The BBC Computer Literacy Project From The 1980s Is Yours To Browse

In the early 1980s there was growing public awareness that the microcomputer revolution would have a significant effect on everybody’s lives, and there was a brief period in which anything remotely connected with a computer attracted an air of glamour and sophistication. Broadcasters wanted to get in on the act, and produced glowing documentaries on the new technology, enthusiastically crystal-ball-gazing as they did so.

In the UK, the public service BBC broadcaster produced a brace of series’ over the decade probing all corners of the subject as part of the same Computer Literacy Project that gave us Acorn’s BBC Micro, and we are lucky enough that they’ve put them all online so that we can watch them (again, in some cases, if a Hackaday scribe can get away with revealing her age).

You can see famous shows such as the moment when the presenters experienced a live on-air hack while demonstrating an early online service, but most of it is a fascinating contemporary look at the computers we now enthuse over as retro devices. Will the MSX sweep all before it, for example? (It didn’t).

They seem very dated now with their 8-bit micros (if not just for the word “micro”), synth music, and cheesy graphics. But what does come across is the air of optimism, this was the future, and it was packaged not as a threat, but as a good place to be. Take a look, but make sure you have plenty of time. You may spend a while in front of the screen.

We’ve mentioned int he past another spin-off from the Computer Literacy Project, the Domesday Project.

Thanks [Darren Grant] for the tip.

 

Rescuing K-9

Fans of the long-running and ever-fantastic British TV show Dr. Who will no doubt hold a soft spot in their hearts for the Doctor’s little robot companion. No, not one of his many human sidekicks, we’re talking about K-9, the angular dog-like android that burst onto British screens back in 1977.

There were a number of original [K-9] props made by the BBC, and these were eventually sold by the corporation. One found its way to Abertay University, and it was there that [Gary Taylor], a computer science student found it. Sadly the years had not been kind to the robotic mutt, in particular water from a roof leak had damaged its internals beyond repair. With little more than the fibreglass shell to work with, he set out to rebuild K-9 and make the task the subject of his dissertation.

The original robo-dog was little more than a 1970s remote-controlled car, but its upgrades bring it firmly into the 21st century. At its heart is the inevitable Raspberry Pi 3, coupled with an Arduino mega 2560 that handles motor control and interfacing to an array of ultrasonic sensors. The Pi’s Bluetooth radio talks to an app on an Android phone, that serves as the K-9’s controller. All of which makes for an impressive upgrade, but we hope has disturbed as little of the original prop work as possible

Not everyone is lucky enough to find an original K-9, but for those destined for classic BBC prop disappointment there is always the possibility that you could build your own.

Hackaday Links: March 25, 2018

File this one under, ‘don’t do this yourself, but we’re glad they filmed it.’ [Denis Koryakin] flew a quadcopter to 10km, or about 33,000 feet. This was just an experiment to see if it was possible. A few items of note from the video: this thing was climbing at 14-15 m/s when it first took off. It was barely climbing at 2 m/s at 10km. Second: it was really, really cold. The ground temperature was -10 C, and temperatures at 8km reached -50 C. Density altitude is on this guy’s side, and I don’t know if this would be possible in warmer temperatures.

Hold on to your hats, there’s a gigantic space station that’s going to crash sometime in the next few weeks. Tiangong-1, an 8-ton space station launched in 2011, is going to reenter the atmosphere ‘sometime between March 30 and April 6’. Because of orbits and stuff, it’s more likely to reenter at the highest latitudes, and this space station has an inclination of 42.7 degrees. If your latitude is 42° N or 42° S, you should probably pull a Liza Minnelli on this situation and spend the next month in bed.

Hey, cool! The Tindie Badge is being used to teach orphans in Bosnia how to solder.

The BBC has decided to cancel Robot Wars. No, it’s not Battlebots — the house robots always seemed to be a bit overkill and added too much drama. No, it’s not Scrapheap Challenge or Junkyard Wars, but Robot Wars was legitimately fun, and cheap-to-produce reality TV. The engineering that went into these bots was amazing, and this is a loss for the entire engineering community. Here’s a change.org petition against its cancellation, but we all know how successful those change.org petitions can be.

FREE CHIPS!. Free motor drivers, actually, which is even more impressive. Aisler puts together BOMs for projects and such — think of it as an on-demand kitting service. They’re throwing in free Trinamic drivers with orders. Someone should build a motor driver breakout.

60’s Comedy Rescued from Nigerian Basement

In the sixties, videotape used to film television programs was expensive. When a program had been shown as many times as the contract required the tape was wiped and reused, unless someone requested it be saved for some reason. At least, this was the BBC’s doctrine. Many episodes of the BBC’s programs have gone missing due to this reuse of the videotapes but sometimes the films of these episodes are found in an attic or storage facility. [Cplamb] brings us the story of the salvation of some episodes of British comedians Morecambe and Wise’ first series on the BBC, their first color series.

Do make duplicates, the BBC would film a television playing one of the videotapes. This film duplicate would be sent out to television stations around the world, rather than the tapes. The Morecambe and Wise film was found in the humid basement of a television station in Nigeria. Due to the conditions, the film was “diseased” and was in danger of decomposing into soup.

A series of hacks was used to restore the episodes from the rotting film stock. X-ray microtomography was used to scan a roll of film to see if this could be used. This worked because the film has a layer of silver oxide emulsion(the image) on one side and plastic (the film stock) on the other. A program was written so that the resulting voxels could be remapped into two dimensions in order to see the original frame. However, the volume that the machine could x-ray was small – using it on an item the size of a full roll of film would probably destroy the film, if it could be done. The next hack was to cut the film into small blocks using a laser cutter. This itself seems destructive but if you can either cut it up and scan it or let it turns into soup the choice is easy.

A second part of the story has been published, but the third article in the series hasn’t been yet, so we don’t know how the resulting film looks. But this is a pretty cool story involving scanning, x-rays, programming, and laser cutters — all hallmarks of the great hacks we see on Hackaday. Check out this article on the mechanics of film projection and this one on automatically scanning 8mm film for similar style hacks.

The Day Six Spaceships Landed In England

The BBC, as the British national broadcaster for so many decades, now finds itself also performing the function of keeper of a significant part of the collective national memory. Thus they have an unrivaled resource of quality film and audio recordings on hand for when they look back on the anniversary of a particular story, and the retrospectives they create from them can make for a particularly fascinating read.

This week has seen the fiftieth anniversary of a very unusual event, the day six flying saucers were found to have crash-landed in a straight line across the width of Southern England. It was as though a formation of invaders had entered the atmosphere in a manoeuvre gone wrong, and maintained their relative positions as they hurtled towards the unsuspecting countryside.

Except of course, there were no aliens, and there were no flying saucers. Instead there was a particularly resourceful group of apprentices from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, and the saucers were beautifully made fibreglass and metal creations. They contained electronic sound generators to give an alien-sounding beeping noise, and a fermenting mixture of flour and water for an alien-looking ectoplasmic goo should anybody decide to drill into them. The police were called and the RAF were scrambled, and a media frenzy occurred before finally the jolly hoaxters were unmasked. In those simpler times everyone had a good laugh and got on with their lives, while without a doubt now there would have been a full-blown terrorism scare and a biohazard alert over all that flour paste.

A Hackaday writer never admits her age, but this is a story that happened well before the arrival of this particular scribe. We salute and envy these 1960s pranksters, and hope that they went on to do great things. If you are a British resident you can see an accompanying TV report on their southern regional news programme, Inside Out, on BBC One South East and South today at 19:30 BST, or via BBC iPlayer should you miss it.

Flying saucer confectionery image: jo-h [CC BY 2.0].

A Touchscreen From 1982, That Could Kill With A Single Finger Press

Over the pond here in the UK we used to have a TV show called Tomorrow’s World, It was on once a week showing all the tech we would have been using in 10 years time (or so they said). In 1982 they ran with a story about a touch screen computer. Perhaps not what you would recognize today as a touchscreen but given the date and limited technology someone had come up with a novel idea for a touchscreen that worked sort of.

It was a normal CRT screen but around the edges where photodiodes pointing inwards as if to make an invisible infrared touch interface just half an inch in front of the screen. Quite impressive technology giving the times. As they go through the video showing us how it works a more sinister use of this new-fangled touch screen computer rears its ugly head, They turned it into a pretty cool remote-controlled gun turret complete with a motorized horizontal and vertical axis upon which an air pistol was placed along with a camera. You could see an image back from the camera on the screen, move the gun around to aim the weapon, then with a single finger press on the screen, your target has been hit.

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One Micro Bit Accomplishes Its Goal

Like the Raspberry Pi, the BBC Micro Bit had a goal of being foremost an educational device. Such an inexpensive computer works well with the current trend of cutting public school budgets wherever possible while still being able to get kids interested in coding and computers in general. While both computers have been co-opted by hackers for all kinds of projects (the Pi especially), [David]’s latest build keeps at least his grandkids interested in computers by using the Micro Bit to add some cool features to an old toy.

The toy in question is an old Scalextric slot car racetrack – another well-known product of the UK. But what fun is a race if you can’t keep track of laps or lap times? With the BBC Mirco Bit and some hardware, the new-and-improved racetrack can do all of these things. It also implements a drag race-style light system to start the race and can tell if a car false starts. It may be a little difficult to intuit all of the information that the Micro Bit is displaying on its LED array, but it shouldn’t take too much practice.

The project page goes into great detail on how the project was constructed. Be sure to check out the video below for some exciting races! The build is certain to entertain [David]’s grandkids for some time, as well as help them get involved with programming and building anything that they can imagine. Maybe they’ll even get around to building a robot or two.

Thanks to [Mark] for sending in this tip!

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