We’ve seen so many explorations of older semiconductors at the hands of [Ken Shirriff], that we know enough to expect a good read when he releases a new one. His latest doesn’t disappoint, as he delves into the workings of one of the first hand-held electronic calculators. The Sharp EL-8 from 1969 had five MOS ICs at its heart, and among them the NRD2256 keyboard/display chip is getting the [Shirriff] treatment with a decapping and thorough reverse engineering.
The basic functions of the chip are explained more easily than might be expected since this is a relatively simple device by later standards. The fascinating part of the dissection comes in the explanation of the technology, first in introducing the reader to PMOS FETs which required a relatively high negative voltage to operate, and then in explaining its use of four-phase logic. We’re used to static logic that holds a state depending upon its inputs, but the technologies of the day all called for an output transistor that would pull unacceptable current for a calculator. Four phase logic solved this by creating dynamic gates using a four-phase clock signal, relying on the an output capacitor in the gate to hold the value. It’s a technology that lose out in the 1970s as later TTL and CMOS variants arrived that did not have the output current drain. Fascinating stuff!
[Ken] gave a talk at the Hackaday Superconference a couple of years ago, if you’ve not seen it then it’s worth a watch.
[Mitsuru Yamada] states that one of the goals for this 6502 computer build was to make it strong enough to survive real-world usage. In that regard alone we’d call this a success; the die-cast aluminum enclosures used a little blast from the past and lend a nice retro industrial look to the project. The main chassis of the computer fairly bristles with LEDs and chunky toggle switches for setting the data and address busses. The interior is no less tidy, with the 6502 microprocessor — date code from 1995 — and associated support chips neatly arranged on perf board. The construction method is wire wrapping, in keeping with the old-school look and feel. Even the hand-drawn schematic is a work of art — shades of [Forrest Mims].
As for programming, this machine is as low-level as it gets. Nothing but 6502 machine language here, entered manually with the toggle switches, or via an externally programmed ROM. The machine can only address 1k of memory, a limit which the code to support the RPN calculator add-on [Yamada] also built brushes up against, at 992 bytes. The calculator keypad has a 20-key matrix pad and an eight-digit dot-matrix LED display, and can do the four basic operations on fixed-point binary-coded decimal inputs. The brief video below shows the calculator in action.
We love the look of this build and we’re eager to see more like it. We’ve seen a ton of 6502 builds from discrete chips lately, and while we love those too, it’s nice to see one of the big old DIPs put back in action for a change.
You know the old joke: There are 10 types of people in the world — those who understand binary, and those who don’t. Most of us on Hackaday are firmly in the former camp, which is why projects like this circuit sculpture binary calculator really tickle our fancies.
Inspired by the brass framework and floating component builds of [Mohit Bhoite], [dennis1a4] decided to take the plunge into circuit sculpture in an appropriately nerdy way. He wisely decided on a starter build, which was a simple 555 timer circuit, before diving into the calculator. Based on an ATMega328P in a 28-pin DIP, the calculator is built on an interesting hybrid platform of brass wire and CNC-routed wood. The combination of materials looks great, and we especially love the wooden keycaps on the six switches that make up the keyboard. There’s also some nice work involved in adapting the TLC5928 driver to the display of 16 discrete LEDs; suspended as it is by fine magnet wires, the SSOP chip looks a bit like a bug trapped in a spider web.
Hats off to [dennis1a4] for a great entry into our soon-to-conclude Circuit Sculpture Contest. The entry deadline is (today!) November 10, so it might be a bit too late for this year. But rest assured we’ll be doing this again, so take a look at all this year’s entries and start thinking about your next circuit sculpture build.
One of the major factors for [Michael] was the great feel of the keys on these classic units. Wanting to experiment with different layouts without a lot of rewiring, the idea of keys with individual displays became attractive. Existing parts on the market were prohibitively expensive, however. Instead, [Michael] used a single touchscreen with a switch mounted underneath to provide tactile feedback with a nifty scissor-arm guide mechanism. Combined with individual see-through plastic overlays, the MP-29 has a fully reconfigurable pad of 30 keys with dynamically updatable labels.
It’s a creative choice, and one that looks highly satisfying to use. It has all the tactile benefits of individual keys, both in the keypresses and being able to navigate the keypad without looking. Combined with the benefit of reconfigurable keys thanks to the touch screen underneath, it’s a great way to build a user-interface.
The rest of the calculator design closely mimics the HP-29, though [Michael] is also experimenting with alternative layouts too. There are plenty of religious wars in the calculator community over usability, after all – mostly over which side of the pad has the arithmetic functions.
See if you can talk your local school district into buying a computer that costs about $5,000 and weighs 40 pounds. That was HP’s proposition to schools back in 1968 so really it is more like $35,000 today. The calculator had a CRT display for the RPN stack that you could mirror on a big screen. You could also get a printer or plotter add-on. Pretty hot stuff for the ’60s.
The 1970 videos promoting the HP 9100, posted by the [Computer History Archive Project], shows something we’d think of as a clunky calculator, although by the standards of the day it was a pretty good one with trig functions and a crude programming capability.
With a glut of vintage consumer electronics available from eBay it should be easy to relive your glory days, right? Unfortunately the march of time means that finding gear is easy but finding gear that works is not. So was the case when [Amen] acquired not one, but two used calculator/computer units hoping to end up with one working device. Instead, he went down the rabbit hole of redesigning his own electronics to drive the Casio QT-1 seen here.
Especially interesting is the prototyping process for the replacement board. [Amen] used a “BluePill” STM32 microcontroller board at its heart, and used point-to-point soldering for the rest of the circuitry on a rectangle of protoyping board. That circuit is non-trivial, needing a 23 V source to drive the original VFD from the computer, a battery-backed real-time-clock (MCP7940), and a GPIO expander to scan the keys on the keypad.
It worked great, but couldn’t be cut down to fit in the case. The solution was a PCB designed to fit the footprint of the original. The modern guts still need more firmware work and a couple of tweaks like nudging that 23 V rail a bit higher to 26 V for better brightness, but the work already warrants a maniacal cry of “It’s Alive!”.
There was a time when any electronics student would have a slide rule hanging off their belt. By the 1970s, the slide rule changed over to an electronic calculator which was a pricy item. Today you can buy calculators at the dollar store. [JohnAudioTech] pulled out an old Radio Shack vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) calculator and found it didn’t work. Obviously, that means it is time to open it up.
It is fun to see one of these old devices opened up again. Consumer electronics with big through-hole ICs! Troubleshooting the device wound up being anti-climatic, as a broken wire to the battery compartment explained the whole thing.
As a teardown, though, this is a fun video. Not only are all the parts through-hole, but the PCB is clearly a manual layout with serpentine traces flowing across the board like some sort of art piece. Continue reading “An Old Calculator Lives Again”→