Hackaday & Tindie UK Tour Adds Milton Keynes

Hackaday and Tindie are on the road in the UK and we want you to grab one of your projects and come hang out! We have three meetups scheduled over the coming week:

Fresh from our Dublin Unconference and following our London meetup which is happening today, Hackaday and Tindie are staying on the road. We’ve already told you about Nottingham on the 18th, and Cambridge on the 19th, to those two we’re adding Milton Keynes on the 23rd.

We’ll be at convening at Milton Keynes Makerspace on the evening of Monday the 23rd, a community hackspace venue with easy access and parking, and a vibrant community of members. It shares an industrial unit with the local Men In Sheds, so look out for their sign. Entry is free but please get a ticket so we know the amount of pizza and soft drinks we need to arrange. Bring along whatever you are working on, we’d love to see one of your projects, whatever it is!

At the end of the month we will also be at Maker Faire UK in Newcastle, Meeting you, our readers, is important to us, and though we can’t reach everywhere we would like to try to get further afield in the future. Please watch this space.

Review: Centre For Computing History

With almost everything that contains a shred of automation relying on a microcontroller these days, it’s likely that you will own hundreds of microprocessors beside the obvious ones in your laptop or phone. Computing devices large and small have become such a part of the fabric of our lives that we cease to see them, the devices and machines they serve just work, and we get on with our lives.

It is sometimes easy to forget then how recent an innovation they are.  If you were born in the 1960s for example, computers would probably have been something spoken in terms of the Space Race or science fiction, and unless you were lucky you would have been a teenager before seeing one in front of you.

Having seen such an explosive pace of development in a relatively short time, it has taken the historians and archivists a while to catch up. General museums have been slow to embrace the field, and specialist museums of computing are still relative infants in the heritage field. Computers lend themselves to interactivity, so this is an area in which the traditional static displays that work so well for anthropological artifacts or famous paintings do not work very well.

There's the unobtrusive sign by the level crossing, Cambridge's version of the black mailbox.
There’s the unobtrusive sign by the level crossing, Cambridge’s version of the black mailbox.

Tucked away next to a railway line behind an industrial estate in the city of Cambridge, UK, is one of the new breed of specialist computer museum. The Centre for Computing History houses a large collection of vintage hardware, and maintains much of it in a running condition ready for visitors to experiment with.

Finding the museum is easy enough if you are prepared to trust your mapping application. It’s a reasonable walk from the centre of the city, or for those brave enough to pit themselves against Cambridge’s notorious congestion there is limited on-site parking. You find yourself winding through an industrial park past tile warehouses, car-parts shops, and a hand car wash, before an unobtrusive sign next to a railway level crossing directs you to the right down the side of a taxi company. In front of you then is the museum, in a large industrial unit.

Pay your entrance fee at the desk, Gift Aid it using their retro green screen terminal application if you are a British taxpayer, and you’re straight into the exhibits. Right in front of you surrounding the café area is something you may have heard of if you are a Hackaday reader, a relatively recent addition to the museum, the Megaprocessor.

The Megaprocessor, playing Tetris
The Megaprocessor, playing Tetris

If we hadn’t already covered it in some detail, the Megaprocessor would be enough for a long Hackaday article in its own right. It’s a 16-bit processor implemented using discrete components, around 42,300 transistors and a LOT of indicator LEDs, all arranged on small PCBs laid out in a series of large frames with clear annotations showing the different functions. There is a whopping 256 bytes of RAM, and its clock speed is measured in the KHz. It is the creation of [James Newman], and his demonstration running for visitors to try is a game of Tetris using the LED indicators on the RAM as a display.

To be able to get so up close and personal with the inner workings of a computer is something few who haven’t seen the Megaprocessor will have experienced. There are other computers with lights indicating their innermost secrets such as the Harwell Dekatron, but only the Megaprocessor has such a clear explanation and block diagram of every component alongside all those LED indicators. When it’s running a game of Tetris it’s difficult to follow what is going on, but given that it also has a single step mode it’s easy to see that this could be a very good way to learn microprocessor internals.

The obligatory row of BBC Micros.
The obligatory row of BBC Micros.

The first room off the café contains a display of the computers used in British education during the 1980s. There is as you might expect a classroom’s worth of Acorn BBC Micros such as you would have seen in many schools of that era, but alongside them are some rarer exhibits. The Research Machines 380Z, for example, an impressively specified Z80-based system from Oxford that might not have the fame of its beige plastic rival, but that unlike the Acorn was the product of a company that survives in the education market to this day. And an early Acorn Archimedes, a computer which though you may not find it familiar you will certainly have heard of the processor that it debuted. Clue: The “A” in “ARM” originaly stood for “Acorn”.

The LaserDisc system, one you won't have at home.
The LaserDisc system, one you won’t have at home.

The rarest exhibit in this froom though concerns another BBC Micro, this time the extended Master System. Hooked up to it is an unusual mass storage peripheral that was produced in small numbers only for this specific application, a Philips LaserDisc drive. This is one of very few surviving functional Domesday Project systems, an ambitious undertaking from 1986 to mark the anniversary of the Norman Domesday Book in which the public gathered multimedia information to be released on this LaserDisc application. Because of the rarity of the hardware this huge effort swiftly became abandonware, and its data was only saved for posterity in the last decade.

The main body of the building houses the bulk of the collection. Because this is a huge industrial space, the effect is somewhat overwhelming, as though the areas are broken up by some partitions you are immediately faced with a huge variety of old computer hardware.

The largest part of the hall features the museum’s display of home computers from the 1980s and early 1990s. On show is a very impressive collection of 8-bit and 16-bit micros, including all the ones we’d heard of and even a few we hadn’t. Most of them are working, turned on, and ready to go, and in a lot of cases their programming manual is alongside ready for the visitor to sit down and try their hand at a little BASIC. There are so many that listing them would result in a huge body of text, so perhaps our best bet instead is to treat you to a slideshow (click, click).

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Definitely not Pong, oh no.
Definitely not Pong, oh no.

Beyond the home micros, past the fascinating peek into the museum’s loading bay, and there are a selection of arcade cabinets and then a comprehensive array of games consoles. Everything from the earliest Pong clones to the latest high-powered machines with which you will no doubt be familiar is represented, so if you are of the console generation and the array of home computers left you unimpressed, this section should have you playing in no time.

One might be tempted so far to believe that the point of this museum is to chart computers as consumer devices and in popular culture, but as you reach the back of the hall the other face of the collection comes to the fore. Business and scientific computing is well-represented, with displays of word processors, minicomputers, workstations, and portable computing.

The one that started it all
The one that started it all

On a pedestal in a Perspex box all of its own is something rather special, a MITS Altair 8800, and a rare example for UK visitors of the first commercially available microcomputer. Famously its first programming language was Microsoft BASIC, this machine can claim to be that from which much of what we have today took its start.

In the corner of the building is a small room set up as an office of the 1970s, a sea of wood-effect Formica with a black-and-white TV playing period BBC news reports. They encourage you to investigate the desks as well as the wordprocessor, telephone, acoustic coupler, answering machine and other period items.

UK phone afficionados would probably point out that office phones were rearely anything but black.
UK phone aficionados would probably point out that office phones were rarely anything but black.

The museum has a small display of minicomputers, with plenty of blinkenlight panels to investigate even if they’re not blinking. On the day of our visit one of them had an engineer deep in its internals working on it, so while none of them were running it seems that they are not just static exhibits.

Finally, at various points around the museum were cabinets with collections of related items. Calculators, Clive Sinclair’s miniature televisions, or the evolution of the mobile phone. It is these subsidiary displays that add the cherry to the cake in a museum like this one, for they are much more ephemeral than many of the computers.

This is one of those museums with so many fascinating exhibits that it is difficult to convey the breadth of its collection in the space afforded by a Hackaday article.

There is an inevitable comparison to be made between this museum and the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park that we reviewed last year. It’s probably best to say that the two museums each have their own flavours, while Bletchley has more early machines such as WITCH or their Colossus replica as well as minis and mainframes, the Centre for Computing History has many more microcomputers as well as by our judgement more computers in a running and usable condition. We would never suggest a one-or-the-other decision, instead visit both. You won’t regret it.

The Centre for Computing History can be found at Rene Court, Coldhams Road, Cambridge, CB1 3EW. They are open five days a week from Wednesday through to Sunday, and seven days a week during school holidays. They open their doors at 10 am and close at 5 pm, with last admissions at 4 pm. Entry is £8 for grown-ups, and £6 for under-16s. Under-5s are free. If you do visit and you are a UK tax payer, please take a moment to do the gift aid thing, they are after all a charity.

Beer And Hacks In London and Beyond

We’ve been all over the UK this month, our most recent Hackaday gathering just two nights past. With much hardware and hacker show and tell (recounted below) I wanted to make sure nobody missed the chance to join in as we’ll be in Bletchley on Saturday and in Cambridge on Wednesday. Whether you need more convincing to walk out the door and join in the fun, or just want to the see the excellent hardware so far displayed, keep reading to share in the fun from Wednesday night.

London pubs have an unfavourable image among provincial folk, one of being strange neon-lit places populated by vast crowds of very loud people in suits drinking cheap wine at expensive prices. The truth is though that the capital’s pubs are as diverse as those anywhere else in the country, from shabby quiet backstreet boozers with their aged customers nursing pints of Fullers to achingly hipster faux-Victorian gin-palaces in which young men sporting preposterous beards they’ll regret in five years time drink microbrewery ales you won’t have heard of served in glass tankards. On a hot August evening the patrons spill out onto the pavement and provide a handy reference to the would-be drinker as to the nature of the establishment.

This warm-evening exodus served our community well night before last, for when a group of Hackaday readers and Tindie sellers converged upon a pub in Fitzrovia there was enough room to reach the bar and though it was hardly quiet we could at least discuss the things we’d brought along. My colleague [Jasmine] had organised the event and was on hand with a pile of stickers and other swag.

A select group of hackers and makers made the journey. Some of them, such as my friend [David], I had encountered frequently online but never met in person so it was good to put a face to a name, while others I knew only by the reputation they had garnered through the projects they’d put on Hackaday.io or Tindie. I will undoubtedly fail to mention a few names in this quick round-up of a few of the projects, so before I start I would like to thank everyone for coming along and making it such a good evening.

[Jasmine] as seen by [Mike]'s LED screen.
[Jasmine] as seen by [Mike]’s LED screen.

Electric Stuff from Mike’s Workshop

Most visible because of an extensive range of very bright LED projects was [Mike], of [Mike’s Electric Stuff] fame. His PCB density was impressive, though he did admit to having a pick-and-place machine. Especially useful for those large LED matrices. Of note was a pentagonal LED screen with integrated camera, originally part of an LED screen polyhedron. This board offered a rare glimpse of a Raspberry Pi Compute Module in the wild.

Scope Probe Sans Pound Sink

Opposite me for most of the evening was [Leonerd], with his oscilloscope current probe adapter. This board as you might expect contains a very low value shunt resistor and an amplifier, allowing the accurate measurement of low current transients without laying down the GDP of a small country to buy one from a high-end test equipment manufacturer. I was party to a very interesting conversation between him and [Mike] on the subject of instrumentation amplifiers, something of personal interest from my experience with RF test equipment.

The RC2014 in mid-render
The RC2014 in mid-render

A Wild Z80 Appeared

Also present was [Spencer] with his RC2014 Z80-based computer. He’d brought along the fully tricked-out version with keyboard and screen, and had it running a fractal graphic generator written in BASIC. It’s a project that touches a spot in the heart of people of a certain age, if your first computer came from Sir Clive Sinclair then maybe you’ll understand.

The value of the evening was not solely in the kits and projects on display though. Whenever you get a group from our wider community together in a convivial environment the creative discourse flows in unexpected direction, knowledge is shared, and new ideas are formed. Part of the global Hackaday and Tindie community got to know each other yesterday evening, and from that will come fresh projects. They may not necessarily change the world, but everything has to start somewhere.

This event was one of a short series following our successful bring-a-hack at EMF Camp. We were very pleased to see the projects people brought along, they comprehensively eclipsed the little radio board that was my offering. The run of UK events isn’t over, we have ones coming up at Bletchley and Cambridge, and as always keep an eye on the Hackaday.io events page for global events within our community.

Birthday Celebrations The Pi Way

The William Gates Building concourse packed with Pi enthusiasts
The William Gates Building concourse packed with Pi enthusiasts

On a damp and cold Saturday in early March the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory threw open its doors to the Raspberry Pi community. The previous Monday had been the fourth (or first, if you are a leap year pedant!) birthday of the little single-board computer, and last weekend saw its official birthday celebration.

The festivities took the form of an exhibition floor with both traders and community show-and-tell exhibits, plus a packed schedule of workshops and talks. With the Raspberry Pi 3 launch only a few days before there were no surprise announcements of exciting new hardware, but it did provide a good networking opportunity for the Pi community and a chance to test the state of the Raspberry Pi nation.

The most obvious first impression at the event was that it was one that catered for a diverse range of ages and ability groups. Side-by-side with parents and their children were educators, and the maker community. The range of exhibits was therefore slanted somewhat towards a younger age range with games and interactive exhibits, and there was more than a slight educational flavour to the event. This was entirely in keeping with the Foundation’s objectives, and since it is events like these that are inspiring the Hackaday readers of the next decade, a very welcome sight. Join us after the break for a look at all that was happening at the event.

Continue reading “Birthday Celebrations The Pi Way”

Hacking Eating Tracking

There’s a great hackathon going on this weekend in the Boston area. Hacking Eating Tracking challenges participants to develop technology that will help guide personal behavior toward a healthier lifestyle.

The event in hosted in Cambridge, MA by Harvard University. It isn’t focused on giving you a diet that you need to follow. It looks instead at how some more abstract behavior changes will cause your body to do this for you. One really quick example is to change the hand in which you hold your fork, or swap out the fork for a different utensil. Going “lefty” while you eat can change the cadence of your consumption and my impact how many calories you consume before feeling full. This is a really fun type of hacking to delve into!

Hackaday is one of the Hackathon sponsors and [Sophi] is headed out to participate in the weekend of building. She’s planning to work with a Pixy Camera which can measure depth data and can separate colors. Of course decisions on the build direction won’t be made until she and her teammates put their heads together, but she did have a few preliminary ideas. Several of these cameras might be used in a supermarket to gather data on where customers tend to congregate and how aisle flow and stock choices might be able to change behavior.

If you’re not in the area you should still be able to follow along as the event helps to improve people’s lives through behavior. The hackathon will be using the Hackaday.io Hackathon framework. Teams will register and update their projects throughout the weekend. We’re looking forward to seeing what is built using the crate of LightBlue Bean boards we sent along from the Hackaday Store.

Hackerspace Tours: Cambridge Makespace

Part of our whirlwind UK visit took us to Cambridge, where we had the joyous opportunity to check out Cambridge Makespace. The main space was formerly part of the Institute for Manufacturing Robot Lab at Cambridge University, so it has a long heritage of supporting engineering innovation. Continue reading “Hackerspace Tours: Cambridge Makespace”