Calculating Like It’s 1962

We sometimes forget that the things we think of as trivial today were yesterday’s feats of extreme engineering. Consider the humble pocket calculator, these days so cheap and easy to construct that they’re essentially disposable. But building a simple “four-banger” calculator in 1962 was anything but a simple task, and it’s worth looking at what one of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand today accomplished with practically nothing.

If there’s anything that [Cliff Stoll]’s enthusiasm can’t make interesting, we don’t know what it would be, and he certainly does the job with this teardown and analysis of a vintage electronic calculator. You’ll remember [Cliff] from his book The Cuckoo’s Egg, documenting his mid-80s computer sleuthing that exposed a gang of black-hat hackers working for the KGB. [Cliff] came upon a pair of Friden EC-132 electronic calculators, and with the help of [Bob Ragen], the engineer who designed them in 1962, got one working. With a rack of PC boards, cleverly hinged to save space and stuffed with germanium transistors, a CRT display, and an acoustic delay-line memory, the calculators look ridiculous by today’s standards. But when you take a moment to ponder just how much work went into such a thing, it really makes you wonder how the old timers ever brought a product to market.

As a side note, it’s great to see the [Cliff] is still so energetic after all these years. Watching him jump about with such excitement and passion really gets us charged up.

Continue reading “Calculating Like It’s 1962”

Retrotechtacular: Circuit Boards The Tektronix Way

Printed circuit boards are a fundamental part of both of commercial electronic equipment and of the projects we feature here on Hackaday. Many of us have made our own, whether done so from first principles with a tank of etchant, or sent off as a set of Gerbers to a PCB fab house.

To say that the subject of today’s Retrotechtacular is the manufacture of printed circuit boards might seem odd, because there is nothing archaic about a PCB, they’re very much still with us. But the film below the break is a fascinating look at the process from two angles, both for what it tells us about how they are still manufactured, and how they were manufactured in 1969 when it was made.

Board artwork laid out at four-times actual size

Tektronix were as famous for the manufacturer of particularly high quality oscilloscopes back then as they are now. The Tektronix ‘scopes of the late 1960s featured several printed circuit boards carrying solid-state electronics, and were manufactured to an extremely high standard. The film follows the manufacturing process from initial PCB layout to assembled board, with plenty of detail of all production processes.

In 2017 you would start a PCB design in a CAD package, but in 1969 the was incredibly manual. Everything was transcribed by hand from a paper schematic to transparent film. Paper mock-ups of component footprints four times larger than actual size are placed on a grid, and conductors drawn in pencil on an overlaid piece of tracing paper. Then the pads and pattern of tracks are laid out using black transfers and tape on sheets of film over the tracing paper, one each for top and bottom of the board. A photographic process reduces them to production size onto film, from which they can be exposed and etched in the same way that you would in 2017.

Pantograph drilling machine uses a manually moved styuls on a template to drill six boards at once

Most of the physical process of creating a PCB has not changed significantly since 1969. We are shown the through-plating and gold plating processes in detail, then the etching and silkscreening processes, before seeing component installation and finally wave soldering.

What are anachronistic though are some of the machines, and the parts now robotised that were done in 1969 by hand. The PCB drilling is done by hand with a pantograph drill for small runs, but for large ones a fascinating numerically-controlled drilling rig is used, controlled by punched tape without a computer in sight. Component placement is all by hand, and the commentator remarks that it may one day be done by machine.

The film remains simultaneously an interesting look at PCB production and a fascinating snapshot of 1960s manufacturing. It’s probable that many of the Tek ‘scopes made on that line are still with us, they’re certainly familiar to look at from our experience at radio rallies.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Circuit Boards The Tektronix Way”

Jeroen Domburg Miniaturizes a Mac

His name may not ring a bell, but his handle will — Sprite_tm, a regular to these pages and to Hackaday events around the world. Hailing from The Netherlands by way of Shanghai, Jeroen Domburg dropped by the Hackaday Superconference 2017 to give a talk on a pet project of his: turning a Macintosh into, well, a pet.

You could say this is Jeroen’s second minification of vintage hardware. At last year’s Hackaday Superconference, he brought out the tiniest Game Boy ever made. This incredible hardware and software hack stuffs a complete Game Boy into something you can lose in your pocket. How do you top a miniature version of the most iconic video game system ever made? By creating a miniature version of the most iconic computer ever made, of course.

The tiny object in front of Jeroen in the title image is, in fact, a working Macintosh Plus that he built. Recreating mid-80’s technology using 2017 parts seems like it would be easy, and while it’s obviously easier than breaking the laws of physics to go the other direction, Jeroen faced some serious challenges along the way, which he goes into some detail about in his talk.

Continue reading “Jeroen Domburg Miniaturizes a Mac”

Low-End Parts Make Tesla Coil with a High-End Look

We all know the saying: cheap, fast, or good — pick any two. That rule seems to apply across the spectrum of hackerdom, from software projects to hardware builds. But this DIY Tesla coil build might just manage to deliver on all three.

Cheap? [Jay Bowles]’ Tesla coil is based on a handheld bug zapper that you can find for a couple of bucks, or borrow from the top of the fridge in the relatively bug-free winter months. The spark gap is just a couple of screws set into scraps of nylon cutting board — nothing fancy there. Fast? Almost everything needed to build this is stuff lying around the house, and depending on the state of your junk bin you may not even have to order the polypropylene caps [Jay] recommends. Good? That’s a relative term, of course, and if you define it as a coil capable of putting out pumpkin-slaying lightning bolts or playing “Yakkity Sax”, you’ll likely be disappointed. But there’s no denying that this Tesla coil looks good, from its Lexan base to the door-pull top load. And running off a couple of AA batteries, it’s safe to use too.

[Jay] put a lot of care into winding and dressing the secondary coil neatly, and the whole thing would look great as a desktop toy. Not into the winding part? You can always etch a PCB Tesla coil instead.

Continue reading “Low-End Parts Make Tesla Coil with a High-End Look”

Flip-Dot Display Brought Out of Retirement by New Drivers

LED matrix displays and flat-screen monitors have largely supplanted old-school electromechanical models for public signage. We think that’s a shame, but it’s also a boon for the tinkerer, as old displays can be had for a song these days in the online markets.

Such was the case for [John Whittington] and his flip-dot display salvaged from an old bus. He wanted to put the old sign back to work, but without a decent driver, he did what one does in these situations — he tore it down and reverse engineered the thing. Like most such displays, his Hannover Display 7 x 56-pixel flip-dot sign is electromechanically interesting; each pixel is a card straddling the poles of a small electromagnet. Pulse the magnet and the card flips over, changing the pixel from black to fluorescent green. [John] used an existing driver for the sign and a logic analyzer to determine the protocol used by the internal electronics to drive the pixels, and came up with a much-improved method of sending characters and graphics. With a Raspberry Pi and power supply now resident inside the case, a web-based GUI lets him display messages easily. The video below has lots of details, and the code is freely available.

You may recall [John] from a recent edge-lit Nixie-like display. Looks like he’s got a thing for eye-catching displays, and we’re fine with that.

Continue reading “Flip-Dot Display Brought Out of Retirement by New Drivers”

Huge 74181 is a Classic ALU You Can Actually Understand

You can no longer buy a brand-new 74181, they’ve been out of production for years. All is not lost though, for [Dave’s Dev Lab] have created a facsimile of one on a printed circuit board, using modern single-gate 74-series chips.

Why on earth would you want an oversized replica of an outdated logic chip from nearly five decades ago, we hear you ask? The answer lies in education. If you were to embark on learning about the internals of a microprocessor by taking a modern example such as the one that powers the device on which you are reading this, you would find it to be a daunting task. Over six decades of progress in computer technology have delivered the performance enhancements that put a supercomputer in your smartphone, but at the expense of a contemporary microprocessor being an extremely complex machine which you can’t peer into for any level of understanding.

Simple enough to work your way through the logic

The starting point for the student of microprocessor internals often lies in the past. The technology of the early 1970s holds the fundamentals from which a modern processor can be understood, but remains simple enough to grasp in its entirety as a beginner. Registers, instruction decoders, counters, and an arithmetic/logic unit, or ALU. And for decades the 74181, as an all-in-one 4-bit ALU on a chip that you might have found in a minicomputer at the turn of the 1970s, represented the most convenient way to teach the operation of these devices. Electronic engineers and computer scientists of all ages will have encountered them as they gained their qualifications.

The PCB version of the 181 faithfully follows the original, but with modern 74LVC gates laid out as they would be in the circuit diagram of the chip, and LEDs to show logic state at the different parts of the circuit. Thus when it is used to teach ALU operation it can show every part of the device in detail in a way a real 74181 would never have done.

If the 74181 has caught your interest, we’ve previously brought you [Ken Shirriff]’s reverse engineering of the device in detail using breathtaking images of the silicon.

MiSTer Upgrades Vintage Computer Recreations

The MiST project provides an FPGA-based platform for recreating vintage computers. We recently saw an upgraded board — MiSTer — with a similar goal but with increased capability. You can see a video of the board acting like an Apple ][ playing Pac Man, below.

The board isn’t emulating the target computer. Rather, it uses an FPGA to host a hardware implementation of the target. There are cores for Apple, Atari, Commodore, Coleco, Sega, Sinclair and many other computers. There are also many arcade game cores for games like Defender, Galaga, and Frogger.

Continue reading “MiSTer Upgrades Vintage Computer Recreations”