At even vaguely infosec-related conferences, CTFs are a staple. For KernelCon 2021, [Tyler Rosonke] resolved to create a challenge breaking the traditions, entertaining and teaching people in a different way, while satisfying the constraints of that year’s remote participation plans. His imagination went wild in all the right places, and a beautifully executed multi-step hardware challenge was built – only in two copies!
Story behind the challenge? Your broken spaceship has to be repaired so that you can escape the planet you’re stuck on. The idea was to get a skilled, seasoned hacker solving challenges for our learning and amusement – and that turned out to be none other than [Joe “Kingpin” Grand]!
The modules themselves are what caught our attention. Designed to cover a wide array of hardware hacker skills, they cover soldering, signal sniffing, logic gates, EEPROM dumping and more – and you have to apply all of these successfully for liftoff. If you thought “there’s gotta be a 555 involved”, you weren’t wrong, either, there’s a module where you have to reconfigure a circuit with one!
KernelCon is a volunteer-driven infosec conference in Omaha, and its 2022 installment starts in a month – we can’t wait to see what it brings! Anyone doing hardware CTFs will have something to learn from their stories, it seems. The hacking session, from start to finish, was recorded for our viewing pleasure; linked below as an hour and a half video, it should be a great background for your own evening of reverse-engineering for leisure!
This isn’t the first time we’ve covered [Tyler]’s handiwork, either. In 2020, he programmed a batch of KernelCon badges while employing clothespins as ISP clips. Security conferences have most certainly learned just how much fun you can have with hardware, and if you ever need a case study for that, our review of 2019 CypherCon won’t leave you hanging.
It seems only appropriate that hot on the heels of the conclusion of Hackaday’s 555 Timer Contest that [Ken Shirriff] posts a silicon die teardown of an early version of a hacker’s favorite chip, the 555.
Starting with a mystery chip from January 1973, [Eric Schlaepfer] painstakingly sanded down the package to reveal the die, which he deemed to be a 555 timer. Why didn’t they know it was a 555 timer to start? Because the package was not marked with “555” but rather some other marks that you can see in the blog post.
In addition to a great explanation of how the 555 works in general, [Ken] has taken a microscopic look at the 555 die itself. The schematic of a 555 is easily available, and [Ken] identifies not just sections of the die but individual components. He goes further yet by explaining how the PNP and NPN resistors are constructed in silicon. There’s also a nice and juicy bit of insight into the resistors in the IC, but we won’t spoil it here.
Sometimes the best inspiration is limitation. The 555 timer does “one thing” — compares a voltage to a couple thresholds and outputs a signal accordingly. It’s two comparators, a voltage ladder, and a flip-flop. And yet, it’s the most sold single chip of all time, celebrating its 50th birthday this year! So when Hackaday runs a 555 Timer Contest, hackers of all stripes come out with their best work to show their love for the Little DIP That Could.
Far and away the favorite entry was the Giant 555 Timer by [Rudraksha Vegad]. Every one of our judges rated it in the top five, and it took top honors twice. On its face, this is a simple “giant 555 in a box” build, but have a look under the hood. Each sub-module that makes up the 555 — comparators, flip-flop, and amplifier — are made from salvaged discrete parts in actual breadboard fashion, soldered to brass nails hammered into wood. As an end product, it’s a nice piece of woodworking, but as a process of creation, it’s a masterwork in understanding the 555 at its deepest level. We should all make one!
The Menorah555 is a simple design with some very nice tricks up its sleeve. Perhaps the cutest of which is pulling the central candle out and lighting the others with it — a trick that involves a supercapacitor and reed switches. Each of the candle lighting circuits, however, use a 555 timer both for its intended purpose of providing a timed power-on reset pulse, and another 555 is used as a simple flip-flop. It’s a slick design, and a great user interaction.
High-voltage experimenters have been using automotive ignition coils to generate impressive sparks in the home lab for decades, and why not? They’re cheap, easily obtainable, and at the end of the day, producing sparks is literally what they’re designed to do. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
In his latest Plasma Channel video [Jay Bowles] revisits this classic experiment, bringing to bear the considerable high-voltage experience he’s gained over the last several years. Building on an earlier setup that used a single Honda ignition coil, this new dual-coil version can produce up to 60,000 volts and is driven by a cleaner and more reliable circuit based on the iconic 555 timer. A pair of potentiometers on the front of the driver can adjust its square wave output from 1 to 10 kilohertz manually, while a commercial Bluetooth audio receiver tied into the 555 circuit allows the output to be modulated by simply playing audio from a paired device.
Finding that his recently purchased LED Christmas lights defaulted to an annoying blinking pattern that took a ridiculous seven button presses to disable each time they were powered up, [Matthew Millman] decided to build a new power supply that keeps things nice and simple. In his words, the goal was to enable “all lights on, no blinking or patterns of any sort”.
Connecting the existing power supply to his oscilloscope, [Matthew] found the stock “steady on” setting was a 72 VAC peak-to-peak square wave at about 500 Hz. To recreate this, he essentially needed to find a 36 VDC power supply and swap the polarity back and forth at the same frequency. In the end the closest thing he could find in the parts bin was a HP printer power supply that put out 30 volts, so the lights aren’t quite as bright as they were before, but at least they aren’t blinking.
To turn that into a pair of AC square waves, the power supply is connected to a common L298 H-Bridge module. You might expect a microcontroller to show up at this point, but [Matthew] went old school, and created his two alternating 500 Hz square waves with a 555 timer and a 74HC74D dual flip-flop.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have the time to get a custom PCB made before Santa’s big night. Though as he points out, since legitimate L298s are backordered well into next year anyway, having the board in hand wouldn’t have helped much. The end result is that the circuit has to live on a breadboard for the current holiday season, but hopefully around this time next year we’ll get a chance to see the final product.
You asked for it, and now you’ve got it. It’s taken more than a decade of accumulated complaining, but this gigantic 555 timer IC has finally gathered enough psychokinetic energy to take corporeal form and demand fealty from the readers of Hackaday.
Or not. The less exciting explanation is that creator [Rudraksha Vegad] was looking for a way to combine his interests in discrete electronic components and woodworking. The result is an incredible build that’s more than just a conversation starter; this desktop-sized version of the iconic integrated timer circuit is fully functional. You can even hook it up to a breadboard, assuming you’ve got some alligator clips handy.
Lifting the lid on this wooden “chip” uncovers an intricate hand-wired array of discrete components that stand in for the microscopic goings on inside the real thing. He’s even gone through the trouble of recreating the symbols for the comparators and flip-flops that you’d see in a diagram of a 555 using wooden shapes to elevate their respective components. It might not fit the classical definition, but surely this must count as some form of circuit sculpture.
There is many a comment on these here pages along the lines of “Why did you use a microcontroller, when you could just have easily used a 555 timer!” And, yes, we sometimes agree with the sentiment, but when a chance comment seen by Hackaday.io user [Tim Böscke] suggested turning it around and building a microcontroller out of 555 timers, the gauntlet was well and truly thrown down. Now let’s be clear, this is not the first time we’ve come across this idea, there was a breadboard 555 based build ten years ago, but this is the first time we’ve seen it done by leveraging open source synthesis targeting a PCB!
The first logic element was a simple inverter, constructed by tying the TRIGger and THReShold pins together.
From there it was a simple matter of adding a few diode-resistor networks to the input, to effect a NAND2 gate and a NOR2 gate. Development was speeded up a bit by modeling the logic circuits in LTSpice, to find the best combination of part values. From these simple elements, all further logic functions could be implemented. Next a memory element was needed. As luck would have it, the 555 has a RS flip flop as part of its circuit, fed by dual comparator inputs. All that was needed was to bias the THRS input at Vdd/2 and then feed the data in via a pass transistor, and hey presto! a serviceable, albeit slow latch.