From Dirt To Space, Backyard Iron Smelting Hackerspace Style

When I went to a hacker camp in the Netherlands in February I was expecting to spend a few days in a comfortable venue with a bunch of friends, drink some beer, see a chiptune gig, and say “Ooh!” a lot at the exciting projects people brought along. I did all of those things, but I also opened the door to something unexpected. The folks from RevSpace in the Hague brought along their portable forge, and before long I found myself working a piece of hot rebar while wearing comically unsuitable clothing. One thing led to another, and I received an invite to come along and see another metalworking project of theirs: to go form ore to ornamental technology all in one weekend.

From Dirt To Space is a collaboration between Dutch hackerspaces with a simple aim: to take iron ore and process it into a component that will be launched into space. The full project is to be attempted at the German CCCamp hacker camp in August, but to test the equipment and techniques a trial run was required. Thus I found myself in a Le Shuttle car transporter train in the Channel Tunnel, headed for the Hack42 hackerspace in Arnhem where all the parties involved would convene.

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Zork And The Z-Machine: Bringing The Mainframe To 8-bit Home Computers

Computer games have been around about as long as computers have. And though it may be hard to believe, Zork, a text-based adventure game, was the Fortnite of its time. But Zork is more than that. For portability and size reasons, Zork itself is written in Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), makes heavy use of the brand-new concept of object-oriented programming, and runs on a virtual machine. All this back in 1979. They used every trick in the book to pack as much of the Underground Empire into computers that had only 32 kB of RAM. But more even more than a technological tour de force, Zork is an unmissable milestone in the history of computer gaming. But it didn’t spring up out of nowhere.

DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module
DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module

The computer revolution had just taken a fierce hold during the second World War, and showed no sign of subsiding during the 1950s and 1960s. More affordable computer systems were becoming available for purchase by businesses as well as universities. MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) was fortunate to have ties to ARPA, which gave MIT’s LCS and AI labs (formerly part of Project MAC) access to considerable computing resources, mostly in the form of DEC PDP systems.

The result: students at the MIT Dynamic Modeling Group (part of LCS) having access to a PDP-10 KA10 mainframe — heavy iron at the time. Though this PDP-10 was the original 1968 model with discrete transistor Flip Chip modules and wire-wrapping, it had been heavily modified, adding virtual memory and paging support to expand the original 1,152 kB of core memory. Running the MIT-developed Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) OS, it was a highly capable multi-user system.

Naturally, it got mostly used for playing games.
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Who Really Has The Largest Aircraft?

We were all glued to our screens for a moment a few weeks ago, watching the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch dual-fuselage space launch platform aircraft make its first flight. The six-engined aircraft represents an impressive technical feat by any standard, and with a wingspan of 385 ft (117 m) and payload weight of 550,000 lb (250 t), is touted as the largest ever flown.

Our own Brian Benchoff took a look at the possibility of hauling more mundane cargo as an alternative (and possibly more popular) use of its lifting capabilities. And in doing so mentioned that “by most measure that matter” this is the largest aircraft ever built. There are several contenders for the title of largest aircraft that depend upon different statistics, so which one really is the largest? Sometimes it’s not as clear as you’d think, but finding out leads us into a fascinating review of some unusual aeronautical engineering.

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That Super Mario Bros. C64 Port Was Too Good For This World

It was foolish to think that the adventure of the Mario Bros. would ever exist outside of the castle walls of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Except for that one time it did. The Hudson Soft company was a close collaborator with Nintendo, and parlayed that favor into being tasked with bringing Super Mario Bros. to platforms beyond the NES. The result of that collaboration would be 1986’s Super Mario Special, a port for the NEC PC-88 line of desktop computers. What ended up on that 5.25″ floppy sounded reminiscent of the Famicom original, but with a grand total of four colors (including black) and not a single scrolling screen in sight; Super Mario Special felt decidedly less than spectacular to play. Those eternally flickering sprites mixed with jarring blank screen transitions would never make it outside of Japan, so for a large swath of the world Mario would remain constrained to a gray plastic cartridge for years to come.

There are no shortage of ways to play Super Mario Bros. these days. Emulation in all of its various official and unofficial forms has taken care of that. Virtually everything with a processor more capable than the NES’s 6502 can play host to the Mushroom Kingdom, however, machines more contemporary with the NES still lacked access to the iconic title.

Enter the 2019 port of Super Mario Bros. for the Commodore 64 by [ZeroPaige]. A culmination of seven years work to port the game onto one of the most prolific computers of the eighties was a clear feat of brilliance and an amazing bit of programming that would have taken 1986 by storm. No pale imitation, this was Mario on the C64. Despite all of the nuance in recreating the jump-and-run model of the original paired with enveloping all eight sound channels of a dual SID chip setup, Nintendo saw fit to stifle the proliferation of this incredible 170 kB of software because they claim it infringes on their copyright.

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2019 Cornell Cup Winners Include Autonomous Boat, Flapping UAV, And Leaping Rover

For college-aged engineers and designers, finding a problem they’re truly passionate about early on could very well set the trajectory for an entire career. This is precisely the goal of the Cornell Cup, a competition that tasks applicants with solving a real-world problem in a unique and interesting way. From what we saw this is definitely working, as teams showed up with ornithopter-based quadcopters, robotic dinghies, forest fire sniffers, and high-jumping rovers.

With such an open ended approach, individual entries have a tendency to vary wildly, running the gamut from autonomous vehicles to assistive technology. No team feels pressured to pursue a project they aren’t truly invested in, and everyone’s the better for it.

Given such lofty goals, Hackaday was proud to sponsor the 2019 Cornell Cup. Especially as it so closely aligns with the product design focus of this year’s Hackaday Prize. Designing something which solves a real-world problem is definitely part of the formula when the goal is to reach large scale production. And after seeing the entries first-hand during the Finals at Kennedy Space Center, we think every one of them would be a fantastic entry into the Hackaday Prize.

I don’t envy the judges who ultimately had to narrow it down to just a few teams to take home their share of the nearly $20,000 awarded. Join me after the break for a closer look at the projects that ended up coming out on top.

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How Art Became Science In Machining

Machining is one of those fascinating fields that bridges the pre-scientific and scientific eras. As such, it has gone from a discipline full of home-spun acquired wisdom and crusty old superstitions to one of rigorously analyzed physics and crusty old superstitions.

The earliest machinists figured out most of what you need to know just by jamming a tool bit into spinning stock and seeing what happens. Change a few things, and see what happens next. There is a kind of informal experimentation taking place here. People are gradually controlling for variables and getting better at the craft as they learn what seems to affect what. However, the difference between fumbling around and actually knowing something is controlling for one’s own biases in a reproducible and falsifiable way. It’s the only way to know for sure what is true, and we call this “science”. It also means being willing to let go of ideas you had because the double-blinded evidence clearly says they are wrong.

That last part is where human nature lets us down the most. We really want to believe things that confirm our preconceived notions about the world, justify our emotions, or make us feel better. The funny thing about science, though, is that it doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. So go get your kids vaccinated, and up your machining game with scientific precision. Let’s take a look.

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