A Relay Calculator With DIY Neon Displays, Just Because

This looks like one of those projects that started out as a glimmer of an idea and led down a rabbit hole. But it’s a pretty cool rabbit hole that leads to homebrew neon seven-segment displays on a calculator with relay logic.

It’s a little thin on documentation so far, but that’s because [Mark Miller]’s build is one of those just-for-the-fun-of-it things. He started with a bag full of NE-2 tubes and the realization that a 3D-printed frame would let him create his own seven-segment displays. The frames have a slot for each segment, with a lamp and current limiting resistor tucked behind it; with leads brought out to pins and some epoxy potting, these displays would be hard to tell from a large LED seven-segment. Rolling your own displays has the benefit of being able to extend the character set, which [Mark] did with plus-minus and equal sign modules. All of these went together into a two-banger calculator — addition and subtraction only so far — executed in relays and vacuum tubes. Version 2.0 of the calculator regressed to all-relay logic, which must sound great.

We heartily regret the lack of a satisfyingly clicky video, but we’ll give it a pass since this is so cool. We’ll be watching for more on this project, but in the meantime, if you still need to get your click on, this electromechanical BCD counter should help.

FPGA Calculator Uses Joystick

FPGAs are great fun, but sometimes you need a few starter projects under your belt. These projects might be something you could just as well do with a CPU, but you have to start somewhere. [LambdaPI] recently shared a 4-bit calculator created using an FPGA, and you can see it in the video below.

The calculator uses a Papilio FPGA board and a LogicStart accessory board for the display and switches. The Papilio normally uses schematic-based entry and Arduino code, but [LambdaPI] used VHDL. You enter the two 4-bit numbers on the 8 switches and then the joystick selects one of four operations (add, subtract, multiply, and divide).

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Inventing The Microprocessor: The Intel 4004

We recently looked at the origins of the integrated circuit (IC) and the calculator, which was the IC’s first killer app, but a surprise twist is that the calculator played a big part in the invention of the next world-changing marvel, the microprocessor.

There is some dispute as to which company invented the microprocessor, and we’ll talk about that further down. But who invented the first commercially available microprocessor? That honor goes to Intel for the 4004.

Path To The 4004

Busicom calculator motherboard based on 4004 (center) and the calculator (right)
Busicom calculator motherboard based on 4004 (center) and the calculator (right)

We pick up the tale with Robert Noyce, who had co-invented the IC while at Fairchild Semiconductor. In July 1968 he left Fairchild to co-found Intel for the purpose of manufacturing semiconductor memory chips.

While Intel was still a new startup living off of their initial $3 million in financing, and before they had a semiconductor memory product, as many start-ups do to survive they took on custom work. In April 1969, Japanese company Busicom hired them to do LSI (Large-Scale Integration) work for a family of calculators.

Busicom’s design, consisting of twelve interlinked chips, was considered a complicated one. For example, it included shift-register memory, a serial type of memory which complicates the control logic. It also used Binary Coded Decimal (BCD) arithmetic. Marcian Edward Hoff Jr — known as “Ted”, head of the Intel’s Application Research Department, felt that the design was even more complicated than a general purpose computer like the PDP-8, which had a fairly simple architecture. He felt they may not be able to meet the cost targets and so Noyce gave Hoff the go-ahead to look for ways to simplify it.

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A Calculator With 3G Inside

For many of us, a calculator is something we run as an app on our mobile phones. Even the feature phones of a couple of decades ago bundled some form of calculator, so that particular task has joined the inevitable convergence of functions into the one device.

For [Scott Howie] though, a mobile phone is something to run as an app on his calculator. He’s integrated a cellphone module into his TI-84 calculator, and though perhaps it won’t be knocking Apple or Samsung off their pedestals just yet, it’s fully functional and both makes and receives calls.

To perform this feat he’s taken the cellphone module and one of the tiniest of Arduino boards, and fitted them in the space beneath the TI-84’s keyboard by removing as much extraneous plastic as he could. The calculator’s 4 AAA cells could not supply enough power on their own, so he’s supplemented them with a couple more, and replaced the alkaline cells with rechargeables. A concealed switch allows the cellphone to be turned off to preserve battery life.

The calculator talks to the Arduino via a slightly unsightly external serial cable, and all his software is handily available in a GitHub repository. His video showing the whole build in detail is below the break, so if you fancy a calculator with cellular connectivity, here’s your opportunity. Hang on — couldn’t you use a device like this for exam cheating?

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A Watch Only A Ham Can Use

We’re not sure what to make of this one. With the variety of smartwatches and fitness trackers out there, we can’t be surprised by what sort of hardware ends up strapped to wrists these days. So a watch with an RPN calculator isn’t too much of a stretch. But adding a hex editor? And a disassembler? Oh, and while you’re at it, a transceiver for the 70cm ham band? Now that’s something you don’t see every day.

The mind boggles at not only the technical prowess needed to pull off what [Travis Goodspeed (KK4VCZ)] calls the GoodWatch, but at the thought process that led to all these features being packed into the case of a Casio calculator watch. But a lot of hacking is more about the “Why not?” than the “Why?”, and when you start looking at the feature set of the CC430F6137 microcontroller [Travis] chose, things start to make sense. The chip has a built-in RF subsystem, intended no doubt to enable wireless sensor designs. The GoodWatch20 puts the transceiver to work in the 430-MHz band, implementing a simple low-power (QRP) beacon. But the real story here is in the hacks [Travis] used to pull this off, like using flecks of Post-It notes to probe the LCD connections, and that he managed to stay within the confines of the original case.

There’s some real skill here, and it makes for an interesting read. And since the GoodWatch is powered by a coin cell, we think it’d be a great entry for our Coin Cell Challenge contest.

[via r/AmateurRadio]

Calculating Like It’s 1962

We sometimes forget that the things we think of as trivial today were yesterday’s feats of extreme engineering. Consider the humble pocket calculator, these days so cheap and easy to construct that they’re essentially disposable. But building a simple “four-banger” calculator in 1962 was anything but a simple task, and it’s worth looking at what one of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand today accomplished with practically nothing.

If there’s anything that [Cliff Stoll]’s enthusiasm can’t make interesting, we don’t know what it would be, and he certainly does the job with this teardown and analysis of a vintage electronic calculator. You’ll remember [Cliff] from his book The Cuckoo’s Egg, documenting his mid-80s computer sleuthing that exposed a gang of black-hat hackers working for the KGB. [Cliff] came upon a pair of Friden EC-132 electronic calculators, and with the help of [Bob Ragen], the engineer who designed them in 1962, got one working. With a rack of PC boards, cleverly hinged to save space and stuffed with germanium transistors, a CRT display, and an acoustic delay-line memory, the calculators look ridiculous by today’s standards. But when you take a moment to ponder just how much work went into such a thing, it really makes you wonder how the old timers ever brought a product to market.

As a side note, it’s great to see the [Cliff] is still so energetic after all these years. Watching him jump about with such excitement and passion really gets us charged up.

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Build A Calculator, 1974 Style

Last month we touched upon the world of 1970s calculators with a teardown of a vintage Sinclair, and in the follow-up were sent an interesting link: a review of a classic Sinclair calculator kit from [John Boxall]. It’s a few years old now, from 2013, but since it passed us by at the time and there was clearly some interest in our recent teardown, it’s presented here for your interest.

It seems odd in 2017 that a calculator might be sold as a kit, but when you consider that in the early 1970s it would have represented an extremely expensive luxury purchase it makes some sense that electronics enthusiasts who were handy with a soldering iron might consider the cost saving of self-assembly to be worthwhile. The £24.95 price tag sounds pretty reasonable but translates to nearly £245 ($320) in today’s terms so was hardly cheap. The calculator in question is a Sinclair Cambridge, the arithmetic-only predecessor to the Sinclair Scientific we tore down, and judging by the date code on its display driver chip it dates from September 1974.

As a rare eBay find that had sat in storage for so long it was clear that some of the parts had suffered a little during the intervening years. The discrete components were replaced with modern equivalents, including a missing 1N914 diode, and the display was secured in its flush-fitting well in the board with wire links. The General Instrument calculator chip differs from the Texas Instruments part used in the Scientific, but otherwise the two calculators share many similarities. A full set of the notoriously fragile Sinclair battery clips are in place, with luck they’ll resist the urge to snap. A particularly neat touch is the inclusion of a length of solder and some solder wick, what seems straightforward to eyes used to surface-mount must have been impossibly fiddly to those brought up soldering tube bases.

The build raises an interesting question: is it sacrilege to take a rare survivor like this kit, and assemble it? Would you do it? We’d hesitate, maybe. But having done so it makes for a fascinating extra look at a Sinclair Cambridge, so is definitely worth a read. If you want to see the calculator in action he’s posted a video which we’ve put below the break, and if you need more detail including full-resolution pictures of the kit manual, he’s put up a Flickr gallery.

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