Books You Should Read: The Cuckoo’s Egg

The mid-1980s were a time of drastic change. In the United States, the Reagan era was winding down, the Cold War was heating up, and the IBM PC was the newest of newnesses. The comparatively few wires stitching together the larger university research centers around the world pulsed with a new heartbeat — the Internet Protocol (IP) — and while the World Wide Web was still a decade or so away, The Internet was a real place for a growing number of computer-savvy explorers and adventurers, ready to set sail on the virtual sea to explore and exploit this new frontier.

In 1986, having recently lost his research grant, astronomer Clifford Stoll was made a computer system admin with the wave of a hand by the management of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s physics department. Commanded to go forth and administer, Stoll dove into what appeared to be a simple task for his first day on the job: investigating a 75-cent error in the computer account time charges. Little did he know that this six-bit overcharge would take over his life for the next six months and have this self-proclaimed Berkeley hippie rubbing shoulders with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the German Bundeskriminalamt, all in pursuit of the source: a nest of black-hat hackers and a tangled web of international espionage.

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Retrotechtacular: Weather Station Kurt

Sometimes when researching one Hackaday story we as writers stumble upon the one train of thought that leads to another. So it was with a recent look at an unmanned weather station buoy from the 1960s, which took us on a link to a much earlier automated weather station.

The restored Kurt in the Canadian National War Museum.
The restored Kurt in the Canadian National War Museum.

Weather Station Kurt was the only successful installation among a bold attempt by the German military during the Second World War to gain automated real-time meteorological data from the Western side of the Atlantic. Behind that simple sentence hides an extremely impressive technical and military achievement for its day. This was the only land-based armed incursion onto the North American continent by the German military during the entire war. Surrounded as it was though by secrecy, and taking place without conflict in an extremely remote part of Northern Labrador, it passed unnoticed by the Canadian authorities and was soon forgotten as an unimportant footnote in the wider conflagration.

Kurt took the form of a series of canisters containing a large quantity of nickel-cadmium batteries, meteorological instruments, a telemetry system, and a 150W high frequency transmitter. In addition there was a mast carrying wind speed and direction instruments, and the transmitting antenna. In use it was to have provided vital advance warning of weather fronts from the Western Atlantic as they proceeded towards the European theatre of war, the establishment of a manned station on enemy territory being too hazardous.

A small number of these automated weather stations were constructed by Siemens in 1943, and it was one of them which was dispatched in the U-boat U537 for installation on the remote Atlantic coast of what is now part of modern-day Canada. In late October 1943 they succeeded in that task after a hazardous trans-Atlantic voyage, leaving the station bearing the markings of the non-existent “Canadian Meteor Service” in an attempt to deceive anybody who might chance upon it. In the event it was not until 1977 that it was spotted by a geologist, and in 1981 it was retrieved and taken to the Canadian War Museum.

There is frustratingly little information to be found on the exact workings on the telemetry system, save that it made a transmission every few hours on 3940kHz. A Google Books result mentions that the transmission was encoded in Morse code using the enigmatic Graw’s Diaphragm, a “sophisticated contact drum” named after a Dr. [Graw], from Berlin. It’s a forgotten piece of technology that defies our Google-fu in 2017, but it must in effect have been something of a mechanical analogue-to-digital converter.

Should you happen to be visiting the Canadian capital, you can see Kurt on display in the Canadian War Museum. It appears to have been extensively restored from the rusty state it appears in the photograph taken during its retrieval, it would be interesting to know whether anything remains of the Graw’s Diaphragm. Do any readers know how this part of the station worked? Please let us know in the comments.

Weather station Kurt retrieval image, Canadian National Archives. (Public domain).

Weather station Kurt in museum image, SimonP (Public domain).

Friday Hack Chat: Energy Harvesting

Think about an Internet-connected device that never needs charging, never plugs into an outlet, and will never run out of power. With just a small solar cell, an Internet of Thing module can run for decades. This is the promise of energy harvesting, and it opens the doors to a lot of interesting questions.

Joining us for this week’s Hack Chat will be [John Tillema], CTO and co-founder of TWTG. They’re working on removing batteries completely from the IoT equation. They have a small device that operates on just 200 lux — the same amount of light that can be found on a desktop. That’s a device that can connect to the Internet without batteries, wall warts, or the black magic wizardry of RF harvesting. How do you design a device that will run for a century? Are caps even rated for that? Are you really going to download firmware updates several decades down the line?

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’ll be discussing what energy harvesting actually is, what TWTG’s ‘light energy’ technology is all about, and the capabilities of this technology. Going further, we’ll be discussing how to design a circuit for low-power usage, how to select components that will last for decades, and how to measure and test the entire system so it lives up to the promise of being always on, forever, without needing a new battery.

This is a community Hack Chat, so of course we’ll be taking questions from the community. If you have a question, add it to the discussion sheet

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This Hack Chat will be going down noon, Pacific time on Friday, October 20th. Is it always five o’clock somewhere? Yes, so here’s a time zone converter!

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Active Discussion About Passive Components

People talk about active and passive components like they are two distinct classes of electronic parts. When sourcing components on a BOM, you have the passives, which are the little things that are cheaper than a dime a dozen, and then the rest that make up the bulk of the cost. Diodes and transistors definitely fall into the cheap little things category, but aren’t necessarily passive components, so what IS the difference?

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Hackaday Links: October 15, 2017

For the last few months we’ve been running The Hackaday Prize, a challenge for you to build the best bit of hardware. Right now — I mean right now — you should be finishing up your project, crossing your t’s and dotting your lowercase j’s. The last challenge in the Prize ends tomorrow. After that, we’re going to pick 20 finalists for the Anything Goes challenge, then send the finalists off to our fantastic team of judges. Time to get to work! Make sure your project meets all the requirements!

It’s been a few weeks, so it’s time to start talking about Star Trek. I’m paying ten dollars a month to watch Star Trek: Discovery. I was going to pay that anyway, but I think this might actually be worth it. Highlights include Cardassian voles and Gorn skeletons. Also on the Star Trek front is The Orville, [Seth MacFarlane]’s TNG-inspired show. The Orville has far surpassed my expectations and is more Star Trek than Discovery. Leave your thoughts below.

It’s a new edition of Project Binky! Two blokes are spending years stuffing a 4WD Celica into a Mini. It’s the must-watch YouTube series of the decade.

AstroPrint now has an app. If you’re managing a 3D printer remotely and you’re not using Octoprint, you’re probably using AstroPrint. Now it’s in app format.

Have fifty bucks and want to blow it on something cool? A company is selling used LED display tiles on eBay. You get a case of ten for fifty bucks. Will you be able to drive them? Who knows and who cares? It’s fifty bucks for massive blinkies.

[Peter] is building an ultralight in his basement. For this YouTube update, he’s making the wings.

Oh it’s deer season, so here’s how you make deer jerky.

If you’re messing around with Z-Wave modules and Raspberry Pis, there’s a contest for you. The grand prize is an all-expense paid trip to CES2018 in Las Vegas. Why anyone would be enthusiastic about a trip to CES is beyond me, but the Excalibur arcade has Crazy Taxi, so that’s cool.

Go is the language all the cool kids are using. GoCV gives Go programmers access to OpenCV.

Ask Hackaday: What Tools Do You Reach For First?

Let’s face it, in your workshop there are convenient tools, and there are quality tools, but so often they aren’t both. Think back to the tools you reach for first. Very often for me, speed and convenience win out. I don’t want to look too hard for that drill or saw, and want them to work as expected when I reach for them. At the same time, there are some tools that simply must be stored away, and can’t perch on my workbench forever or sit on a shelf.

It really is a balancing act sometimes. I don’t have a sure fire formula for when to break out the expensive tools, and what jobs are easy with the less expensive. I’ll lay out some of my most-often utilized tools in my arsenal, then I want to hear from you on your own faves.

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Retrotechtacular: Radio to Listen to When you Duck and Cover

CONELRAD may sound like the name of a fictional android, but it is actually an acronym for control of electronic radiation. This was a system put in place by the United States at the height of the cold war (from 1951 to 1963) with two purposes: One was to disseminate civil defense information to the population and, also, to eliminate radio signals as homing beacons for enemy pilots.

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