Retrotechtacular: Olivetti Net3

If you sign up for a European hacker camp such as CCC Camp in Germany or SHA Camp in the Netherlands, you’ll see among the items recommended to take with you, a DECT handset. DECT, or Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications, refers to the set of standards that lie behind the digital cordless telephones that are ubiquitous across Europe and some countries elsewhere in the world. These standards cover more than just the simple two-way telephone calls through a base station that most Europeans use them for though, they define a fully functional multi-cell 3G phone and data networking system. This means that an event like SHA Camp can run its own digital phone network without having to implement cell towers.

Olivetti promotional net3 image
Olivetti promotional Net3 image

Reading the history of DECT, there is the interesting snippet that the first DECT product on the market in 1993 was not a telephone but a networking device, and incidentally the first wireless LAN product on the European market. Olivetti’s Net3 provided 512kB/s wireless networking to a base station with Ethernet or Token Ring interfaces for connection to a LAN. In its original form it was an internal card for a desktop PC coupled to a bulky external box containing radio circuitry and antenna, but its later incarnations included a PCMCIA card with a much smaller antenna box. The half-megabit speed seems tiny by today’s standards, but in the pre-multimedia world of 1993 would have been perfectly adequate for a Novell Netware fileserver and an HP Laserjet 4.

Heinz Wolff swallows a condom in another Olivetti promotional picture.
[Heinz Wolff] swallows a condom in another Olivetti promotional image.

Mystery Technology

So DECT is an interesting technology that can do more than just a simple cordless phone, and its first product was unexpectedly somewhat groundbreaking. It then becomes even more interesting to find that Net3 has left very little evidence of itself to find that can be found on the Web, and learning more about it requires a little detective work.

The Wikipedia entry has the bare bones, but it speaks volumes about the obscure nature of the product that the encyclopedia’s only picture of it is a tiny thumbnail-sized promotional image of the PCMCIA variant in a chunky mid-1990s laptop. A further search reveals a 1993 British Olivetti staff newsletter (PDF) carrying another promotional image of the desktop Net3 device featuring the then-well-known TV personality and academic [Heinz Wolff] demonstrating the technology bizarrely by swallowing a DECT medical instrumentation transponder wrapped in a condom. Some press releases remain in the fossilized remnants of the 1990s internet, and a Net3 design team member’s LinkedIn page led us to the patent covering the system, but that’s pretty much it. We can’t even find a high enough resolution image of a Net3 card for our featured image slot.

Wireless Things Before Their Time

It’s obvious that Net3 and DECT networking as a high-end wireless LAN before a need for wireless LANs existed never made it, but what is perhaps more interesting is that it seems to have left no legacy for other more mundane applications. We are in the midst of an explosion of hype around the Internet of Things and it seems new short-range wireless networking technologies appear almost daily, yet the world seems to have overlooked this robust, low power, and mature wireless network with its own dedicated frequency allocation that many of us already have in our homes. It seems particularly surprising that among the many DECT base stations on sale at your local consumer electronics store there are none with an Internet connection, and there is no market for IoT devices that use DECT as their backhaul.

In the open-source community there has been some work on DECT. The OsmocomDECT project for example provides a DECT software stack, and deDECTed.org states an aim to “better understand DECT and its security and to create an Open Source implementation of the DECT standard”. But there seems to have been very little hardware work in our community on the standard, for example there are no DECT-specific projects on Hackaday.io.

Net3 then was a product before its time, a herald of what was to come, from that twilight period when the Web was definitely a thing but had yet to become the world’s universal information repository. Public wireless networking was still several years in the future, so there was no imperative for road warriors to equip themselves with a Net3 card or for computer manufacturers — not even Olivetti themselves! — to incorporate the technology. It thus didn’t take the world by storm, and unusually for such a ground-breaking computer product there remains little legacy for it beyond a rarely-used feature of the protocol Europeans use for their cordless phones.

Did you have a Net3 card? Do you still have one? Let us know in the comments.

Fail of the Week: How Not to Repair a MagSafe Charging Cable

So I made an awful, kludgey, “there I fixed it” level repair, and I need to come clean. This is really a case of an ill-advised ground.

My thirteen-year-old daughter asked for help repairing her Macbook charging cable. Macbook chargers really aren’t meant to flex around a lot, and if you’re the kind of person who uses the laptop on, well, the lap, with the charger in, it’s gonna flex. Sooner or later the insulation around the plug housing, where it plugs into the laptop, cracks and the strands of wire can be seen. This type of cable consists of an insulated lead wire surrounded by a stranded ground wire. The problem with this configuration is that the stranded ground also gets flexed until it breaks, one strand at a time, until the cable stops working.

So it was with my daughter’s Macbook cable. I didn’t have the money to buy her a new one, and I figured we could repair the break. We busted out her WLC100 and sat down to get our solder on. She started off working while I supervised, then I took over later on.

We began by using an Xacto to cut away enough insulation to expose about half an inch of the stranded wire. We pulled the wire away from the insulated lead wire and twisted it into a single stranded wire parallel to the lead wire. Grabbing for the iron, we tinned the ground and soldered a length of 22-gauge solid wire to it. The way the ground connects to the plug is by passing through a conductive ring. My idea was to solder the other end of the 22-gauge wire to the metal ring. Here’s where things started to go wrong. This is, by the way, the part where I took over so you can blame me and not my kid.

My daughter was using the WLC100’s default tip. I should have grabbed my own iron, a WES51, or at least swapped in its ninja-sharp tip. The WLC100’s default tip is a big fat wedge and it was too big to put next to the plug, and the conductive ring quickly got covered in melted plastic and I couldn’t solder anything to it. Worse, I had accidentally burned through the insulation protecting the lead wire, and had to cover it in electrical tape.

iFixit cracked it open and started from scratch.

What now? We were left with not being able to use the cable at all. One option was to wait until the goop had cooled and burnish it clean with a Dremel, then attempt to re-solder using an appropriate tip. However, that sounded like a lot of work. The solid wire was still securely soldered to the ground, so instead of trying to attach it to the cable side of the plug, I could connect it to the computer side, by shoving it into the socket alongside the plug. The business end of the plug has a big silver ground surrounding small gold positive leads, and touching the ground with the wire should work just fine, right?

It did. The computer charged up as happy as you’d like. And yet, I was left with the distinct feeling the solution could have been, I don’t know, cleaner. Certainly, the iFixit route shown here comes out much cleaner by sliding off the housing, clipping the damaged wire, and beginning anew. Clean as this is, it’s just waiting to happen the same way again.

So, brethren and sistren, lay on with brickbats and tell what I did wrong. What approaches have you used to fix cables broken where they meet the plug housing, and how do you improve the situation for the future?

The Best Stereo Valve Amp In The World

There are few greater follies in the world of electronics than that of an electronic engineering student who has just discovered the world of hi-fi audio. I was once that electronic engineering student and here follows a tale of one of my follies. One that incidentally taught me a lot about my craft, and I am thankful to say at least did not cost me much money.

Construction more suited to 1962 than 1992.
Construction more suited to 1962 than 1992.

It must have been some time in the winter of 1991/92, and being immersed in student radio and sound-and-light I was party to an intense hi-fi arms race among the similarly afflicted. Some of my friends had rich parents or jobs on the side and could thus afford shiny amplifiers and the like, but I had neither of those and an elderly Mini to support. My only option therefore was to get creative and build my own. And since the ultimate object of audio desire a quarter century ago was a valve (tube) amp, that was what I decided to tackle.

Nowadays, building a valve amp is a surprisingly straightforward process, as there are many online suppliers who will sell you a kit of parts from the other side of the world. Transformer manufacturers produce readily available products for your HT supply and your audio output matching, so to a certain extent your choice of amp is simply a case of picking your preferred circuit and assembling it. Back then however the world of electronics had extricated itself from the world of valves a couple of decades earlier, so getting your hands on the components was something of a challenge. I cut out the power supply by using a scrap Dymar Electronics instrument enclosure which had built-in HT and heater rails ready to go, but the choice of transformers and high-voltage capacitors was something of a challenge.

Pulling the amplifier out of storage in 2017, I’m going in blind. I remember roughly what I did, but the details have been obscured by decades of other concerns. So in an odd meeting with my barely-adult self, it’s time to take a look at what I made. Where did I get it right, and just how badly did I get it wrong?

Continue reading “The Best Stereo Valve Amp In The World”

Friday Hack Chat: Graphical Programming Languages with Boian Mitov

There is a long history of Visual or Graphical Programming Languages, and most of them make more sense than the name of Microsoft’s Visual Basic, C#, and Visual Studio IDE. Some people don’t like to code, and for them, graphical programming languages replace semicolons and brackets with easy-to-understand boxes and wires.

This Friday, we’re going to be talking about graphical programming languages with [Boian Mitov]. He’s a software developer, founder of Mitov Software, and the creator of Visuino, a graphical programming language for the embedded domain. Everything from the Arduino to Teensy, ESP8266, ESP32, the chipKIT, and Maple Mini are supported with this IDE. It’s a simple drag-and-drop way of programming microcontrollers that Scratches an itch (see what I did there?) for an easy way to introduce non-programmers to the embedded world and also provides a faster way to build custom applications.

When it comes to graphical programming languages, we can’t find a better Hack Chat guest than [Boian]. He’s the author of the OpenWire dataflow processing technology — another graphical programming language –, the IGDI+ library, VideoLab, SignalLab, AudioLab, PlotLab, InstrumentLab, and author of VCL for Visual C++. He’s a regular contributor to Blaise Pascal Magazine, too.

During this Hack Chat, we’ll be discussing what makes Visual Programming worth it, how and why it works, when it doesn’t and how to develop a graphical programming language. Visuino will be of special interest, And I’m sure someone will work in a, ‘what’s happening with Max/MSP under Ableton’ question. If you have a question for [Boian], here’s a question sheet to guide the discussion.

Here’s How To Take Part:

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This Hack Chat will take place at noon Pacific time on Friday, August 11th. Here’s a time and date converter!

Log into Hackaday.io, visit that page, and look for the ‘Join this Project’ Button. Once you’re part of the project, the button will change to ‘Team Messaging’, which takes you directly to the Hack Chat.

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

Superconference Talk Deadline Extended One Week

Our Call for Proposals for the Hackaday Superconference was scheduled to close yesterday. We are extending that deadline by one week so get your proposal for a talk or a workshop in now.

We want to leave no stone unturned and are intimately familiar with the procrastination habits of busy hackers like you. Now there is no excuse. Put together your pitch now and send it our way. This is the ultimate hardware conference and we’re topics covering Engineering Heroics (how you managed to pull it together to get across the finish line), Prototyping, Research (building custom rigs for University/private industry/giggles), Product Development, Full-Stack Fabrication, and anything else you think fits the vibe of Hackaday.

Accepted talks receive free admission and access to speaker events. There are travel stipends available for exemplary proposals. We also record talks for publication after the Superconference so this is a chance to be famous on Hackaday.

It’s likely that you have an interesting story to tell. Time to get up there and tell it!


The Hackaday SuperConference is November 11-12, 2017 in Pasadena California. There are still tickets available but what remains will sell out quickly when the slate of speakers in announced. Don’t miss out, grab your ticket now.

Get Your Eclipse Glasses Emblazoned with Hackaday

We’re getting ready to stare at the Sun for a few hours when a total solar eclipse is visible across the United States on August 21st. You could protect your eyes with some welding goggles, but why not wear a pair of Hackaday eclipse glasses instead?

UPDATE: And They’re Gone. We had a huge response to this with over 200 event pages made in just a few hours (and more coming since then; thank you, you’re awesome!). We had 500 glasses to give away and are sending them out in envelopes of 4. We would still love it if you made an event page but unfortunately we’ve run out of glasses to send out.

Let us know where you’ll be watching the eclipse and we’ll mail you some custom-printed Hackaday eclipse glasses (sorry, they’re all gone).  Head over to the Eclipse Meetups page, click the “Host a Meetup” button and tell us where you’ll be. We’ll add you to the map and contact you for the shipping address and the number of glasses you’ll need.

Whether you want others to join you or not is your choice, but we want to see a map full of pins where the Hackaday community is taking part in this momentous event.

As you can see, there are already a number of meetups watch the partial eclipse and that’s fine with us. No matter where you are, if you can see the eclipse we’re ready to send you some glasses. Hurry up though, they need to arrive before Monday!

Hackaday Links: August 13, 2017

We found the most boring man on the Internet! HTTP Status Code 418 — “I’m a teapot” — was introduced as an April Fools Joke in 1998. Everyone had a good laugh, and some frameworks even implemented it. Now, the most boring man on the Internet and chairman of the IETF HTTP working group is trying to get 418 removed from Node and Go. There is an argument to removing code 418 from pieces of software — it gums up the works, and given only 100 code points for a client error, with 30 of them already used, we don’t really have space for a joke. There’s a solution, though: someone has submitted a request to register 418 as ‘I’m a teapot’.

The Travelling Hacker box is a migratory box of random electronic junk. The box has traveled across the United States several times, and earlier this year it started across Canada — from Vancouver to St. Johns — to begin an International journey. The box is now missing, and I’m out. I’m turning this one over to the community. There are now several rogue boxes traveling the world, the first of which was sent from [Sophi] to [jlbrian7] and is now in Latvia with [Arsenijs]. The idea of the Travelling Hacker Box is now up to you — organize your own, and share random electronic crap.

Bluetooth 5 is here, or at least the spec is. It has longer range, more bandwidth, and advertising extensions.

Guess what’s on the review desk? The Monoprice Mini Delta! If you have any questions you’d like answered about this tiny, very inexpensive printer, put them in the comments. I only have some first impressions, but so far, it looks like extending the rails (to make a taller printer) is more difficult than it’s worth. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but with the effort required, I could just print another printer.

Interested in PCB art? [Drew] found someone doing halftone art with PCBs. This is a step up from nickels.

Indiana University is getting rid of some very, very cool stuff in a government auction. This device is listed as a ‘gantry’, but that’s certainly not what it is. There have been suggestions that these devices are a flight sim, but that doesn’t sit quite right either. It’s several thousand pounds of metal, with the minimum bid of $2.00 at the time of this writing. Any guesses on what this actually is?