Manual LCD Makes Information Display Tedious, Educational

The HD44780 is one of the first chips we learned about as a kid, and chances are good you’ve used one in your project at some point, and almost certain that you’ve interacted with one in your life. The character LCD is ubiquitous, easy to interface, and very robust. They come in sizes from 8 x 1 to 20 x 4 and even larger, but they almost all have the same pinout, and there are libraries in many embedded environments for interacting with them. [The 8-Bit Guy] decided to interface with one using just switches and a button, (YouTube, embedded) with the intent of illustrating exactly how to use them, and how easy they are.

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Explaining The Operation Of The 74181 ALU

You will all no doubt be familiar with the 74 series logic integrated circuits, they provide the glue logic for countless projects. If you look back through old listings of the series you’ll find alongside the familiar simple gates a host of now obsolete chips that reveal their roots in the pre-microprocessor computer industry of the late 1960s, implementing entire functions that would now be integrated.

One of the more famous of these devices is the 74181, a cascadable 4-bit arithmetic logic unit, or ALU. An ALU is the heart of a microprocessor, performing its operations. The 74181 appeared in many late-60s and early-70s minicomputers, will be familiar to generations of EE and CS students as the device they were taught about ALUs on, and can now be found in some home-built retrocomputers.

[Ken Shirriff], doyen of the integrated circuit teardown, has published a piece taking a look at the 74181, in particular at its logic functions and the reason for some of them that are rather surprising. As well as the normal logic functions, for example the chip can do “(A + B) PLUS AB“. Why on earth you might think would an ALU need to do that?

The answer lies in the way it performs carrying while adding, a significant speed-up can be achieved over ripple carrying along a chain of adders if it can be ascertained whether a bit addition might generate a carry bit. He explains the function required to perform this operation, and suddenly the unusual extra function makes sense. Addition is transformed from a serial process to a parallel one, with a consequent speed increase.

It’s one of those moments in which you have to salute those logic designers from an era when on-chip real-estate was costly and every ounce of speed had to be teased from their designs. Give it a read, and have a go at the interactive 74181 simulator further down [Ken]’s page. We learned something from the article, and so may you.

We brought you the first part of [Ken]’s 74181 investigations earlier in the year. If you would like to see a 74181 in action, take a look at this 4-bit 74 logic single board computer.

Negative Resistance: It Shouldn’t Make Sense!

When you leaf through a basic electronics textbook, you’ll find chapters describing in detail the operation of the various components. Resistors, capacitors, inductors, and semiconductors. The latter chapter will talk about P and N type regions, introduce us to the diode, and then deal with the transistor: its basic operation, how to bias it, and the like.

A tunnel diode amplifier circuit. Chetvorno [CC0]
Particularly if your textbook is a little older, you may find a short section talking about the tunnel diode. There will be an odd-looking circuit that seems to make no sense at all, an amplifier formed from just a forward-biased diode and a couple of resistors. This logic-defying circuit you are told works due to the tunnel diode being of a class of devices having a negative resistance, though in the absence of readily available devices for experimentation it can be difficult to wrap your head around.

We’re all used to conventional resistors, devices that follow Ohm’s Law. When you apply a voltage to a resistor, a current flows through it, and when the voltage is increased, so does the current. Thus if you use a positive resistance device, say a normal resistor, in both the top and the bottom halves of a potential divider, varying the voltage fed into the top of the divider results in the resistor behaving as you’d expect, and the voltage across it increases.

In a negative resistance device the opposite is the case: increasing the voltage across it results in decreasing current flowing through it. When a large enough negative resistance device is used in the lower half of a resistive divider, it reduces the overall current flowing through the divider when the input voltage increases. With less current flowing across the top resistor, more voltage is present at the output. This makes the negative resistor divider into an amplifier.

The tunnel diodes we mentioned above are probably the best known devices that exhibit negative resistance, and there was a time in the early 1960s before transistors gained extra performance that they seemed to represent the future in electronics. But they aren’t the only devices with a negative resistance curve, indeed aside from other semiconductors such as Gunn diodes you can find negative resistance in some surprising places. Electrical arcs, for example, or fluorescent lighting tubes.

A typical negative resistance I-V curve. Chetvorno [CC0]
The negative resistance property of electric arcs in particular produced a fascinating device from the early twentieth century. The first radio transmitters used an electric arc to generate their RF, but were extremely inefficient and wideband, causing interference. A refinement treated the spark not as the source of the RF but as the negative resistance element alongside a tuned circuit in an oscillator, These devices could generate single frequencies at extremely high power, and thus became popular as high-powered transmitters alongside those using high-frequency alternators until the advent of higher powered tube-based transmitters around the First World War.

It’s unlikely that you will encounter a tunnel diode or other similar electronic component outside the realm of very specialist surplus parts suppliers. We’ve featured them only rarely, and then they are usually surplus devices from the 1960s. But understanding something of how they operate in a circuit should be part of the general knowledge of anyone with an interest in electronics, and is thus worth taking a moment to look at.

1N3716 tunnel diode header image: Caliston [Public domain].

Do You Know Oleg Losev? An Engineer Tragically Ahead of His Time

It is so often the case with a particular technological advance, that it will be invented almost simultaneously by more than one engineer or scientist. People seem to like a convenient tale of a single inventor, so one such person is remembered while the work of all the others who trod the same path is more obscure. Sometimes the name we are familiar with simply managed to reach a patent office first, maybe they were the inventor whose side won their war, or even they could have been a better self-publicist.

When there are close competitors for the crown of inventor then you might just have heard of them, after all they will often feature in the story that grows up around the invention. But what about someone whose work happened decades before the unrelated engineer who replicated it and who the world knows as the inventor? They are simply forgotten, waiting in an archive for someone to perhaps discover them and set the record straight.

Oleg Losev (Public domain)
[Oleg Losev] (Public domain)
Meet [Oleg Losev]. He created the first practical light-emitting diodes and the first semiconductor amplifiers in 1920s Russia, and published his results. Yet the world has never heard of him and knows the work of unrelated American scientists in the period after the Second World War as the inventors of those technologies. His misfortune was to born in the wrong time and place, and to be the victim of some of the early twentieth century’s more turbulent history.

[Oleg Losev] was born in 1903, the son of a retired Russian Imperial Army officer. After the Russian Revolution he was denied the chance of a university education, so worked as a technician first at the Nizhny Novgorod Radio laboratory, and later at the Central Radio Laboratory in Leningrad. There despite his  relatively lowly position he was able to pursue his research interest in semiconductors, and to make his discoveries.

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Darth Vader, In A Nixie Tube

This may be a controversial statement, but Nixie tubes have become a little passé in our community. Along comes another clock project, and oh look! It’s got Nixie tubes instead of 7-segment displays or an LCD. There was a time when this rediscovered archaic component was cool, but face it folks, it’s been done to death. Or has it?

vadar-nixie-tube-unlitSo given a disaffection with the ubiquity of Nixies you might think that no Nixie project could rekindle that excitement. That might have been true, until the videos below the break came our way. [Tobias Bartusch] has made his own Nixie tube, and instead of numerals it contains a 3D model of [Darth Vader], complete with moving light saber. Suddenly the world of Nixies is interesting again.

The first video below the break shows us the tube in action. We see [Vader] from all angles, and his light saber. Below that is the second video which is a detailed story of the build. Be warned though, this is one that’s rather long.

The model is made by carefully shaping and spot welding Kanthal wire into the sculpture, a process during which (as [Tobias] says) you need to think like neon plasma. It is then encased in a cage-like structure which forms its other electrode. He takes us through the process of creating the glass envelope, in which the wire assembly is placed. The result is a slightly wireframe but very recognisable [Vader], and a unique tube.

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Get to Know 3½ Digit ADCs with the ICL71xx

Riffling through my box of old projects, I came upon a project that I had built in the 80’s — an Automotive Multimeter which was published in the Dutch/British Elektor magazine. It could measure low voltage DC, high current DC, resistance, dwell angle, and engine RPM and ran off a single 9V battery. Besides a 555 IC for the dwell and RPM measurement and a couple of CMOS gate chips, the rest of the board is populated by a smattering of passives and a big, 40 pin DIP IC under the 3½ digit LCD display. I dug some more in my box, and came up with another Elektor project from back then — a True RMS digital Wattmeter with a 3½ digit LCD display that could measure up to 2kW. It had the same chip too. Some more digging, and I found a digital panel meter. This had a 7 segment LED display, but the chip was again from the same family.

ICL7107 LED version
ICL7107 LED version

Look under the hood of any device with a 3½ or 4½ digit, 7 segment, LCD or LED from the ’80’s or ’90’s and you will likely spot this 40-pin DIP with the Intersil logo (although it was later also manufactured by many other fabs; Harris and Maxim among others). The chip doing all the heavy-lifting was likely to be the ICL7106 or ICL7107. These devices were described as high performance, low power, 3½ digit A/D converters containing seven segment decoders, display drivers, voltage reference and clock. In short, everything you needed to take a DC analog signal and display it. Over time, a whole series of devices were spawned:

  • 7106 – 3½ digit, 7 segment LCD
  • 7107 – 3½ digit, 7 segment LED
  • 7116 – 3½ digit, 7 segment LCD, with display HOLD (freeze)
  • 7117 – 3½ digit, 7 segment LED, with display HOLD (freeze)
  • 7126 – improved 7106
  • 7136 – improved 7126
  • 7135 – 4½ digit, 7 segment LCD

There were many similar devices available, but the ICL71xx series was by far one of the most popular, due to its easy of use, low parts count and single chip implementation. Here are several parts (linking to PDF datasheets) to illustrate my point: the TC14433/A needed several peripheral devices, ES5107 (a clone of a clone — read below), CA3162 (which has BCD output, and needs the CA3161 or similar to interface to a display), or the AD2020 (which too needed a lot of support circuitry).

The ICL71xx was the go-to device for a reason. Let’s take a look at the engineering and business behind this fascinating chip.

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Understanding The Quartz Crystal Resonator

Accurate timing is one of the most basic requirements for so much of the technology we take for granted, yet how many of us pause to consider the component that enables us to have it? The quartz crystal is our go-to standard when we need an affordable, known, and stable clock frequency for our microprocessors and other digital circuits. Perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at it.

The first electronic oscillators at radio frequencies relied on the electrical properties of tuned circuits featuring inductors and capacitors to keep them on-frequency. Tuned circuits are cheap and easy to produce, however their frequency stability is extremely affected by external factors such as temperature and vibration. Thus an RF oscillator using a tuned circuit can drift by many kHz over the period of its operation, and its timing can not be relied upon. Long before accurate timing was needed for computers, the radio transmitters of the 1920s and 1930s needed to stay on frequency, and considerable effort had to be maintained to keep a tuned-circuit transmitter on-target. The quartz crystal was waiting to swoop in and save us this effort.

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