The Workstation You Wanted In 1990, In Your Pocket

Years ago there was a sharp divide in desktop computing between the mundane PC-type machines, and the so-called workstations which were the UNIX powerhouses of the day. A lot of familiar names produced these high-end systems, including the king of the minicomputer world, DEC. The late-80s version of their DECstation line had a MIPS processor, and ran ULTRIX and DECWindows, their versions of UNIX and X respectively. When we used one back in the day it was a very high-end machine, but now as [rscott2049] shows us, it can be emulated on an RP2040 microcontroller.

On the business card sized board is an RP2040, 32 MB of PSRAM, an Ethernet interface, and a VGA socket. The keyboard and mouse are USB. It drives a monochrome screen at 1024 x 864 pixels, which would have been quite something over three decades ago.

It’s difficult to communicate how powerful a machine like this felt back in the very early 1990s, when by today’s standards it seems laughably low-spec. It’s worth remembering though that the software of the day was much less demanding and lacking in bloat. We’d be interested to see whether this could be used as an X server to display a more up-to-date application on another machine, for at least an illusion of a modern web browser loading Hackaday on DECWindows.

Full details of the project can be found in its GitHub repository.

A Trip Down Electronic Toy Memory Lane

Like many of us, [MIKROWAVE1] had a lot of electronic toys growing up. In a video you can watch below, he asks the question: “Did electronic toys influence your path?” Certainly, for us, the answer was yes.

The CB “base station” looked familiar although ours was marked “General Electric.” Some of us certainly had things similar to the 150-in-one kit and versions of the REMCO broadcast system. There were many versions of crystal radio kits, although a kit for that always seemed a little like cheating.

Continue reading “A Trip Down Electronic Toy Memory Lane”

VHF/UHF Antennas, The Bad, The Ugly, And The Even Worse

When you buy a cheap ham radio handy-talkie, you usually get a little “rubber ducky” antenna with it. You can also buy many replacement ones that are at least longer. But how good are they? [Learnelectronics] wanted to know, too, so he broke out his NanoVNA and found out that they were all bad, although some were worse than others. You can see the results in the — sometimes fuzzy — video below.

Of course, bad is in the eye of the beholder and you probably suspected that most of them weren’t super great, but they do seem especially bad. So much so, that, at first, he suspected he was doing something wrong. The SWR was high all across the bands the antennas targeted.

Continue reading “VHF/UHF Antennas, The Bad, The Ugly, And The Even Worse”

Responsive LCD Backlights With A Little Lateral Thinking

LCD televisions are a technological miracle, but if they have an annoying side it’s that some of them are a bit lacklustre when it comes to displaying black. [Mousa] has a solution, involving a small LCD and a bit of lateral thinking.

These screens work by the LCD panel being placed in front of a bright backlight, and only letting light through at bright parts of the picture. Since LCD isn’t a perfect attenuator, some of the light can make its way through, resulting in those less than perfect blacks. More recent screens replace the bright white backlight with an array of LEDs that light up with the image, but the electronics to make that happen are not exactly trivial.

The solution? Find a small LCD panel and feed it from the same HDMI source as a big panel. Then place an array of LDRs on the front of the small LCD, driving an array of white LEDs through transistor drivers to make a new responsive backlight. We’re not sure we’d go to all this trouble, but it certainly looks quite cool as you can see below the break.

This may be the first responsive backlight we’ve brought you, but more than one Ambilight clone has graced these pages.

Continue reading “Responsive LCD Backlights With A Little Lateral Thinking”

FLOSS Weekly Episode 790: Better Bash Scripting With Amber

This week Jonathan Bennett and Dan Lynch chat with Paweł Karaś about Amber, a modern scripting language that compiles into a Bash script. Want to write scripts with built-in error handling, or prefer strongly typed languages? Amber may be for you!

Continue reading “FLOSS Weekly Episode 790: Better Bash Scripting With Amber”

USB And The Myth Of 500 Milliamps

If you’re designing a universal port, you will be expected to provide power. This was a lesson learned in the times of LPT and COM ports, where factory-made peripherals and DIY boards alike had to pull peculiar tricks to get a few milliamps, often tapping data lines. Do it wrong, and a port will burn up – in the best case, it’ll be your port, in worst case, ports of a number of your customers.

Want a single-cable device on a COM port? You might end up doing something like this.

Having a dedicated power rail on your connector simply solves this problem. We might’ve never gotten DB-11 and DB-27, but we did eventually get USB, with one of its four pins dedicated to a 5 V power rail. I vividly remember seeing my first USB port, on the side of a Thinkpad 390E that my dad bought in 2000s – I was eight years old at the time. It was merely USB 1.0, and yet, while I never got to properly make use of that port, it definitely marked the beginning of my USB adventures.

About six years later, I was sitting at my desk, trying to build a USB docking station for my EEE PC, as I was hoping, with tons of peripherals inside. Shorting out the USB port due to faulty connections or too many devices connected at once was a regular occurrence; thankfully, the laptop persevered as much as I did. Trying to do some research, one thing I kept stumbling upon was the 500 mA limit. That didn’t really help, since none of the devices I used even attempted to indicate their power consumption on the package – you would get a USB hub saying “100 mA” or a mouse saying “500 mA” with nary an elaboration.

Fifteen more years have passed, and I am here, having gone through hundreds of laptop schematics, investigated and learned from design decisions, harvested laptops for both parts and even ICs on their motherboards, designed and built laptop mods, nowadays I’m even designing my own laptop motherboards! If you ever read about the 500 mA limit and thought of it as a constraint for your project, worry not – it’s not as cut and dried as the specification might have you believe.
Continue reading “USB And The Myth Of 500 Milliamps”

Retrotechtacular: The Tools And Dies That Made Mass Production Possible

Here at Hackaday we’re suckers for vintage promotional movies, and we’ve brought you quite a few over the years. Their boundless optimism and confidence in whatever product they are advancing is infectious, even though from time to time with hindsight we know that to have been misplaced.

For once though the subject of today’s film isn’t something problematic, instead it’s a thing we still rely on today. Precision manufacturing of almost anything still relies on precision tooling, and the National Tool and Die Manufacturers Association is on hand in the video from 1953 below the break to remind us of the importance of their work.

The products on show all belie the era in which the film was made: a metal desk fan, CRT parts for TVs, car body parts, a flight of what we tentatively identify as Lockheed P-80 Shooting Stars, and a Patton tank. Perhaps for the Hackaday reader the interest increases though when we see the training of an apprentice toolmaker, a young man who is being trained to the highest standards in the use of machine tools. It’s a complaint we’ve heard from some of our industry contacts that it’s rare now to find skills at this level, but we’d be interested to hear views in the comments on the veracity of that claim, or whether in a world of CAD and CNC such a level of skill is still necessary. Either way we’re sure that the insistence on metrology would be just as familiar in a modern machine shop.

A quick web search finds that the National Tool and Die Manufacturers Association no longer exists, instead the search engine recommends the National Tooling And Machining Association. We’re not sure whether this is a successor organisation or a different one, but it definitely represents the same constituency. When the film was made, America was at the peak of its post-war boom, and the apprentice would no doubt have gone on to a successful and pretty lucrative career. We hope his present-day equivalent is as valued.

If you’re of a mind for more industrial process, can we direct you at die casting?

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Tools And Dies That Made Mass Production Possible”