Retrotechtacular: Olivetti Net3

If you sign up for a European hacker camp such as CCC Camp in Germany or SHA Camp in the Netherlands, you’ll see among the items recommended to take with you, a DECT handset. DECT, or Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications, refers to the set of standards that lie behind the digital cordless telephones that are ubiquitous across Europe and some countries elsewhere in the world. These standards cover more than just the simple two-way telephone calls through a base station that most Europeans use them for though, they define a fully functional multi-cell 3G phone and data networking system. This means that an event like SHA Camp can run its own digital phone network without having to implement cell towers.

Olivetti promotional net3 image
Olivetti promotional Net3 image

Reading the history of DECT, there is the interesting snippet that the first DECT product on the market in 1993 was not a telephone but a networking device, and incidentally the first wireless LAN product on the European market. Olivetti’s Net3 provided 512kB/s wireless networking to a base station with Ethernet or Token Ring interfaces for connection to a LAN. In its original form it was an internal card for a desktop PC coupled to a bulky external box containing radio circuitry and antenna, but its later incarnations included a PCMCIA card with a much smaller antenna box. The half-megabit speed seems tiny by today’s standards, but in the pre-multimedia world of 1993 would have been perfectly adequate for a Novell Netware fileserver and an HP Laserjet 4.

Heinz Wolff swallows a condom in another Olivetti promotional picture.
[Heinz Wolff] swallows a condom in another Olivetti promotional image.

Mystery Technology

So DECT is an interesting technology that can do more than just a simple cordless phone, and its first product was unexpectedly somewhat groundbreaking. It then becomes even more interesting to find that Net3 has left very little evidence of itself to find that can be found on the Web, and learning more about it requires a little detective work.

The Wikipedia entry has the bare bones, but it speaks volumes about the obscure nature of the product that the encyclopedia’s only picture of it is a tiny thumbnail-sized promotional image of the PCMCIA variant in a chunky mid-1990s laptop. A further search reveals a 1993 British Olivetti staff newsletter (PDF) carrying another promotional image of the desktop Net3 device featuring the then-well-known TV personality and academic [Heinz Wolff] demonstrating the technology bizarrely by swallowing a DECT medical instrumentation transponder wrapped in a condom. Some press releases remain in the fossilized remnants of the 1990s internet, and a Net3 design team member’s LinkedIn page led us to the patent covering the system, but that’s pretty much it. We can’t even find a high enough resolution image of a Net3 card for our featured image slot.

Wireless Things Before Their Time

It’s obvious that Net3 and DECT networking as a high-end wireless LAN before a need for wireless LANs existed never made it, but what is perhaps more interesting is that it seems to have left no legacy for other more mundane applications. We are in the midst of an explosion of hype around the Internet of Things and it seems new short-range wireless networking technologies appear almost daily, yet the world seems to have overlooked this robust, low power, and mature wireless network with its own dedicated frequency allocation that many of us already have in our homes. It seems particularly surprising that among the many DECT base stations on sale at your local consumer electronics store there are none with an Internet connection, and there is no market for IoT devices that use DECT as their backhaul.

In the open-source community there has been some work on DECT. The OsmocomDECT project for example provides a DECT software stack, and deDECTed.org states an aim to “better understand DECT and its security and to create an Open Source implementation of the DECT standard”. But there seems to have been very little hardware work in our community on the standard, for example there are no DECT-specific projects on Hackaday.io.

Net3 then was a product before its time, a herald of what was to come, from that twilight period when the Web was definitely a thing but had yet to become the world’s universal information repository. Public wireless networking was still several years in the future, so there was no imperative for road warriors to equip themselves with a Net3 card or for computer manufacturers — not even Olivetti themselves! — to incorporate the technology. It thus didn’t take the world by storm, and unusually for such a ground-breaking computer product there remains little legacy for it beyond a rarely-used feature of the protocol Europeans use for their cordless phones.

Did you have a Net3 card? Do you still have one? Let us know in the comments.

Federico Faggin: The Real Silicon Man

While doing research for our articles about inventing the integrated circuit, the calculator, and the microprocessor, one name kept popping which was new to me, Federico Faggin. Yet this was a name I should have known just as well as his famous contemporaries Kilby, Noyce, and Moore.

Faggin seems to have been at the heart of many of the early advances in microprocessors. He played a big part in the development of MOS processors during the transition from TTL to CMOS. He was co-creator of the first commercially available processor, the 4004, as well as the 8080. And he was a co-founder of Zilog, which brought out the much-loved Z80 CPU. From there he moved on to neural networking chips, image sensors, and is active today in the scientific study of consciousness. It’s time then that we had a closer look at a man who’s very core must surely be made of silicon.

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This Weekend: Vintage Computer Festival Zurich

This weekend, November 18th and 19th, the greatest vintage computer conference in Europe is going down. It’s the Vintage Computer Festival Europe, and if you’re around Zurich this weekend, we highly recommend that you check it out.

On deck for this year’s VCF Europe is an incredible amount of amazing retrotechnology. A demonstration of high-resolution graphics without using computer memory will be found in a few Tektronix storage tube terminals (their Wikipedia entry is phenomenal, by the way). There will be a few Olivetti microcomputers on display demonstrating Italy’s contribution to the computer revolution. A PDP 6 will be recreated, and a 1964 IBM 360/30 will be revived. There will be discussions on using logarithms as a basis for computers. [Oscar], creator of the PiDP-8/I will be bringing his latest project, an exquisite miniature recreation of a PDP-11/70, with a molded enclosure and purple toggle switches.

This is a retrocomputer conference where an Apple I is the least interesting computer on display, an extremely difficult feat to pull off. VCFe will be held at Rote Fabrik in Zurich, and tickets are five units of the local currency per day. You can check out the festival on Twitter, Google+, and the main website.

A Neural Network Can Now Be Your Writing Assistant

Writing is a difficult job; though, as a primarily word-based site, we may be a little biased here at Hackaday. Not only does a writer have to know the basics, like what a semicolon is and when to use one, they also need to build sentences that convey information in a manner that is pleasant to read. As many commenters like to point out, even we struggle with this on occasion (lauded and scholarly as we are).

Wouldn’t it be better if we could let our computers do the heavy lifting for us? After all, a monkey with infinite time will eventually write Shakespeare and all that. Surely, a computer can be programmed to do all that fancy word assembly while we sit back and enjoy some coffee. Well, that’s what [Robin Sloan] set out to do with a recurrent neural network-powered writing assistant.

Alright, so it doesn’t actually write completely on its own. Instead, [Robin’s] software takes advantage of [JC Johnson’s] torch-rnn project, and integrates it into Atom to autocomplete sentences. [Robin] trained his neural network on hundreds of old issues of the sci-fi magazines Galaxy and IF Magazine, which are available at the Internet Archive. Once the server and corresponding Atom package are installed, a writer can simply push the Tab key and the sentence will be completed.

The results are interesting. [Robin] himself says “it’s like writing with a deranged but very well-read parrot on your shoulder.” While it’s not likely to be used as a serious writing tool anytime soon, the potential is certainly intriguing. When trained on relevant source material, the integration into software like Atom could be very useful. If a neural network can compose music, surely it can write some silly tech articles.

[thanks to Tim Trzepacz for the tip!]

Typewriter image: LjL (Public domain).

Dragging Teletypes Into The 21st Century

If you are of a certain age you may have worked in an office in the days before the computer revolution, and the chances are that in the corner of your office there would have been a teletype machine. Like a very chunky typewriter with a phone attached, this was an electromechanical serial terminal and modem, and machines like it would have formed the backbone of international commerce in the days before fax, and then email.

Teletypes may have disappeared from the world of trade, but there are a surprising number still in private hands. Enthusiasts collect and restore them, and radio amateurs still use digital modes based on their output. The problem facing today’s teletype owner though is that they are becoming increasingly difficult to interface to a modern computer. The serial port, itself an interface with its early history in the electromechanical world, is now an increasingly rare sight.

[Eric] has a project which addresses the teletype owner’s interfacing woes, he’s created a board with all the necessary level shifters and an Atmega32u2 microcontroller to translate the teletype’s output to USB.

In his design he’s had to solve a few problems related to such an aged interface. Teletypes have a serial output, but it’s not the TTL or RS232 we may be used to. Instead it’s a high-voltage current loop designed to operate electromagnets, so his board has to incorporate an optocoupler to safely isolate the delicate computer circuitry. And once he had the teletype’s output at a safe level he then had to translate its content, teletypes speak 5-bit ITA2 code rather than our slightly newer 7-bit ASCII.

The result though is a successful interface between teletype and computer. The former sees another teletype, while the latter sees a serial terminal. If you have a teletype and wish to try it for yourself, he’s released the source code in a GitHub repository.

Teletypes have featured a few times here at Hackaday over the years. We’ve had one as an SMS client, another that monitors a Twitter feed, and while it’s not strictly a teletype, a close examination of an Olivetti mechanical serial terminal.

Retrotechtacular: A Desktop Computer From 1965

About eight years before the Xerox built the Alto at PARC and over a decade before the Apple ][ premiered, Italian business equipment manufacturer Olivetti produced a bona fide desktop personal computer. When Olivetti debuted this typewriter-sized marvel in 1965 at a business convention in New York City, people were in absolute awe that this tiny, self-contained unit could perform the same types of functions as the hulking room-sized mainframes of the time. Some were sure that it was simply a small input device for a much bigger machine hiding behind the curtain.

But the revolutionary Olivetti Programma 101 was no joke. It performed standard four-banger operations and could handle square root and absolute value calculations. The Olivetti had 16 jump instructions as well as 16 conditional jump instructions, which put it firmly in state machine territory. Programs could be printed on a roll of paper or stored long-term on long magnetic cards.

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Retrotechtacular: A Mechanical UART

We’ve heard it said that no one invented the old mechanical Teletype. One fell from the sky near Skokie, Illinois and people just duplicated them. It is true these old machines were similar to a modern terminal. They sent and received serial data using a printer instead of a screen. But inside, they were mechanical Rube Goldbergs, not full of the electronic circuits you’d think of today.

Teletype was the best-known name, but there were other mechanical monster terminals out there. [Carsten] recently took some pictures of his 99 pound Olivetti mechanical terminal. According to him, there’s only one electronic component within: a bistable solenoid that reads the data. Everything else is mechanical and driven with a motor that keeps everything at the right baud rate (110 baud).

Like the Teletype, it is a miracle these things were able to work as well as they did. Lacking a microcontroller, the terminals could respond to an identity request by spinning a little wheel that had teeth removed to indicate which letters to send (TeleType used a similar scheme). Things that are simple using today’s electronics (like preventing two keys pressed at once from being a problem) turned out to be massive design challenges for these old metal monsters.

Turns out that when [Carsten] last fired the terminal up, a capacitor finally gave up its magic smoke. He plans to fix it, though, and as long as it isn’t a mechanical problem, we bet he will.

We’ve talked about Teletypes a few times in the past, including using them for text messaging and even Twitter.