Passive Components Get Better

When you want to talk about cool new components, you are probably thinking about chips or, these days, even modules. Passive components like resistors, capacitors, and inductors are a solved problem, right? [Darshill Patel] begs to differ. There is still innovation happening in the passive market, and he highlights some of the recent advances.

There are thick-film resistors that don’t need lead, for example. There are also supercapacitor modules with very low ESR. For inductors, at least one manufacturer is moving away from traditional wire loops and using flat wire windings instead. These have a larger cross-section, which reduces unwanted resistance. In addition, it offers more cooling area for heat dissipation.

Of course, passive components have never been as simple as people think. Picking a capacitor’s value is only half the battle. You also need to consider the material to optimize how it works in your design. Wirewound resistors are also inductors unless you get special non-inductive ones that use special wiring techniques to cancel much of the parasitic inductance.

It shows that you can never stop learning about even the simplest components. We are still waiting to figure out what we want to do with a memristor. While tiny surface mount components are good for some assembly reasons, they also have helped reduce unwanted component effects.

RP2040 Emulator Brings The Voice Of The 80s Back To Life

You may not have heard, but there’s a chip shortage out there. And it’s not just the fancy new chips that are in short supply; the chips that were fancy and new back when you could still buy them from Radio Shack are getting hard to come by, too. For different reasons, of course, but it does pose a problem that requires a little hacking to fix.

The chip in question here is the General Instrument SP0256, a 1980s-era speech synthesizer chip that [Andrew Menadue] relies on. The LSI chip stored 59 unique allophones, or basic sounds the vocal tract is capable of, and synthesized speech by rapidly concatenating these sounds. The chip and its descendants made regular appearances in computers and games throughout the 80s, so chances are good you’ve heard it. If not, think WarGames (yes, we know that wasn’t actually a computerized voice) or [Stephen Hawking] and you’ll be pretty close.

[Andrew]’s need for such a chip stems from his attempts to give voice to his collection of Psion Organisers, another 80s relic that was one of the first pocket computers. Some time ago he built a speech board for the Psion based on the SP0256-AL2, but had to resort to building an emulator for the chip since none were to be had. The emulator uses an RP2040 and lives on a PCB that has the same footprint as the original chip, so it can just plug right in. He dug up WAV files of the allophones and translated those to sequences of bytes, allowing the RP2040 to output the correct sounds as they’re called for. Speaker problems notwithstanding, it sounds pretty good in the video below.

We’ve featured a fair number of SP0256 projects before, on everything from Amstrad to Z80. We’ve also shown off a few of [Andrew]’s builds before, including this exploration of the voltage tolerance of the RP2040.

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Buck Converter Takes 8V To 100V

For those living before the invention of the transistor, the modern world must appear almost magical. Computers are everywhere now and are much more reliable, but there are other less obvious changes as well. Someone from that time would have needed a huge clunky machine like a motor-generator set to convert DC voltages, but we can do it with ease using a few integrated circuits. This one can take a huge range of input voltages to output a constant 5V.

The buck converter was designed by [hesam.moshiri] using a MP9486 chip. While it is possible to use a multipurpose microcontroller like something from Atmel to perform the switching operation needed for DC-DC converters, using a purpose-built chip saves a lot of headache. The circuit was modified a little bit to support the higher input voltage ranges and improve its stability and reliability. The board is assembled in an incredibly tiny package with inputs and outputs readily accessible, so it would be fairly simple to add one into a project rather than designing it from scratch.

Even though buck converters, and other DC converters like boost and the mysterious buck-boost converter, seem like magic even to us, there is some interesting electrical theory going on if you’re willing to dive into the inner workings of high-frequency switching. Take a look at this explanation we featured a while back to see more about how buck converters, the more easily understood among them, work.

Clock Hack Gives DEC Rainbow A New Lease On Life

In retrocomputing circles, it’s often the case that the weirder and rarer the machine, the more likely it is to attract attention. And machines don’t get much weirder than the DEC Rainbow 100-B, sporting as it does both Z80 and 8088 microprocessors and usable as either a VT100 terminal or as a PC with either CP/M or MS-DOS. But hey — at least it got the plain beige box look right.

Weird or not, all computers have at least a few things in common, a fact which helped [Dr. Joshua Reichard] home in on the problem with a Rainbow that was dead on arrival. After a full recapping — a prudent move given the four decades since the machine was manufactured — the machine failed to show any signs of life. The usual low-hanging diagnostic fruit didn’t provide much help, as both the Z80 and 8088 CPUs seemed to be fine. It was then that [Joshua] decided to look at the heartbeat of the machine — the 24-ish MHz clock shared between the two processors — and found that it was flatlined.

Unwilling to wait for a replacement, [Joshua] cobbled together a temporary clock from an Arduino Uno and an Si5351 clock generator. He connected the output of the card to the main board, whipped up a little code to generate the right frequency, and the nearly departed machine sprang back to life. [Dr. Reichard] characterizes this as a “defibrillation” of the Rainbow, and while one hates to argue with a doctor — OK, that’s a lie; we push back on doctors all the time — we’d say the closer medical analogy is that of fitting a temporary pacemaker while waiting for a suitable donor for a transplant.

This is the second recent appearance of the Rainbow on these pages — [David] over at Usagi Electric has been working on the graphics on his Rainbow lately.

Intel’s Chips Light The Way To Faster Processor Arrays

It’s very likely indeed that whatever you are reading this on will have a multi-core processor. They’re now the norm, but the path to they octa-or-more-core chip in your phone has gone from individual processors with PCB interconnects through many generations of ever faster on-chip ones.

But what if your power needs are so high-end that you need more cores that can be fitted on one chip, but without the slow PCB interconnect to another? If you’re Intel, you develop a multi-core processor with an on-chip photonic interconnect. It talks to the neighboring ones in its cluster at full speed, via light.

The chip in question isn’t one you’ll see in a machine near you, instead it’s inspired by the extremely demanding requirements for DARPA’s HIVE graph analytics program. So this is a machine for supercomputers in huge data centers rather than desktop computers, it will be assembled into multi-die packages with that chip-to-chip optical networking built in. But your computer today is the equal of a supercomputer from not that many years ago, so never say you won’t one day be using its descendant technologies.

If You Aren’t Making Your Own Relays…

We’ve all been there. Someone will say something like, “I remember when we had to put our programs on a floppy disk…” Then someone will interrupt: “Floppy disk? We would have killed for floppy disks. We used paper tape…” After a few rounds, someone is talking about punching cards with a hand stylus or something. Next time someone is telling you about their relay computer, maybe ask them if they are buying their relays already built. They will almost surely say yes, and then you can refer them to [DiodeGoneWild], who shows how he is making his own relays.

While we don’t seriously suggest you make your own relays, there are a lot of fun techniques to pick up, from the abuse of a power drill to the calculation of the coil parameters. Even if you don’t learn anything, we get the desire to make as much as you can.

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A Hobson’s Coupler Leads To A Weird Engine

You want to join two shafts. What do you need? A coupler, of course. If the shafts don’t line up, you might consider an Oldham coupler. But what if the shafts are at a 90-degree angle to each other? Then you need a Hobson’s coupler. [Robert Murray-Smith] has the 3D printed hookup for you and a video that you can see below.

The part isn’t all 3D printed, though. You do need some bearings and steel rods. [Robert] proposes using this to couple a windmill’s blades to a generator, although we assume some loss is involved compared to a standard shaft. However, we’ve heard that the coupler, also called a Hobson’s joint or a stirrup joint, is actually pretty efficient. However, you rarely see these in practice because most applications will use a gear train employing a bevel gear.

While it may not be practical, the second video below shows an elbow engine that would look undeniably cool on your desk. By making some changes, you can create a Cardan joint which happens to be half of what you think of as a universal joint. The Hobson coupler and the Cardan joint seem to be made for each other, as you’ll see in the video.

We aren’t sure what we want to make with all these mechanisms, but as [Robert] points out, with new materials and techniques, these mechanisms might have a role to play in future designs, even though they have been mostly discarded.

There are, of course, many kinds of couplings. Then again, not all useful joints have to move.

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