An 8-bit ISA card being plugged into a motherboard

Reverse-Engineering An ISA Card To Revive An Ancient CD-ROM Drive

Being an early adopter is great if you enjoy showing off new gadgets to your friends. But any new technology also brings the risk of ending up at the wrong side of a format war: just ask anyone who committed to HD-DVD fifteen years ago. If, on the other hand, you were among the few who invested in CD-ROM when it was first released in the mid-1980s, you definitely made the right choice when it came to storage media. However, it was a bit of a different story for the interface that hooks up the CD drive to your computer, as [Tech Tangents] found out when he managed to get his hands on a first-generation CM100 drive. (Video, embedded below.)

That wonderful piece of 1985 technology is not much smaller than the IBM PC it was designed to connect to, and it originally came with its own CM153 ISA interface card. But while most eBay sellers recognized the historic value of a pioneering CD-ROM drive, the accompanying PC was typically a dime-a-dozen model and was thrown out with the rare interface card still inside. Even after searching high and low for over a year, the only information [Tech Tangents] could find about the card was a nine year old YouTube video that showed what the thing looked like.

A 3D rendered image of an 8-bit ISA cardLuckily, the maker of that video was willing to take high-resolution pictures of the card, which allowed [Tech Tangents] to figure out how it worked. As it turned out, the card was entirely made from standard 7400 series logic chips as well as an 8251 USART, which meant that it should be possible to design a replacement simply by following all the traces on the board. [Tech Tangents] set to work, and after a few weeks of reverse-engineering he had a complete schematic and layout ready in KiCAD.

After the PCBs were manufactured and populated with components, it was time to test the new card with the old drive. This wasn’t a simple process either: as anyone who’s tried to get obscure hardware to work in MS-DOS will tell you, it involves countless hours of trying different driver versions and setting poorly documented switches in CONFIG.SYS. Eventually however, the driver loaded correctly and the ancient CD-ROM drive duly transferred the files stored on a Wolfenstein 3D disk.

If you’re lucky enough to own a CM100 or a similar drive from that era, you’ll be happy to know that all design files for the CM153 clone are available on GitHub. This isn’t the first time someone has had to re-create an interface board from pictures alone: we’ve seen a similar project involving a SCSI card for a synthesizer. Thanks for the tip, [hackbyte]!

Continue reading “Reverse-Engineering An ISA Card To Revive An Ancient CD-ROM Drive”

A man removing a module from a 1960s computer

Ancient Nuclear Plant Computer Finds New Home In Bletchley Museum

Although technology keeps advancing every year, safety-critical systems in factories and power plants typically stay with the technology that was available when they were built, in the spirit of “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke”. When it comes to safety, there are probably few systems more critical than nuclear power plants, and as a result one power station in Dungeness, in the south-east of England, was controlled by the same Ferranti Argus 500 computer from the early 1970s until the reactor was shut down in 2018.

The national Museum of Computing in Bletchley was lucky enough to be allowed to scavenge the old computer from the decommissioned plant, and volunteers at the museum have managed to get it running again in its new home. They describe the process in the video embedded below, and demonstrate a few features of this rather unique piece of 1970s technology.

The computer consists of several large cabinets that house enormous PCBs full of diode-transistor logic (DTL) chips, made by Ferranti itself. It comes with 32 kilo-words, or 96 kilobytes, of magnetic core memory, and was designed to run programs stored on punched tape. However, the paper tape reader was removed at some point in the computer’s life and replaced with a PC-based system that emulates the tape reader’s output through its parallel port. This was probably sometime during the 1990s, judging from the fact that the https://hackaday.com/tag/magnetic-core-memory/PC runs OS/2.

Setting up the computer in its new home was complicated by the fact that hundred of cables had to be disconnected in order to move the system out of the power plant. With the help of decades-old documentation, and the experience of one volunteer who used to be a Ferranti engineer, they eventually got it into a state where it could run programs again.

Ultimately, the Argus 500 will be turned into a live exhibit that will simulate a power station alongside another computer that was rescued from a different nuclear plant. Depending on the availability of some parts that are still missing, this might happen later this year, or perhaps next year. In any case, the museum already has a collection that’s well worth visiting if you’re in the area. The story of how they rescued a neglected IBM 360 also makes for fascinating reading. Continue reading “Ancient Nuclear Plant Computer Finds New Home In Bletchley Museum”

A retro-futuristic portable computer with a touch screen and a shoulder strap

2022 Cyberdeck Contest: The Hosaka MK I Connects You To Cyberspace, Neuromancer Style

It’s hard to pin down exactly what a cyberdeck is, as we’ve seen through the huge variety of designs submitted to our 2022 Cyberdeck Contest. The most basic requirement is that it is a type of portable computer, typically with a futuristic, cyberpunk-style design, but beyond that, anything goes. The original concept was introduced in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, where it refers to portable devices used to connect to cyberspace. The design of the ‘decks is not described in detail, but we do know that Case, the protagonist, uses a Hosaka computer which is supposedly “next year’s most expensive model”.

Inspired by Gibson’s novel, [Chris] designed and built the Hosaka MK I “Sprawl Edition” as he imagined it would have looked in the Sprawl universe. The result is an impressive piece of retro-futuristic hardware with lots of chunky tumbler switches, exposed metal screws, and even a shoulder strap. Processing power is supplied by a Raspberry Pi, with input and output happening through a 7″ touchscreen. There’s also an ESP32, which controls a set of RGB LEDs on the back as well as an FM radio module.

The Hosaka’s functionality can even be extended by adding modules to the side, which will snap into place thanks to a set of neodymium magnets integrated into the housing. The whole case is 3D printed, and a full set of .stl files is available for download, although [Chris] warns that the larger parts might be too big for some 3D printers: the whole thing barely fits inside his Prusa MK3s.

We’ve seen several cyberdeck creators that aimed to recreate Gibson’s vision: the XMT-19 Cutlass is one example, as is the massive NX-Yamato. If you’ve designed your own, be sure to submit it to this year’s contest.

A machine that holds a combination padlock and turns its dial, with two padlocks next to it

Robot Opens Master Combination Locks In Less Than A Minute

A common trope in bank heist B-movies is someone effortlessly bypassing a safe’s combination lock. Typically, the hero or villain will turn the dial while listening to the internal machinery, then deduce the combination based on sounds made by the lock. In real life, high-quality combination locks are not vulnerable to such simple attacks, but cheap ones can often be bypassed with a minimum of effort. Some are so simple that this process can even be automated, as [Mew463] has shown by building a machine that can open a Master combination lock in less than a minute.

A machine that holds a combination padlock and turns its dialThe operating principle is based on research by Samy Kamkar from a couple of years ago. For certain types of Master locks, the combination can be found by applying a small amount of pressure on the shackle and searching for locations on the dial where its movement becomes heavier. A simple algorithm can then be used to completely determine the first and third numbers, and find a list of just eight candidates for the second number.

[Mew463]’s machine automates this process by turning the dial with a stepper motor and pulling on the shackle using a servo and a rack-and-pinion system. A magnetic encoder is mounted on the stepper motor to determine when the motor stalls, while the servo has its internal position encoder brought out as a means of detecting how far the shackle has moved. All of this is controlled by an Arduino Nano mounted on a custom PCB together with a TMC2208 stepper driver.

The machine does its job smoothly and quickly, as you can see in the (silent) video embedded below. All design files are available on the project’s GitHub page, so if you’ve got a drawer full of these locks without combinations, here’s your chance to make them sort-of-useful again. After all, these locks’ vulnerabilities have a long history, and we’ve even seen automated crackers before.

Continue reading “Robot Opens Master Combination Locks In Less Than A Minute”

A graphing calculator with a 3D-printed enclosure, with a circuit board next to it

2022 Cyberdeck Contest: The Galdeano Is More Than A Graphing Calculator

Graphing calculators have evolved from expensive playthings for rich nerds to everyday tools for high schoolers worldwide. Even though teenagers nowadays carry powerful internet-connected computers in their pockets, math teachers often prefer them to use a clunky Z80-powered calculator in class, if only because their limited performance reduces the potential for distraction. The worst thing a lazy student can do is play a simple game like Snake or Tetris.

But what if you’re not a student anymore and you want a graphing calculator that has up-to-date hardware and infinite customizability in software? Look no further than [Angel Cabello]’s Galdeano, a handheld that has all the features of a modern graphing calculator plus a lot more. The heart of the device is an ESP32, which sits on a custom PCB that also holds a 6×7 array of push-buttons and a 320×240 touch-sensitive color display. It can be powered through a lithium-polymer battery or, like a classic calculator, through four AAA cells. The entire thing is housed in a 3D printed enclosure with color-coded buttons indicating various built-in functions.

The ESP32 runs MicroPython along with a symbolic math engine called Eigenmath. This enables the Galdeano to  manipulate expressions, perform integration and differentiation, and plot functions. Porting Eigenmath to a memory-constrained platform like the ESP32 was quite a challenge and required a few workarounds, including a memory partition scheme and even a custom compact font with mathematical symbols.

Thanks to the flexibility of MicroPython and the ESP’s WiFi system, the Galdeano is not limited to implementing a calculator: it can also perform various general-purpose tasks ranging from file editing to controlling a set of smart light bulbs. The project page doesn’t mention any games yet, but we’re sure it won’t take long before someone ports Tetris to this system as well.

Of course, even classroom-grade calculators can be pushed to do much more than their designers intended: they can receive GPS signals, run Debian or even perform ray tracing. If you’re looking for a powerful open-source calculator, this BeagleBoard-based machine runs the R statistical computing environment.

Continue reading “2022 Cyberdeck Contest: The Galdeano Is More Than A Graphing Calculator”

A display in a field showing the water stress index over time

Hackaday Prize 2022: Using Infrared Thermometers To Measure Crops’ Water Stress

If you live anywhere on the Northern Hemisphere, you’re likely to have experienced one of the many heatwaves that occurred this summer. Extreme heat is dangerous for humans and animals, but plants, including important crops, also suffer. High temperatures lead to increased transpiration and evaporation, and if the water lost in this way is not replenished quickly enough, plants will stop growing and eventually wither and die.

In order to keep track of the amount of water available to crops, [Florian Ellsäßer] built the Crop Water Stress Sensor: a device that checks whether plants have enough moisture available to stay healthy. It does this by measuring the temperature of the leaves to calculate evaporation levels. If the leaves are cooler than their surroundings, this means that water is evaporating from them and the plant apparently has enough water available. If the leaves’ temperature is closer to the ambient temperature, then the plant may be running low on water.

[Florian]’s system performs this measurement using an infrared array, which is basically a low-resolution thermal camera that remotely measures the temperature of everything in its field of view. This IR array is pointed at a field, where it will see both leaves and the ground between them. The difference in temperature between these two can then be used to calculate the Crop Water Stress Index (CWSI), a standardized measure of how well-hydrated plants are. The result is shown on a display and also indicated using a convenient red-yellow-green status LED that shows if the crops in question need watering.

The system can be solar powered for completely remote operation, while its data can be read out through a WiFi interface. [Florian] is planning to update the design with a LoRa interface for greater range: the eventual goal is to build a large network of these sensors throughout agricultural areas and use the combined data to raise awareness of water shortages in certain areas. In order to make the sensors easy to build by anyone interested, all design files are available on the project page.

Keeping crops moisturized is one of the key tasks of agriculture, and we’ve seen several projects that aim to optimize and automate it, from a simple-but-effective ESP8266-based moisture sensor to complete hydroponics systems.

A black PCB with an ESP32 and an SBM-20 geiger counter

Flexible Radiation Monitoring System Speaks LoRa And WiFi

Radioactivity has always been a fascinating phenomenon for anyone interested in physics, and as a result we’ve featured many radioactivity-related projects on these pages over the years. More recently however, fears of nuclear disaster have prompted many hackers to look into environmental radiation monitoring. [Malte] was one of those looking to upgrade the radiation monitor on his weather station, but found the options for wireless geiger counters a bit limited.

So he decided to build himself his own Wifi and LoRa compatible environmental radiation monitor. Like most such projects it’s based on the ubiquitous Soviet-made SBM-20 GM tube, although the design also supports the Chinese J305βγ model. In either case, the tube’s operating voltage is generated by a discrete-transistor based oscillator which boosts the board’s 5 V supply to around 400 V with the help of an inductor and a voltage multiplier.

Graphs showing temperature, humidity and radiation levels
Data can be visualized in graphs, together with other data from the weather station like temperature and humidity

The tube’s output signal is converted into clean digital pulses to be counted by either an ESP32 or a Moteino R6, depending on the choice of wireless protocol. The ESP can make its data available through a web interface using its WiFi interface, while the Moteino can communicate through LoRa and sends out its data using MQTT. The resulting data is a counts-per-minute value which can be converted into an equivalent dose in Sievert using a simple conversion formula.

All design files are available on [Malte]’s website, including a PCB layout that neatly fits inside standard waterproof enclosures. Getting more radiation monitors out in the field can only be a good thing, as we found out when we tried to detect a radiation accident using community-sourced data back in 2019. Don’t like WiFi or LoRa? There’s plenty of other ways to connect your GM tubes to the internet.