Lady Ada Turns NeXT Equipment Into Something Useful

From the late 80s to the early 90s, [Steve Jobs] wasn’t at Apple. He built another company in the meantime, NeXT Computer, a company that introduced jet black workstations to universities and institutions, developed an incredible emphasis on object-oriented programming, and laid the groundwork for the Unix-ey flavor of Apple’s OS X. Coincidently, there is a lot of old NeXT gear at the Adafruit clubhouse – not that there’s anything wrong with that, we all have our own strange affectations and proclivities. Recently, [Lady Ada] turned one of the strangest components of the NeXT computer ecosystem into something useful: a computer speaker.

The item in question for this build is the NeXT ‘sound box’. When not using the very special NeXT monitor, the NeXT computer connects the monitor, keyboard, and speakers through this odd little box. There are two versions of the NeXT sound box, and peripherals from either version are incompatible with each other. ([Jobs] was known for his sense of design and a desire for a simplified user experience, you know.)

In [Lady Ada]’s initial teardown of the sound box, she discovers a few interesting things about this peripheral. There’s an I2S DAC inside there, connected to an unobtanium DB19 connector. Theoretically, that I2S device could be used to drive the speaker with digital audio. The only problem is the DB19 connector – they’re rare, and [Steve] from Big Mess o’ Wires bought the world’s supply.

Without these connectors, and since it’s only an hour-long show, [Lady Ada] went with the most effective hack. She grabbed a USB audio dongle/card, added a small amplifier, and soldered a few wires onto the power and ground pins of an IC. It’s simple, effective, fast, and turns an awesome looking 30-year-old peripheral into a useful device.

Replacing the CRT in a Vectrex

The Vectrex is a rare beast in the world of retro video games. Introduced in 1982, this was the only video game system to put a monitor right in the console, and it did so for good reason. This was a games system with vector graphics and rotating 3D objects, something that just couldn’t happen on the TV in the family room. A while ago, [John] dug his old Vectrex out of his basement and replaced a faulty logic board. The CRT was still broken, but with a little bit of research and a not-so-ugly kludge, he managed to replace the CRT in a Vectrex.

[John] found someone willing to part with an old CRT online, and after whipping out his credit card, the tube was on his way to his front door. This new tube wasn’t a direct drop in; The original Vectrex had small ears around the edges of the screen that served as mounting points. The new tube had no such ears. Now, a bit of plastic strapping holds the CRT in the chassis. It’s a bit of a kludge, but at least now [John] has a source of Vectrex CRTs.

While the rest of [John]’s repair work didn’t go as well – the Vectrex in question still has all the logic board problems it had when it was taken out of storage. This Vectrex does have a new CRT, and with a bit more work on rehabbing this old machine, it should keep on working for another thirty years.

Whenever you come cross an interesting CRT, make sure you snatch it up. Here’s another offering that uses a tiny screen for some classic MAME action.

Heathkit: Live, Die, Repeat

There is no company that has earned more goodwill from electronic tinkering hobbyists than Heathkit. For more than fifty years, Heathkit has been the measure all other electronic kit manufacturers have been compared to. Kits for everything – from televisions to radios to computer terminals – were all sold by Heathkit, and even now, nearly a quarter century since the last kit left the warehouse, there is still a desire for this manufacturer to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Heathkit lives once more, and this time it might be for real.

In recent years, Heathkit has had a confusing, if not troubled business plan. The company started manufacturing its signature products – electronic kits of every kind – in 1947. Production of these kits ended in 1992, and the company went on for another few years manufacturing educational materials and lighting controls. In 2011, Heathkit said they were back in the kit business, before shutting down a year later.

In 2013, an official Heathkit Facebook page was launched, a reddit AMA was held, and a mysterious stranger in the Hackaday comments section found a geocache placed by someone at Heathkit in a Brooklyn park. Absolutely nothing happened in 2014, or at least no one cared enough to hire a PI, which brings us to today’s announcement: Heathkit lives yet again.

This morning, the president of Heathkit sent a message to the ‘Heathkit Insiders’ email group explaining the goings on and new happenings:

We’ve designed and developed a wide range of entirely new kit products. We authored the manuals for these kits, complete with the beautiful line art you rely on, preserving and respecting our iconic historic Heathkit style. We developed many new inventions and filed patents on them. We relocated Heathkit, and set up a factory, and a warehouse, and offices, in Santa Cruz, California, near Silicon Valley. We built the back office infrastructure, vendor and supply chain relationships, systems, procedures, operations methods, and well-thought-out corporate structure that a manufacturing company needs to support its customers, to allow us to scale instantly the day we resume major kit sales. All this effort enables us to introduce a fleet of new kits and helps ensure Heathkit can grow, prosper, and continue to bring you great new products for a very long time.

The new Heathkit shop features their newest product, the Explorer Jr. AM Radio Receiver kit, a small kit radio available for $150. It’s actually a rather interesting kit with a nice design and an air variable cap for tuning, just like radios from a century ago. Whether anyone will pay $150 for an AM receiver in this century is another question entirely. The 21st century rebirth of Heathkit doesn’t just mean kits; they’re making apps now, with the first release being a crystal design tool for Android.

Virtually everyone in this little corner of the Internet, from Adafruit to Sparkfun, to Make magazine to everyone with a 3D printer owes a debt to Heathkit. This is the company that first turned DIY electronics into a successful business. Heathkit was the first, and they deserve to be recognized as the pioneers of the field.

The Donner Party were pioneers, too; just because you’re breaking new ground doesn’t mean you’re successful. The Heathkit of the 90s shuttered its doors for a reason. The factors behind the 1992 closing – cheap stuff from China, and the fact that not many people want to build their own electronics – are still with us. Still, the market for DIY electronics may be big enough, and Heathkit’s back catalog may be diverse enough that I won’t have to write another ‘Heathkit dies yet again’ post in a year or so. We can only hope.

VCF East X: The Not Trashy Eighty

The lowly TRS-80 doesn’t get much love in most circles; it’s constantly overshadowed by the popularity of the Apple II or computers that had graphics that weren’t terrible. For [Mike Loewen]’s VCF exhibit, he’s turning his TRS-80 into something good with SD card disk drives and custom graphics adapters.

The -80 in question is a Model 4, the fancy all-in-one version that could run CP/M. The disk drives in this computer were replaced with half-height 5 1/4″ drives, the 200ns RAM was replaced with 100ns RAM and modified to get rid of the wait states, and a hard drive is emulated on a SD card adapter thanks to an add-on from [Ian Mavric].

[Ian] is somewhat prolific in the world of TRS-80s; he reverse engineered the original hi-res graphics board and reimplemented it with video RAM chips of a more modern vintage.

Continue reading “VCF East X: The Not Trashy Eighty”

A Portable KIM-1

The KIM-1 was the first computer to use the 6502, a CPU that would later be found in the Apple, Ataris, Commodores, and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Being the first, the KIM-1 didn’t actually do a whole lot with only 1k of ROM and a bit more than 1k of RAM. This is great news for anyone with an Arduino; you can easily replicate an entire KIM-1, with a keypad and 7-segment display. That’s what [Scott] did, and he put it in an enclosure that would look right at home in a late 70s engineering lab.

The impetus for this build was [Scott]’s discovery of the KIM-Uno, a kit clone of the KIM-1 using an Arduino Pro Mini. The kit should arrive in a few weeks, so until then he decided to see if he could cobble one together with parts he had sitting around.

Inside a handheld industrial enclosure is an Arduino Uno, with a protoshield connecting the keypad and display. The display is an 11-digit, seven-segment display [Scott] picked up at a surplus shop, and the metal dome keypad came from a hamfest.

Getting the software working took a bit of work, but the most important parts are just modifications to the standard Arduino libraries.

Now that [Scott] has a KIM-1 replica, he can program this virtual 6502 one hex digit at a time, run Microchess, or use the entire thing as a programmable calculator.

Rewritable ROM for the Mac Plus

The Macintosh Classic – a small all-in-one computer with a 9″ monochrome screen –  was one of the more interesting machines ever released by Apple. It was the company’s first venture into a cost-reduced computer, and the first Macintosh to sell for less than $1000. Released in 1990, its list of features were nearly identical to the Macintosh Plus, released four years earlier. The Classic also had an interesting feature not found in any other Mac. It could boot a full OS, in this case System 6.0.3, by holding down a series of keys during boot. This made it an exceptional diskless workstation. It was cheap, and all you really needed was a word processor or spreadsheet program on a 1.44 MB floppy to do real work.

[Steve] over at Big Mess O’ Wires had the same idea as the Apple engineers back in the late 80s. Take a Macintosh Plus, give it a bit more ROM, and put an OS in there. [Steve] is going a bit farther than those Apple engineers could have dreamed. He’s built a rewritable ROM disk for the Mac Plus, turning this ancient computer into a completely configurable diskless workstation.

The build replaces the two stock ROM chips with an adapter board filled with 29F040B Flash chips. They’re exactly what you would expect – huge, old PDIPs loaded up with Flash instead of the slightly more difficult to reprogram EEPROM. Because of the additional space, two additional wires needed to connected to the CPU.  The result is a full Megabyte of Flash available to the Macintosh at boot, in a computer where the normal removable disk drive capacity was only 800kB.

The hardware adapter for stuffing these flash chips inside a Mac Plus was made by [Rob Braun], while the software part of this build came from [Rob] and [Doug Brown]. They studied how the Macintosh Classic’s ROM disk driver worked, and [Rob Braun] developed a stand-alone ROM disk driver with a new pirate-themed startup icon. [Steve] then dug in and created an old-school Mac app in Metrowerks Codewarrior to write new values to the ROM. Anything from Shufflepuck to Glider, to a copy of System 7.1  can be placed on this ROM disk.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen ROM boot disks for old Macs. There was a lot of spare address space floating around in the old Mac II-series computers, and [Doug Brown] found a good use for it. Some of these old computers had optional ROM SIMM. You can put up to 8 Megabytes  in the address space reserved for the ROM, and using a similar ROM disk driver, [Doug] can put an entire system in ROM, or make the startup chime exceptionally long.

The Heathkit Mystery

Heathkit is a company that requires no introduction. From the mid-40s until the 90s, Heathkit was the brand for electronic kits ranging from test equipment, HiFis, amateur radio equipment, computers, to freakin’ robots. Their departure was a tragic loss for generations of engineers, electronic tinkerers and hobbyists who grew up with these excellent and useful kits.

Although Heathkit is dead, 2013 brought an announcement that Heathkit was back in the biz. A Facebook page was launched, a Reddit AMA was held, and the news was that Heathkit would rise from the dead in the first half of 2014. It’s now Christmas, 2014, and there’s no sign of Heathkit anywhere. Adafruit has been keeping a watchful eye on the on the (lack of) developments, and the only surprising thing to report is that there is nothing to report. There has been no new announcement, there are no new products, the “official” Heathkit website hasn’t been updated in a year, and no one knows what’s going on.

Adafruit has decided to dig into the matter, and while they’ve come up with a few items of note, there’s not much to report. A trademark for ‘HEATHKIT’ was filed October 27, 2014 – two months ago. An email was sent to the attorney of record and there has been no response.

This trademark was granted to Heathkit Company, Inc., incorporated in Delaware. Searching for any companies in Delaware using the Heathkit name returns exactly two results: Heathkit Company, Inc., and Heathkit Holdings, Inc.. Adafruit is probably going to pay the $20 to the Delaware Department of State to get the detailed information that includes Heathkit’s tax assessment and tax filing history.

The last bit of information comes from a whois on the domain. The relevant contacts have been emailed, and there are no further details. The Heathkit virtual museum was contacted for information, as was the news editor for Nobody knows anything, or at least nobody is telling anybody anything.

To date, the only physical evidence of Heathkit’s rebirth is a geocache that was left at Brooklyn Bridge Park, announced during the Reddit AMA. This geocache was recovered by reddit user IFoundTheHeathKit, a throwaway account that had no posts before or since finding the cache. We have no idea what was in that geocache, what the ‘secret passphrase’ or set of instructions was, or if anything ever came of the promise to send one of the first new kits.

So there ‘ya go. A lot of words but no information. If you have any info, the Adafruit crew would like to have a word with you.


The person who found the Heathkit geocache has been found:










The full comment referred to below is,

Hey, person who found the Heathkit geocache here. The secret passcode was an Einstein quote about radio vs wired communication (invisible cats), and they said they’d send me something in early 2014. Never had any communication except through FB, and they haven’t replied to any of my recent messages.

IFoundTheHeathKit might want to email Adafruit with a copy of all the emails.