This Open Source Active Probe Won’t Break The Bank

If you’re like us, the oscilloscope on your bench is nothing special. The lower end of the market is filled with cheap but capable scopes that get the job done, as long as the job doesn’t get too far up the spectrum. That’s where fancier scopes with active probes might be required, and such things are budget-busters for mere mortals.

Then again, something like this open source 2 GHz active probe might be able to change the dynamics a bit. It comes to us from [James Wilson], who began tinkering with the design back in 2022. That’s when he learned about the chip at the center of this build: the BUF802. It’s a wide-bandwidth, high-input-impedance JFET buffer that seemed perfect for the job, and designed a high-impedance, low-capacitance probe covering DC to 2 GHz probe with 10:1 attenuation around it.

[James]’ blog post on the design and build reads like a lesson in high-frequency design. The specifics are a little above our pay grade, but the overall design uses both the BUF802 and an OPA140 precision op-amp. The low-offset op-amp buffers DC and lower frequencies, leaving higher frequencies to the BUF802. A lot of care was put into the four-layer PCB design, as well as ample use of simulation to make sure everything would work. Particularly interesting was the use of openEMS to tweak the width of the output trace to hit the desired 50 ohm impedance.

Forsp: A Forth & Lisp Hybrid Lambda Calculus Language

In the world of lambda calculus programming languages there are many ways to express the terms, which is why we ended up with such an amazing range of programming languages, even if most trace their roots back to ALGOL. Of the more unique (and practical) languages, Lisp and Forth probably range near the top, but what if you were to smudge both together? That’s what [xorvoid] did and it resulted in the gracefully titled Forsp programming language. Unsurprisingly it got a very warm and enthusiastic reception over at Hacker News.

While keeping much of Lisp-isms, the Forth part consists primarily out of it being very small and easy to implement, as demonstrated by the C-based reference implementation. It also features a Forth-like value/operand stack and function application. Also interesting is Forsp using call-by-push-value (CBPV), which is quite different from call-by-value (CBV) and call-by-name (CBN), which may give some advantages if you can wrap your mind around the concept.

Even if practicality is debatable, Forsp is another delightful addition to the list of interesting lambda calculus demonstrations which show that the field is anything but static or boring.

Shipping Your Illicit Software On Launch Hardware

In the course of a career, you may run up against projects that get cancelled, especially those that are interesting, but deemed unprofitable in the eyes of the corporate overlords. Most people would move, but [Ron Avitzur] just couldn’t let it go.

In 1993, in the midst of the transition to PowerPC, [Avitzur]’s employer let him go as the project they were contracted to perform for Apple was canceled. He had been working on a graphing calculator to show off the capabilities of the new system. Finding his badge still allowed him access to the building, he “just kept showing up.”

[Avitzur] continued working until Apple Facilities caught onto his use of an abandoned office with another former contractor, [Greg Robbins], and their badges were removed from the system. Not the type to give up, they tailgated other engineers into the building to a different empty office to continue their work. (If you’ve read Kevin Mitnick‘s Ghost in the Wires, you’ll remember this is one of the most effective ways to gain unauthorized access to a building.)

We’ll let [Avitzur] tell you the rest, but suffice it to say, this story has a number of twists and turns to it. We suspect it certainly isn’t the typical way a piece of software gets included on the device from the factory.

Looking for more computing history? How about a short documentary on the Aiken computers, or a Hack Chat on how to preserve that history?

[Thanks to Stephen for the tip via the Retrocomputing Forum!]

Marimbatron: A Digital Marimba Prototyping Project

The Marimbatron is [Leo Kuipers] ‘s final project as part of the Fab Academy program supervised by [Prof. Neil Gershenfeld] of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. The course aims to teach students how to leverage all the fab lab skills to create unique prototypes using the materials at hand.

The final polyurethane/PET/Flex PCB stack-up for the sensor pad

Fortunately, one of the main topics covered in the course is documentation, and [Leo] has provided ample material for review. The marimba consists of a horizontal series of wooden bars, each mounted over a metal resonator tube. It is played similarly to the xylophone, with a piano-type note arrangement, covering about five octaves but with a lower range than the xylophone. [Leo] converted this piano-type layout into a more logical grid arrangement. The individual pads are 3D printed in PETG and attached to a DIY piezoresistive pressure sensor made from a graphite-sprayed PET sheet laid upon a DIY flexible PCB. A central addressable LED was also included for indication purposes. The base layer is made of cast polyurethane, formed inside a 3D-printed rigid mould. This absorbs impact and prevents crosstalk to nearby sensors. The sensor PCB was initially prototyped by adhering a layer of copper tape to a layer of Kapton tape and cutting it out using a desktop vinyl cutter. While this method worked for the proof of concept, [Leo] ultimately outsourced the final version to a PCB manufacturer. The description of prototyping the sensor and dealing with over-moulding was particularly fascinating.

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A 1940s Car Radio Receives Some Love

The entertainment systems in modern vehicles is akin to a small in-dash computer, and handles all manner of digital content. It probably also incorporates a radio, but increasingly that’s treated as something of an afterthought. There was a time though when any radio in a car was a big deal, and if you own a car from that era it’s possible that you’ve had to coax an aged radio into life. [The Radio Mechanic] is working on a radio from a 1946 Packard, which provides a feast for anyone with a penchant for 1940s electronics.

The unit, manufactured by Philco, is an all-in-one, with a bulky speaker in the chassis alongside the tubes and other components. It would have sat behind the dash in the original car, so some external cosmetic damage is not critical. Less easy to pass off is the cone rubbing on the magnet, probably due to water damage over the last eight decades. Particularly interesting are the controls, as we’re rather enamored with the multicolored filter attached to the tone control. A laser cutter makes short work of recreating the original felt gasket here.

The video below is the first of a series on this radio, so we don’t see it working. Ahead will be a lot more cleaning up and testing of components, and we’d expect a lot of those paper capacitors to need replacement. We can almost smell that warm phenolic smell.

If tube radio work is your thing, we’ve been there before.

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TDS 744A Scope Teardown Fixes Dodgy Channel

There are a lot of oscilloscopes from around the 1990s which are still very much desirable today, such as the Tektronix TDS 744A which [DiodesGoneWild] got his grubby mitts on. This is a 500 MHz, 4-channel scope, with a capture rate of 500 MS/s (4 channels) to 2 GS/s (1 channel). It also has a color display and even comes with a high-density (1.44 MB) floppy drive. Unfortunately this particular unit was having trouble with its fourth channel, and its NuColor display had degraded, something that’s all too common with this type of hybrid CRT/LCD (LCCS) technology.

Starting with a teardown of the unit to inspect the guts, there was no obvious damage on the PCBs, nor on the acquisition board which would explain the weird DC offset on the fourth channel. After cleaning and inspecting the capture module and putting the unit back together, the bias seen on channel four seemed to disappear. A reminder that the best problems are the ones that solve themselves. As for the NuColor display, this uses a monochrome CRT (which works fine) and an LCD with color filters. It’s the latter which seems degraded on this unit, with a repair still being planned.

We covered NuColor-based devices before, which offer super-sharp details that are hard to capture even with modern-day LCDs, never mind the ones of the 90s. Fixing these NuColor displays can be easy-ish sometimes, as [JVG] found when tearing apart a very similar Tektronix TDX-524A which required a power supply fix and the removal of goopy gel between the CRT and LCD to restore it.

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PCB Design Review: A 5V UPS With LTC4040

Do you have a 5 V device you want to run 24/7, no matter whether you have electricity? Not to worry – Linear Technology has made a perfect IC for you, the LTC4040; with the perfect assortment of features, except perhaps for the hefty price tag.

[Lukilukeskywalker] has shared a PCB for us to review – a LTC4040-based stamp you can drop onto your PCB whenever you want a LTC4040 design. It’s a really nice module to see designed – things like LiFePO4 support make this IC a perfect solution for many hacker usecases. For instance, are you designing a custom Pi HAT? Drop this module to give your HAT the UPS capability for barely any PCB effort. if your Pi or any other single-board computer needs just a little bit of custom sauce, this module spices it up alright!

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