Building A Front Panel For The RC2014 Computer

The RC2014 is a slick Z80 computer kit that’s graced these pages a number of times in the past. It allows anyone with a soldering iron and a USB-to-serial adapter to experience the thrill of early 1980s desktop computing. But what if you’re looking for an even more vintage experience? In that case, this custom RC2014 front panel from [James Stanley] might be just the thing to scratch that Altair itch.

The front panel allows you to view and alter the contents of memory with nothing more complex than toggle switches and LEDs, just like on the early microcomputers of the 1970s. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how a computer works on the most basic level, single-stepping through instructions and reading them out in binary is a great way to do it.

[James] says he was inspired to take on this project after reading a 1978 issue of Kilobaud Magazine (as one does), and seeing an article about building a homebrew Z80 machine with a front panel. Obviously he had to modify the approach a bit to mate up with this relatively modern variation on the venerable CPU, but the idea was essentially the same.

His documentation for the project is sure to be fascinating for anyone enamored with those iconic computers of yesteryear, but even readers with more modern sensibilities will likely find some interesting details. The way [James] coaxes the data and various status states out of the kit computer takes up the bulk of the write-up, but afterwards he talks about how he designed the PCB and wraps up with his tips for creating a professional looking front panel.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a modern Z80 computer kitted out with blinkenlights, but it’s certainly one of the most professional looking. If you combine the RC2014 kits available on Tindie with the details provided by [James], you’ll soon be learning the fine art of programming a computer with toggle switches.

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The Battery Is Part Of The Art

A work of art is appreciated for its own sake and we will never tire of seeing stunning circuits from microscopic dead-bugs to ornate brass sculptures. We also adore projects that share the tricks to use in our own work. Such is the case with [Jiří Praus] who made some jewelry and shared his templates so we try this out ourselves.

The materials include brass wire, solder, and surface-mount LEDs. Template design expects a 1206 light, so if you step outside that footprint, plan accordingly. The printable templates are intuitive and leverage basic wire jewelry making skills. Some good news is that flashing LEDs are available in that size so you can have an array of blinkenlights that appears random due to drifting circuits. Please be wary with RGB lights or mixing colors because red LEDs generally run at a lower voltage and they will siphon a significant chunk of a coin-cell’s power from a competing green or blue. How else can these be personalized?

[Jiří]’s charms are just the latest of circuits that capture our eyes and tickle our ears.

This Blinken Grid Is All Analog

The personal computers of today are economical with their employ of the humble LED. A modern laptop might have a power LED, and a hard drive indicator if you’re lucky. It was the mainframes of the ’60s and ’70s that adhered to the holy Doctrine of Blinken, flickering lamps with abandon to indicate machine activity to the skilled operators of yore. [Matseng] wanted to recreate this aesthetic, and went about it in an entirely analog fashion.

The project is built around an 8×8 LED grid, that was soldered up using a 3D printed jig for dimensional accuracy. Fitted to each column is a PNP flip flop that pulls the column to VCC, while each row has an NPN flip flop which pulls it to ground. Due to variances in component values and tolerances, the oscillators are all out of sync, leading to a remarkably pleasing blinkenlights effect.

We’re a big fan of the raw aesthetic, but [Matseng] has also fitted the grid with a diffuser which more clearly represents that vintage computer aesthetic. We’re a big fan of the blinken here, such as this loving recreation of the PDP-8/I. Video after the break. Continue reading “This Blinken Grid Is All Analog”

Tech Tattoos Trace Two Dimensions

Flexible circuit boards bend as you might expect from a playing card, while skin stretches more like knit fabric. The rules for making circuit boards and temporary tattoos therefore need to be different. Not just temporary tattoos, there are also circuits that reside on the skin so no unregulated heat traces, please. In addition to flexing and stretching, these tattoos can be applied to uneven surfaces and remain intact. Circuits could be added to the outside of projects or use the structure as the board to reduce weight and size. Both are possible with the research from Carnegie Mellon’s Soft Machines Lab and the Institute of Systems and Robotics at the University of Coimbra.

These circuits are an improvement over the existing method which relies on cropping away metal foil with a magnifying glass, tweezers and a steady hand. Instead, silver particles are printed with an inkjet printer before the traces are coated in eutectic gallium indium which is liquid metal at room temperature. If we were to oversimplify, we might describe it as similar to a non-toxic equivalent of mercury that we have also seen used in DIY OLEDs. This is a development likely to be interesting in a range of fields from medicine to cosplay.

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Lessons In Disposable Design From A Cheap Blinky Ball

Planned obsolescence, as annoying as it is when you’re its victim, still has to be admired. You can’t help but stand in awe of the designer who somehow managed to optimize a product to live one day longer than its warranty period. Seriously, why is it always the next day?

The design of products that are never intended to live long enough to go obsolete must be similarly challenging, and [electronupdate] did a teardown of a cheap LED blinky toy to see what’s involved. You’ve no doubt seen these seizure-triggering silicone balls before, mostly at checkout counters and the like where they’re sold at prices many hundreds of times what it took to make them. This particular device, which seems representative of the species, has two bright LEDs, a small controller chip, a trio of button cells for power, and a springy switch to activate it. All this is mounted to a cheap scrap of phenolic resin PCB, with the controller chip and one of the LEDs covered by a blob of clear epoxy.

This teardown one-ups most others, as [electronupdate] disrobes the chip and points a microscope at the die; the video below shows just how few transistors are employed and proposes a likely circuit. Everything about this ball just oozes cheapness, and it’s likely these things cost essentially nothing to build. Which makes sense for something destined for the landfill within a week or so.

Yes, this annoying blinky-thing is low-end garbage, but there are still design lessons to be learned from it. Anything that’s built for a broad market has to be built to a price point, and understanding those constraints is important to understanding how planned obsolescence works.

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Minimal Blinky Project Makes The Chip The Circuit Board

We’ve got a thing for projects that have no real practical value but instead seek to answer a simple yet fundamental question: I wonder if I can do that? This dead-bug style 555 blinky light is one of those projects, undertaken just to see how small a circuit can be. Pretty small, as it turns out, and we bet it can get even smaller.

[Danko]’s minimal circuit is about as small as possible for the DIP version of the venerable 555 chip. The BOM is stripped to the bone: just the chip, three resistors, a capacitor, and an LED. All the discrete components are SMDs in 0805. The chip’s leads are bent around the package to form connections, and the SMDs bridge those “traces” to complete the circuit. [Danko] shows the build in step-by-step detail in the video below. There’s some fairly fine work here, but we can’t help wondering just how far down the scale this could be pushed. We know someone’s made a smaller blinky using a tiny microcontroller, but we’d love to see this tried with the BGA version of the chip which is only 1.4 mm on a side.

Cheers to [Danko] for trying this out and having some fun with an old chip. He seems to have a bit of a thing for the 555; check out this cute robot sculpture that’s built around the chip.

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A Hacker’s Epic Quest To Keep His Son Entertained

Little humans have a knack for throwing a wrench in the priorities of their parents. As anyone who’s ever had children will tell you, there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for them. If you ever needed evidence to this effect, just take a gander at the nearly year-long saga that chronicles the construction of an activity board [Michael Teeuw] built for his son, Enzo.

Whether you start at the beginning or skip to the end to see the final product, the documentation [Michael] has done for this project is really something to behold. From the early days of the project where he was still deciding on the overall look and feel, to the final programming of the Raspberry Pi powered user interface, every step of the process has been meticulously detailed and photographed.

The construction methods utilized in this project run the gamut from basic woodworking tools for the outside wooden frame, to a laser cutter to create the graphical overlay on the device’s clear acrylic face. [Michael] even went as far as having a custom PCB made to connect up all the LEDs, switches, and buttons to the Arduino Nano by way of an MCP23017 I2C I/O expander.

Even if you aren’t looking to build an elaborate child’s toy that would make some adults jealous, there’s a wealth of first-hand information about turning an idea into a final physical device. It isn’t always easy, and things don’t necessarily go as planned, but as [Michael] clearly demonstrates: the final product is absolutely worth putting the effort in.

Seeing how many hackers are building mock spacecraft control panels for their children, we can’t help but wonder if any of them will adopt us.

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