EF50: the Tube that Changed Everything

From today’s perspective, vacuum tubes are pretty low tech. But for a while they were the pinnacle of high tech, and heavy research followed the promise shown by early vacuum tubes in transmission and computing. Indeed, as time progressed, tubes became very sophisticated and difficult to manufacture. After all, they were as ubiquitous as ICs are today, so it is hardly surprising that they got a lot of R&D.

Prior to 1938, for example, tubes were built as if they were light bulbs. As the demands on them grew more sophisticated, the traditional light bulb design wasn’t sufficient. For one, the wire leads’ parasitic inductance and capacitance would limit the use of the tube in high-frequency applications. Even the time it took electrons to get from one part of the tube to another was a bottleneck.

There were several attempts to speed tubes up, including RCA’s acorn tubes, lighthouse tubes, and Telefunken’s Stahlröhre designs. These generally tried to keep leads short and tubes small. The Philips company started attacking the problem in 1934 because they were anticipating demand for television receivers that would operate at higher frequencies.

Dr. Hans Jonker was the primary developer of the proposed solution and published his design in an internal technical note describing an all-glass tube that was easier to manufacture than other solutions. Now all they needed was an actual application. While they initially thought the killer app would be television, the E50 would end up helping the Allies win the war.

Continue reading “EF50: the Tube that Changed Everything”

Chris Gammell Talks Circuit Toolboxes

Chris Gammell wants to know: What’s in your circuit toolbox?

Personally, mine is somewhat understocked. I do know that in one of my journals, probably from back in the 1980s, I scribbled down a schematic of a voltage multiplier I had just built, with the classic diode and capacitor ladder topology. I probably fed it from a small bell transformer, and I might have gotten a hundred volts or so out of it. I was so proud at the time that I wrote it down for posterity with the note, “I made this today!”

I think the whole point of Chris’ 2018 Hackaday Superconference talk is precisely what I was trying to get at when I made my “discovery” — we all have circuits that just work for us, and the more you have, the better. Most readers will recognize Chris from such venues as The Amp Hour, a weekly podcast he hosts with Dave Jones, and his KiCad tutorial videos. Chris has been in electrical engineering for nearly twenty years now, and he’s picked up a collection of go-to circuits that keep showing up in his designs and making life easier, which he graciously shared with the crowd.

As Chris points out, it’s the little circuits that can make the difference. Slide after slide of his talk had schematics with no more than a handful of components in them, covering applications from dead-simple LED power indicators and switch debouncing to IO expansion using a 74HC595. And as any sensible engineer might, Chris’ toolbox includes a good selection of power protection circuits, everything from polarity reversal protection with a MOSFET and a zener to a neat little high-side driver shutoff using a differential amp and an optoisolator.

My favorite part of the talk was the “Codeless” section — things you can do with discrete components that make microcontroller circuits better. We see the “You could have used a 555!” comments from readers all the time, and Chris agrees, at least to a point. He aptly notes that microcontrollers can wake up with their IO pins in unknown states, and offered several circuits to keep the potential for mischief at bay, such as Schmitt trigger power-on reset or the simple addition of a pull-down resistor to default a MOSFET to a safe state. There’s a lot that code can accomplish, but adding just a few parts can make a circuit much safer and useful.

Chris acknowledges that in any audience, everyone is always at different places with regard to their hardware learning curve, so what’s old hat to someone might be a fresh revelation to another. Still, everything is new to someone at some point, and that’s often the best time to write it down. That’s what I did all those years ago with that voltage multiplier, and it never left me as a result. It’s good advice, and if you haven’t started building your own circuit toolbox, now’s the time.

Continue reading “Chris Gammell Talks Circuit Toolboxes”

Review: IchigoJam Single Board Computer

It won’t replace your beloved Rasbperry Pi, but it’s worth saying hello to this “Strawberry Jam”, straight out of Japan. It’s an equally delicious way to get people interested in the basics of coding.

My hackerspace friend Jim is a lucky bloke, for last year he was able to take an extended holiday through a succession of East Asian countries. We were treated to online pictures of beautiful scenery and beaches, city lights, and of course exciting tech destinations such as hardware markets and hackerspaces. On his return he tossed a package on the table in front of me and said “Jenny, you might like to take a look at that, these are big in Japan!” Inside was an electronic kit and a few pieces of documentation, with Japanese text.

A Different Way To Get Kids Coding

The contents of the IchigoJam kit.
The contents of the IchigoJam kit.

What he’d given me was an IchigoJam (Best translation I’ve been given is “Strawberry Jam”), a small single-board computer aimed at young people. In the style of the 8-bit machines of the 1980s, it runs a comprehensive BASIC interpreter and plugs into a TV set, though it brings itself up-to-date with a USB-A socket for a keyboard. At its heart is an NXP LPC1114F102 ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller with 32KB of Flash and 4KB of SRAM, and though the board Jim passed to me has a surface-mount example it’s clear that it was also designed for the now-obsolete DIP variant of the chip. If you were to think of this as an odd hybrid of a BASIC Stamp, a Raspberry Pi, and one of the smaller MBED boards, you probably wouldn’t be too far from the mark. What follows is my impression of it based on the information at hand. Sadly the IchigoJam website and forum seems only available to Japanese viewers and returns an error code from my European perspective.

Continue reading “Review: IchigoJam Single Board Computer”

Open-Source Biology and Biohacking Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the open-source biology and biohacking Hack Chat!

Justin Atkin‘s name might not ring a bell, but you’ve probably seen his popular YouTube channel The Thought Emporium, devoted to regular doses of open source science. Justin’s interests span a wide range, literally from the heavens above to the microscopic world.

His current interest is to genetically modify yeast to produce spider silk, and to perhaps even use the yeast for brewing beer. He and the Thought Emporium team have been busy building out a complete DIY biology lab to support the effort, and have been conducting a variety of test experiments along the way.

Please join us for this Hack Chat, in which we’ll cover:

  • The how’s and why’s of yeast genetic engineering;
  • What it takes to set up an effective biology lab from scratch;
  • An update on the current status of the spider-silk yeast project; and
  • Where the open-source biology field is, and where it’s going.

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Open-Source Biology and Biohacking Hack Chat event page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 13, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy 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 Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Automate the Freight: Amazon Tackles the Last Mile Problem On Wheels

We’ve been occasionally exploring examples of what could be the killer application for self-driving vehicles: autonomous freight deliveries, both long-haul and local, as well as some special use cases. Some, like UAV delivery of blood and medical supplies in Kenya, have taken off and are becoming both profitable and potentially life-saving. Others, like driverless long-haul trucking, made an initial splash but appear to have gone quiet since then. This is to be expected, as the marketplace picks winners and losers in a neverending quest to maximize return on investment. But the whole field seems to have gotten a bit sleepy lately, with no big news of note for quite a while.

That changed last week with Amazon’s announcement of Scout, their autonomous delivery vehicle. Announced first on Amazon’s blog and later picked up by the popular and tech press who repeated the Amazon material almost verbatim, Scout appears at first glance to be a serious attempt by Amazon to own the “last mile” of delivery – the local routes that are currently plied by the likes of UPS, FedEx, and various postal services. Or is it?

Continue reading “Automate the Freight: Amazon Tackles the Last Mile Problem On Wheels”

New Part Day: Mapping With RealSense Cameras For $200

Robot cars, DIY or otherwise, are hot right now. To do this right, you’re going to need cameras, LIDAR, or some other way of sensing the the world. Intel is again getting into the fray with a RealSense tracking camera for simultaneous localization and mapping for robotics, drone, and augmented reality needs.

The tech specs for the Intel RealSense T265 are impressive for small robotics uses. It includes 6DoF tracking gathered by two cameras, each with a 170° FoV. Connection to a computer is through USB 2.0 or 3.0. If you want to get an idea of how seriously Intel is taking the ‘robotics, and other power- and weight-limited platforms’ market, here’s a sample of what is on the one-page spec sheet: the T265 only uses 1.5 Watts, weighs 55 grams, and is 108 x 25 x 13 mm. There are also two M3 taps spaced 50mm apart on the back, which is an astonishing spec to publish on the product landing page. Simply the fact that the location and dimensions of the mounting holes is so prominent gives you an idea of how seriously Intel is taking robotics and prototyping applications.

This new SLAM camera complements Intel’s other tracking camera offerings, including those we’ve seen at Maker Faires past. It’s a competitor to the new crop of solid state LIDAR modules we’ve seen pop up recently. It’s not a Kinect, but we’re years past using a first-gen Kinect for robotics applications. Now, everything is custom chips and SLAM processing, and the RealSense T265 is the smallest platform to do that now.

Hackaday Links: February 10, 2019

Last month was NAMM, the National Association of Musical Something that begins with ‘M’, which means we’re synthed and guitarded out for the year. The synth news? Behringer are making cheap reproductions and clones of vintage gear. There’s something you need to know about vintage gear: more than half of everything produced today has a Roland 808 or 909 drum machine (or sample), a 303 bass synth, or a 101 mono synth in it. Put an 808, 909, 303, and 101 on the same table, connected to a mixer, and you can make most of the electronic music from the ’80s and ’90s. And Behringer is cloning these synths. Neat times. But there’s a problem: Roland is trademarking these drum machines and synths, with trademark filings in the US and Germany. These are ‘trade dress’, or basically the beautiful red, orange, yellow, and white buttons of the 808 and the digital cyber silver plastic aesthetic of the 303, but there you go. It’s round one in the Roland v. Behringer match, may the first person to give me an 808, 909, 303, and 101 for a thousand dollars win.

Synths? Sure thing. Here’s a stash of New Old Stock 8580 SID chips, the ‘synth on a chip’ found in the Commodore 64. The price? $50. [ben] bought one of these, and the card that came with it said,  “We purchased these chips in 2006 and they’ve been stored in our climate-controlled storage area ever since. Even still, we found a handful of them that didn’t pass testing. Treat them with care!” Yes, a bunch of SID chips for sale is noteworthy, but at $50 a piece for 1980s technology, can someone explain why a chip fab isn’t cranking these things out? If there’s one ancient piece of silicon where the demand meets what it would cost to spin up the silicon line, the SID is it. Where are the modern reproductions?

Excited about making an electronic badge this year? Seeed is offering badge sponsorships for 2019, with an offer of a 5% discount on PCBA, and a 10% discount if you put the Seeed logo on the board. I might be a little biased, but Seeed is a place where you can just ask, “hey, you guys do clear soldermask?” and they find a way to do it.

The best way to tell if someone is rich isn’t by seeing if they have an i8 parked outside their mansion, or just a piece of junk with an M badge. It isn’t whether or not their filet mignon is wagyu or just Kobe, and it isn’t if they’re cruising the skies in a G650 or just puttering around in a Cessna Citation. No, the best way to tell if someone is rich is to notice their AirPods. Yes, Apple’s wireless headphones (which are actually pretty good!) are the best foundation of a class division these days. The best class signal since private railroad cars now has a problem: people are printing their own AirPods. [Brady32] over on Thingiverse has modeled AirPods, and now the design is being given away for free. The horror. Now anyone can print out their own little bits of white plastic, stick them in their ears, and tell the world, ‘I’m better than you. Don’t bother talking back, because I obviously can’t hear you.’

Raspberry Pi has a store! Yes, everyone’s favorite single board computer now has an ‘experimental space’ in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade. The Beeb is saying this store is ‘bucking the retail trend’, yes, but any retail trend doesn’t really apply here; brands have storefronts, and it’s not about revenue per square foot. Makerbot had a store, and it wasn’t about selling printers. Microsoft has stores. Sony built a mall to advertise the original PlayStation. While the Raspberry Pi brick and mortar store will probably never make any money, it is an indication the Raspberry Pi foundation has built a valuable brand worthy of celebration. Here’s some pics of the store itself.

Did you know Hackaday has a retro edition? It’s true! retro.hackaday.com is a lo-fi version of Hackaday without CSS or Javascript or any other cruft. It’s hand-written HTML (assembled by a script) of the first ten thousand or so Hackaday posts. The idea is that old computers could load the retro site, just to prove they could. [Matthias Koch] has an Atari PC3 — Atari’s PC compatible with an 8088 running at 8Mhz, 640k of RAM and a 20 MB hard drive — and got this thing to pull up the retro site. Good work!

What is the current state of 3D printing? What is the current state of 3D printing videos on YouTube? Oh boy we’re going to find out. [Potent Printables] did an ‘analysis’ of 3D printing videos published to YouTube, and found the category riddled with ‘clickbait’, without giving an operational definition of what ‘clickbait’ actually is, or how it’s different from any other content (because who would make a video that doesn’t have the purpose of attracting viewers) Anyway, there’s a problem with the YouTube algorithm, and 3D printing blogs are copying it, filling the entire hobby with disillusioned beginners, or something. After defining ‘The Most Viewed’ as not being a news or documentary footage (okay, that’s fair), having at least three printing videos, not clickbait, and gives the designer proper attribution, [Potent Printables] found a list filled with [Maker’s Muse], [3D Print Guy] and other channels who do 3D printing work, but don’t put 3D printing in the title. This is great; 3D printing isn’t a fascinating new technology that’s the first step towards Star Trek replicators; we’ve slid down the trough of disillusionment and now 3D printers are just tools. It’s great, and in 2018 things are as they should be.