Hardware hackers of a certain age likely got started with microcontrollers via the RCA 1802 — a relatively easy-to-use processor that was the subject of several excellent articles in Popular Electronics magazine back in the late 1970s. [Al’s Geek Lab] has an interview with [Hugh Anderson], who saw the articles and eventually designed the HUG1802, which may be the first microcontroller kit designed and sold in New Zealand.
The 1802 was very attractive at the time since it was inexpensive, static, didn’t require exotic voltages, and had a DMA system that allowed you to load software without complex ROMs. He initially marketed a kit unsuccessfully until an Australian company convinced him to create a proper PC board — the resulting kit was sold to about 100 customers.
The HUG1802 reminded us somewhat of the Quest Super Elf since it had a keypad, a cassette interface, and even a TV output. The 1802 had a DMA-enabled chip that made crude memory-mapped video output. The computer eventually morphed into the ETI 660, which they talk about at the end of the interview.
Like many of us, [Alan] says he got his start with electronics at a young age simply by taking things apart and trying to put them back together again. From there he got a job in a TV repair shop during high school, where he was able to hone his natural curiosity into a marketable skill. His career took him through several of tech companies, but he ultimately ended up in an engineering role at Tektronix, a position he’s held for nearly 20 years.
Despite continuing to stay on the cutting edge, it’s no surprise that he still has a certain attraction to the technology from his youth. But it’s more than simple nostalgia — he points out that vintage hardware is generally easier to service than modern gear. As many of his own videos show, there was something of a technological “sweet spot” around the mid-20th century to the 1980s or so; where you could expect to not only have schematics available, but the design and construction of hardware was such that you could still reason your way through it using basic troubleshooting principles.
As for being a ham, [Alan] thinks it’s a great way for get an even deeper understanding of technology. He says that if you’re interested in learning how electronics work, repairing and upgrading old radio hardware is a great way to flex your mental muscles. But at the same time, being a ham isn’t limited to dusting off war-surplus radios that were built before you were born. There’s plenty of ways to mix in modern technology, from digital modes to receiving signals from satellites using a software-defined radio.
While roaming the halls of Vintage Computer Festival East 2023, we ran into [Adrian Black], who was eager to talk about the importance of classic computing in his own life and how his experience hosting the YouTube channel Adrian’s Digital Basement has impacted him these last few years.
On his channel, [Adrian] spends most of his time repairing vintage systems or exploring little-known aspects of hardware from the early days of desktop computing. His exploits have brought him to the pages of Hackaday in the past, most recently just last month, when we covered his work to add an RGB interface to a mid-1990s Sony Trinitron CRT display. But in talking to him, you quickly realize he’d be working on the very same projects whether the camera was rolling or not. He’s not out to game the YouTube algorithm; he’s just having a good time in the basement poking around with the sort of old gear that at one time would have been completely out of reach.
In fact, it’s this sense of nostalgia that [Adrian] believes is responsible not just for the growing popularity of his channel but for the retrocomputing community as a whole. For many who grew up with these machines, they were far too expensive or complex to ever crack open (literally and figuratively) when they were new. Now, decades later, people like himself finally find themselves able to buy and enjoy these once-coveted objects.
Critically, they now also have the skills to do them justice, not to mention access to a worldwide community of like-minded folks who are still producing hardware and software that can be used with these classic machines. For those of a certain age, it’s literally a dream come true.
Do you know core memory? Our prehistoric predecessors would store data in the magnetic fields of ferrite rings, reading out the ones and zeroes by setting the magnetic field and detecting if a small current is induced in a sense wire, indicating that the bit flipped, or not detecting the current, in which case it didn’t. Core memory is non-volatile, rad hard, and involved a tremendous amount of wire weaving to fabricate. And it’s pretty cool.
[Andy Geppert] wants to get you hands-on with this anachronistic memory, and builds kits to demo how it works. [Tom Nardi] and [Bil Herd] caught up with him at the Vintage Computer Festival East last weekend, and got him to demo his Core64 project for them. (Video, embedded below.)
The design of Core64 displays its state in lights at all times. And this means that you can write to it using either the onboard Pi Pico, for a blinky light show, or with a magnetic stylus, setting each bit’s magnetic state by hand. This turns it into a magnetic memory tablet and is a sweet demonstration of the principles that make it all work. Or, if you pulse the lines at just the right frequency, you can make the cores spin!
Watch [Andy] explaining it in our interview here, and stay tuned for more coming from VCF East 2023 soon.
Among the many facets of modern technology, few have evolved faster or more radically than the computer. In less than a century its very nature has changed significantly: today’s smartphones easily outperform desktop computers of the past, machines which themselves were thousands of times more powerful than the room-sized behemoths that ushered in the age of digital computing. The technology has developed so rapidly that an individual who’s now making their living developing iPhone applications could very well have started their career working with stacks of punch cards.
With things moving so quickly, it can be difficult to determine what’s worth holding onto from a historical perspective. Will last year’s Chromebook one day be a museum piece? What about those old Lotus 1-2-3 floppies you’ve got in the garage? Deciding what artifacts are worth preserving in such a fast moving field is just one of the challenges faced by Dag Spicer, the Senior Curator at the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, California. Dag stopped by the Hack Chat back in June of 2019 to talk about the role of the CHM and other institutions like it in storing and protecting computing history for future generations.
To answer that most pressing question, what’s worth saving from the landfill, Dag says the CHM often follows what they call the “Ten Year Rule” before making a decision. That is to say, at least a decade should have gone by before a decision can be made about a particular artifact. They reason that’s long enough for hindsight to determine if the piece in question made a lasting impression on the computing world or not. Note that such impression doesn’t always have to be positive; pieces that the CHM deem “Interesting Failures” also find their way into the collection, as well as hardware which became important due to patent litigation.
Of course, there are times when this rule is sidestepped. Dag points to the release of the iPod and iPhone as a prime example. It was clear that one way or another Apple’s bold gambit was going to get recorded in the annals of computing history, so these gadgets were fast-tracked into the collection. Looking back on this decision in 2022, it’s clear they made the right call. When asked in the Chat if Dag had any thoughts on contemporary hardware that could have similar impact on the computing world, he pointed to Artificial Intelligence accelerators like Google’s Tensor Processing Unit.
In addition to the hardware itself, the CHM also maintains a collection of ephemera that serves to capture some of the institutional memory of the era. Notebooks from the R&D labs of Fairchild Semiconductor, or handwritten documents from Intel luminary Andrew Grove bring a human touch to a collection of big iron and beige boxes. These primary sources are especially valuable for those looking to research early semiconductor or computer development, a task that several in the Chat said staff from the Computer History Museum had personally assisted them with.
Towards the end of the Chat, a user asks why organizations like the CHM go through the considerable expense of keeping all these relics in climate controlled storage when we have the ability to photograph them in high definition, produce schematics of their internals, and emulate their functionality on far more capable systems. While Dag admits that emulation is probably the way to go if you’re only worried about the software side of things, he believes that images and diagrams simply aren’t enough to capture the true essence of these machines.
Quoting the the words of early Digital Equipment Corporation engineer Gordon Bell, Dag says these computers are “beautiful sculptures” that “reflect the times of their creation” in a way that can’t easily be replicated. They represent not just the technological state-of-the-art but also the cultural milieu in which they were developed, with each and every design decision taking into account a wide array of variables ranging from contemporary aesthetics to material availability.
While 3D scans of a computer’s case and digital facsimiles of its internal components can serve to preserve some element of the engineering that went into these computers, they will never be able to capture the experience of seeing the real thing sitting in front of you. Any school child can tell you what the Mona Lisa looks like, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from waiting in line each year to see it at the Louvre.
The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.
You may not know the name [Richard Hamming], but you definitely use some of his work. While working for Bell Labs, he developed Hamming codes — the parent of a class of codes that detect, and sometimes correct, errors in everything from error-correcting memory to hard drives. He also worked on the Manhattan Project and was a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate school.
Turns out [Hamming] has an entire class from the 1990s on YouTube and if you are interested in coding theory or several other topics, you could do worse than watch some of them. However, those videos aren’t what attracted me to the lectures. As the last lecture of his course, [Hamming] used to give a talk called “You and Your Research” and you can see one of the times he delivered it in the video below. You might think that it won’t apply to you because you aren’t a professional academic or researcher, but don’t be too quick to judge.
Turns out, [Hamming’s] advice — even by his own admission — is pretty general purpose for your career or even your life. His premise: As far as we know, you have one life to live, so why shouldn’t it be a worthwhile one by your definition of worthwhile.
Along the way, he has an odd combination of personal philosophy, advice for approaching technical problems, and survival skills for working with others. If you are in the field, you’ll probably recognize at least some of the names he drops and you’ll find some of this technical advice useful. But even if you aren’t, you’ll come away with something. Some of it seems like common sense, but it is different, somehow, to hear it spoken out loud. For example:
If you don’t work on important problems, it’s not likely that you’ll do important work.
One piece of technical advice? Don’t waste time working on problems you have no way to attack. He points out that anti-gravity, time travel, and teleportation would be very lucrative. But why work on them when there appears to be no way to even remotely accomplish them today. Well, at least when he said that. There has been a little progress on a form of teleportation, but that wasn’t what he was talking about anyway.
While not a hack in the traditional sense, examining your life, career, and technical research to improve your own effectiveness is something to take seriously. We were hoping he would throw in a joke about error-correcting your career, but unless we blinked, no such luck.
Hamming’s work on block codes was followed about ten years later by the Reed-Solomon code which is found nearly everywhere now. Hamming is also associated with the term “hamming distance,” something we talked about when discussing Gray code.
As grand prize winner the FieldKit project was awarded a $125,000 cash prize, which Shah and Jacob say is transformative for a non-profit pursuing technology research and development. It seems the grant process has not evolved to embrace developing electronics, while opportunities for research projects have begun to involve recording large data sets in order to test a hypothesis. This is where FieldKit truly shines. Their vision is to provide a low-cost and extensible system that other researchers can use to collect data while making their own grant dollar go much further.