It’s not Apple IIs, and it’s not Raspberry Pis. The most important computing platform for teaching kids programming is the Texas Instruments graphing calculator. These things have been around in one form or another for almost three decades, and for a lot of budding hackers out there, this was the first computer they owned and had complete access to.
As hacking graphing calculators is a favorite for Maker Faires, we were pleased to see Cemetech make it out to this year’s World Maker Faire in New York last weekend. They’re the main driving force behind turning these pocket computers with truly terrible displays into usable computing platforms.
As you would expect from any booth, Cemetech brought out the goods demonstrating exactly what a graphing calculator can do. The most impressive, at least from a soldering standpoint, is their LED cube controlled by a graphing calculator. The electronics are simple, and just a few 595s and transistors, but this LED cube is taking serial data directly from the link cable on a graphing calculator. Of course, the PCB for the LED cube is designed as an Arduino shield for ease of prototyping, but make no mistake: this is an LED cube controlled by a calculator.
If you can send serial data to a shift register from a graphing calculator, that means you can send serial data to anything, bringing us to Cemetech’s next great build featured this year. It’s an N-gauge model train, with complete control over the locomotive.
There’s a lot more to controlling model trains these days than simply connecting a big ‘ol variac to the tracks. This setup uses Direct Cab Control (DCC), a system that modulates commands for locomotives while still providing 12-15V to the tracks. There’s a good Arduino library, and when you have that, you can easily port it to a graphing calculator.
Cemetech is one of the perennial favorites at Maker Faire, and over the years we’ve seen everything from the Ultimate TI-83+ sporting an RGB backlight and a PS/2 port to a game of graphing calculator Whac-A-Mole. It’s all a great example of what you can do with the programmable computer every 90s kid had, and an introduction to computer programming education, something Cemetech is really pushing out there with some hard work.
The IBM 1401 is a classic computer which IBM marketed throughout the 1960s, late enough for it to have used transistors rather than vacuum tubes, which is probably a good thing for this story. For small businesses, it was often used as their main data processing machine along with the 1403 printer. For larger businesses with mainframes, the 1401 was used to handle the slower peripherals such as that 1403 printer as well as card readers.
The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA has two working 1401s as well as at least one 1403 printer, and recently whenever the printer printed out a line, the computer would report a “print check” error. [Ken Shirriff] was among those who found and fixed the problem and he wrote up a detailed blog entry which takes us from the first test done to narrow down the problem, through IBM’s original logic diagrams, until finally yanking out the suspect board and finding the culprit, a germanium transistor which likely failed due to corrosion and an emitter wire that doesn’t look solidly connected. How do they know that? In the typical [Ken]-and-company style which we love, they opened up the transistor and looked at it under a microscope. We get the feeling that if they could have dug even deeper then they would have.
To say that the Commodore 64 was an important milestone in the history of personal computing is probably a bit of an understatement. For a decent chunk of the 1980s, it was the home computer, with some estimates putting the total number of them sold as high as 17 million. For hackers of a certain age, there’s a fairly good chance that the C64 holds a special spot in their childhood; perhaps even setting them on a trajectory they followed for the rest of their lives.
At the risk of showing his age, [Clicky Steve] writes in to tell us about the important role the C64 played in his childhood. He received it as a gift on his fifth birthday from his parents, and fondly remembers the hours he and his grandfather spent with a mail order book learning how to program it. He credits these memories with getting him interested in technology and electronic music. In an effort to keep himself connected to those early memories, he decided to build a modern keyboard with C64 keycaps.
As you might expect, the process started with [Steve] harvesting the caps from a real Commodore, in fact, the very same computer he received as a child. While the purists might shed a tear that the original machine was sacrificed to build this new keyboard, he does note that his C64 had seen better days.
Of course, you can’t just pull the caps off of C64 and stick them on a modern keyboard. [Steve] found the STLs for a 3D printable C64 to Cherry MX adapter on GitHub, and had 80 of them professionally printed as he doesn’t have access to an SLS printer. He reports the design works well, but that non-destructively removing the adapters from the caps once they are pressed into place probably isn’t going to happen; something to keep in mind for others who might be considering sacrificing their personal C64 for the project.
[Steve] installed the caps on a Preonic mechanical keyboard, which worked out fairly well, though he had to get creative with the layout as the C64 caps didn’t really lend themselves to the keyboard’s ortholinear layout. He does mention that switches a bit heavier than the Cherry MX Whites he selected would probably be ideal, but overall he’s extremely happy with his functional tribute to his grandfather.
We’ve mentioned previously the challenges that come with maintaining vintage computers which in some cases are pushing 40 years old. Components, even high quality ones, eventually fail and need to be replaced. Now if it’s a fairly popular vintage machine, replacement parts usually aren’t too hard to come by. But what if you’re dealing with a machine that’s not just vintage, but was also such a commercial flop that parts are scarce?
Such is the life for anyone who owns one of the 500,000 IBM PCJrs that Big Blue managed to get out of the door during the year or so the product was on the market. As [AkBKukU] found, a replacement AC adapter for the odd-ball computer was going to cost more than what he paid for the thing, so he set to work on creating an adapter so he could use a modern ATX PSU on the machine. After a couple of months of ironing out the kinks, the design is finally ready for consumption.
In the end, the PCB design itself is quite simple. It’s really just a matter of switching around some pins from the standard ATX plug to the edge connector on the PCJr. There’s also a connector for powering a floppy drive, as well as headers for a fan and power switch.
[AkBKukU] has come up with two ways to use the adapter. You can either go with a standard ATX PSU, in which case it will need to sit outside the machine due to its size, or use a PicoPSU which allows you to keep the whole thing internal. If you don’t mind spending the cash, the PicoPSU method is a much cleaner installation that still provides plenty of power. Depending on which route you take, there are different 3D printed plates to adapt the computer’s rear panel to fit the new hardware.
We are probably all familiar with computing history to the extent that we know the earliest computers were surprisingly simple devices. While early electronic machines such as Colossus or ENIAC were hugely complex racks of tubes, once expressed as a schematic or as a network of logic gates they would be relatively straightforward for today’s electronic engineer to understand their operation. Those who have made an in-depth study of computing history may have heard of the work of Konrad Zuse in the mid-20th century, his relay-based machines predate their fully electronic cousins by several years.
A relay-based computer can be simple enough to be built by a home constructor, and at the recent Electromagnetic |Field hacker camp [Rory Mangles] outlined his TIM relay computer built while he was at school. It’s an engaging story starting from first principles and describing a series of TIM devices from a simple binary adder to the final fully Turing-complete computer. He describes the design process for his ALU, eventually going with a 1-bit serial design to economise on relays.
The machine has a Harvard architecture, with the program pathway consisting of a paper tape from which the code is run directly. The instruction set is called BLT, which of course means Basic Language of Tim, and there is a T++ assembly language. Loops and if statements are handled in a nod to the classical Turing machine by looping the paper tape. The original TIM is a few years old, but he reveals that he’s recently brought it out of storage and added a parallel port. Thus the finale of the talk is a demonstration, printing a “Hello World”.
We’ve placed the full video below the break, meanwhile we were lucky enough that [Rory] brought TIM along to the EMF Hackaday Readers village for our bring-a-hack, so the header image is from when we had a chance to examine it. If you’re curious to know more, he has a web site with some more TIM details.
No matter how far modern computer hardware advances, there’s still a fairly large group of people who yearn for the early days of desktop computing. There’s something undeniably appealing about these early systems, and while even the most hardcore vintage computer aficionado probably wouldn’t be using one as their daily computer anymore, it’s nice to be able to revisit them occasionally. Of course the downside of working with computers that may well be older than their operators is that they are often fragile, and replacement parts are not necessarily easy to come by.
But thanks to projects like this impressive ATX Amiga 4000 motherboard shown off by [hese] on the Amibay forums, getting first hand experience with classic computing doesn’t necessarily mean relying on vintage hardware. By making an Amiga that’s compatible with standard ATX computer cases and power supplies, it becomes a bit more practical to relive the Commodore glory days. Right now it’s mainly a personal project, but if there’s sufficient interest it sounds as if that might change.
This board could be considered a modern reincarnation of the Amiga 4000T, which was an official tower version of the standard Amiga 4000 released by Commodore in 1994. It features a 68030 CPU, with 16 MB Fast RAM and 2 MB Chip RAM. For expansion there are four full-length Zorro III slots and three ISA slots, as well as IDE ports for a floppy and hard drive.
The board really looks the part of a professionally manufactured computer motherboard from the late 1990s, which speaks not only to the attention to detail [hese] put into its design, but the manufacturing capabilities that are now available to the individual. With passionate people like this involved, it’s hardly surprising that the vintage computer scene is so vibrant.
Now in its fourth iteration, it has a 32K EEPROM, 32K of memory, one serial and three parallel ports. In the ROM he’s put Tiny BASIC and Dave Dunfield’s MON85 Serial Monitor with Roman Borik’s improvements. His early demos include the obligatory blinking LED, playing 8-bit music to a speaker, and also a 7-segment LED display with a hexadecimal keyboard. There is also a system connector which allows you to connect a keyboard, a display, and other peripherals. Of course, you can connect serially at up to 115200 baud, making it very easy to compile some assembly on a PC and use the monitor to paste the hex into the board’s memory and run it. Or you can just jump into the Tiny BASIC interpreter and have some nostalgic fun. He demos all this in the video below.
He’s given enough detail for you to make your own and he also has the boards available in kit form on Tindie for a very reasonable price. With some minimal soldering skills, you can be back in the ’80s in no time.