the UHK came with were too loud, so [Roger] swapped them out for Zilent V2 Silent tactiles and dampened the case with plenty of neoprene foam.
[Roger] frequently switches between two keyboard layouts, which got confusing at times. But instead of boring blank keycaps, he scrounged around until he found a cool set. (We do like the way they look with the wood wrist rests.) Speaking of those wrist rests, the right one is carved out and hiding a 10,000 mAh power bank, because [Roger] also made the UHK wireless using one of those often-out-of-stock BT-500 Bluetooth adapters. This allows him to switch between two PCs with a keyboard shortcut.
Think you want to go split, but not sure about key wells and column stagger and all that jazz? Something like the UHK is a good place to start, because it takes the familiar brick wall layout and breaks it into two pieces. No idea what you want? Check out the split keyboard finder.