One of the joys of electronics as a hobby is how easy it is to get parts. Literally millions of parts are available from thousands of suppliers and hundreds of distributors, and everyone competes with each other to make it as easy as possible to put together an order from a BoM. If you need it, somebody probably has it.
But what do you do when you need a part that doesn’t exist anymore, and even when it did was only produced in small numbers? Easy – you create it yourself. That’s just what [Mike Gardi] did with this unique motorized rotary switch he needed to complete his replica of a 1960s computer trainer. We covered his build of the Minivac 601, a trainer from the early computer age that let experimenters learn the ropes of basic digital logic. It used mostly relays, lamps, and switches connected by jumpers, but it had one critical component – a rotary control that was used for input and, with the help of a motor, as an output indicator.
[Mike]’s version of the switch is as faithful to the original as possible, at least in terms of looks. The parts are mostly 3D-printed, with 16 reed switches embedded in the walls and magnets placed in the rotor. The motor to operate the rotor is a simple gear motor mounted to a hinged bracket; when the rotor needs to move, a solenoid pulls the motor’s friction drive wheel up against the rotor.
The unique control slots right into the Minivac replica and really completes the look and feel. Hats off to [Mike] for a delightful replica of a lost bit of computer history and the dedication to see it through to completion.
Turn the clock back six decades or so and imagine you’re in the nascent computer business. You know your product has immense value, but only to a limited customer base with the means to afford such devices and the ability to understand them and put them to use. You know that the market will eventually saturate unless you can create a self-sustaining computer culture. But how does one accomplish such a thing in 1961?
Enter the Minivac 601. The brainchild of no less a computer luminary than Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, the Minivac 601 was ostensibly a toy in the vein of the “100-in-1” electronics kits that would appear later. It used electromechanical circuits to teach basic logic, and now [Mike Gardi] has created a replica of the original Minivac 601.
Both the original and the replica use relays as logic switches, which can be wired in various configurations through jumpers. [Mike]’s version is as faithful to the original as possible with modern parts, and gets an extra authenticity boost through the use of 3D-printed panels and a laser-cut wood frame to recreate the look of the original. Sadly, the unique motorized rotary switch, used for both input and output on the original, has yet to be fully implemented on the replica. But everything else is spot on, and the vintage look is great. Extra points to [Mike] for laboriously recreating the original programming terminals with solder lugs and brass eyelets.
Dr. Claude E. Shannon was born 100 years ago tomorrow. He contributed greatly to the fields of engineering, communications, and computer science but is not a well known figure, even to those in the field. However, his work touches us all many times each day. The network which delivered this article to your computer or smartphone was designed upon important theories developed by Dr. Shannon.
Shannon was born and raised in Michigan. He graduated from the University of Michigan with degrees in Mathematics and Electrical Engineering. He continued his graduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he obtained his MS and PhD. He worked for Bell Laboratories on fire-control systems and cryptography during World War II and in 1956 he returned to MIT as a professor.
Shannon’s first impactful contribution was his masters thesis which took the Boolean Algebra work of George Boole and applied it to switching circuits (then made up of relays). Before his work there was no formal basis for the analysis of switching systems, like telephone networks or elevator control systems. Shannon’s thesis developed the use of symbolic notation to represent networks and applied simplifying rules to optimize the system. These same rules later translated to vacuum tube and transistor logic aiding in the development of today’s computer systems. The thesis — A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits — was completed in 1937 and subsequently published in 1938 in the Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Shannon’s doctoral work continued in the same vein of applying mathematics someplace new, this time to genetics. Vannevar Bush, his advisor, commented, “It occurred to me that, just as a special algebra had worked well in his hands on the theory of relays, another special algebra might conceivably handle some of the aspects of Mendelian heredity”. Shannon’s work again is revolutionary, providing a mathematical basis for population genetics. Unfortunately, it was a step further than geneticists of time could take. His work languished, although interest increased over time.
My DSL line downloads at 6 megabits per second. I just ran the test. This is over a pair of copper twisted wires, the same Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) twisted pair that connected your Grandmother’s phone to the rest of the world. In fact, if you had that phone you could connect and use it today.
I can remember the old 110 bps acoustic coupler modems. Maybe some of you can also. Do you remember upgrading to 300 bps? Wow! Triple the speed. Gradually the speed increased through 1200 to 2400, and then finally, 56.6k. All over the same of wires. Now we feel short changed if were not getting multiple megabits from DSL over that same POTS line. How can we get such speeds over a system that still allows your grandmother’s phone to be connected and dialed? How did the engineers know these increased speeds were possible?
The answer lies back in 1948 with Dr. Claude Shannon who wrote a seminal paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. In that paper he laid the groundwork for Information Theory. Shannon also is recognized for applying Boolean algebra, developed by George Boole, to electrical circuits. Shannon recognized that switches, at that time, and today’s logic circuits followed the rules of Boolean Algebra. This was his Master’s Thesis written in 1937.
Shannon’s Theory of Communications explains how much information you can send through a communications channel at a specified error rate. In summary, the theory says:
There is a maximum channel capacity, C,
If the rate of transmission, R, is less than C, information can be transferred at a selected small error probability using smart coding techniques,
The coding techniques require intelligent encoding techniques with longer blocks of signal data.
What the theory doesn’t provide is information on the smart coding techniques. The theory says you can do it, but not how.
In this article I’m going to describe this work without getting into the mathematics of the derivations. In another article I’ll discuss some of the smart coding techniques used to approach channel capacity. If you can understand the mathematics, here is the first part of the paper as published in the Bell System Technical Journal in July 1948 and the remainder published later that year. To walk though the system used to fit so much information on a twisted copper pair, keep reading.