There’s nothing quite like going to a museum and being given a tour by a docent who really knows their way around the exhibits. When that docent has first hand experience in the subject matter, the experience is enhanced even further. So you can imagine our excitement when hacker, maker, and former DEC mainframe memory engineer [Ned Utzig] published a tour of what he calls “Memories of Weird Memories of Computers Past.” [Ned] expertly guides us through each technology, adding flavor and nuance to an already fascinating subject.
The tour begins with early storage media such as IBM punch cards, and then walks us through time to the paper tape, vacuum tubes, and even complex vats of mercury — all used for the sake of storing data either permanently or temporarily.
Next in the exhibit is an impressive CRT hack that isn’t unlike modern DRAM. The tour continues on to ferrite core memory such as that used on mainframes, minicomputers, and even the Apollo Guidance Computer. Each type is examined for its strengths and weaknesses and its place in computing history.
We really appreciated the imaginative question posed toward the end of the article. We won’t give it away here- it’s worth it to go give The Mad Ned Memo a read.
The art-music-technology collective “Electronicos Fantasticos!” (commonly known as Nicos) is the brain child of artist/musician [Ei Wada] in Japan. They revive old, retired and out-dated electrical appliances as new “electro-magnetic musical instruments” creating not just new ways to play music, but one that also involves the listener as a musician, gradually forming an interactive orchestra. They do this by creatively using the original functions of appliances like televisions and fans, hacking them in interesting ways to produce sound. The project started in the beginning of 2015, leading to the creation of a collaborative team — Nicos Orchest-Lab — around the end of that year. They have since appeared in concerts, including a performance at “Ars Electronica”, the world’s largest media arts festival in 2019.
For us hackers, the interesting bits can be found in the repository of their Work, describing sketchy but tantalising details of the musical instruments. Here are a few of the more interesting ones, but do check out their website for more amazing instruments and a lot of entertaining videos.
CRT-TV Gamelan – A percussion instrument made from old CRT monitors. Coloured stripes projected on the screen cause changes in static-electricity picked up by the players hands, which then propagates to an electrical coil attached to their foot. This signal is then patched to a guitar amplifier.
Electric Fan Harp – They take out the fan blade, and replace it with a “coded disk” containing punched holes. Then they shine a bulb from under the rotating disk, and the interrupted light is picked up by an optical receiver held by the player. Controlling the fan speed and the location of the receiver pickup, they can coax the fan to produce music – based on the idea “What if Jimi Hendrix, the god of electric guitars, played electric fans as instruments?”
Barcoder – This one is quite simple but produces amazing results, especially when you pair up with another Barcoder musician. The output of the barcode reader is pretty much directly converted to sound – just wave the wand over printed barcode sheets. And it works amazingly well when pointed at striped shirts too. Check out the very entertaining videos of this gizmo. This led to the creation of the Barcodress – a coded dress which creates an interactive music and dance performance.
Striped Shirtsizer – This one is a great hack and a synth with a twist. A camera picks up video signals, which is then fed to the “Audio” input of an amplifier directly. In the video on the project page, [Ei Wada] explains how he accidentally discovered this effect when he wrongly plugged the “yellow” video out connector to the audio input of his guitar amplifier. At an outdoor location, a bunch of people wearing striped shirts then become an interactive musician-audience performance.
Kankisenthizer a.k.a Exhaust Fancillator – This one consists of an array of industrial exhaust fans – although one could just as well use smaller instrument cooling fans. On one side is a bright light, and on the other a small solar cell. Light fluctuations picked up by the solar cell are then fed to the guitar amplifier. The array consists of fans with different numbers of blades. This, coupled with changing the fan speed, results in some amazing sound effects.
There’s a whole bunch more, and even though the “instructions” to replicate the instruments aren’t well documented, there’s enough for anyone who’s interested to start experimenting.
This isn’t [Emily’s] first rodeo. She previously built the mini CRT sculpture project seen to the left in the image above. Its centerpiece is a tiny CRT from an old video camera viewfinder, and it is fairly common for the driver circuit to understand composite video. And unlike CRTs, small video cameras with composite video output are easily available today for not much money. Together they bring a piece of 1980s-era video equipment into the modern selfie age. The cubic frame holding everything together is also the ground plane, but its main purpose is to give us an unimpeded view. We can admire the detail on this CRT and its accompanying circuitry representing 1982 state of the art in miniaturized consumer electronics. (And yes, high voltage components are safely insulated. Just don’t poke your finger under anything.)
With the experience gained from building that electrically simple brass frame, [Emily] then stepped up the difficulty for her follow-up project. It started with a sound synthesizer circuit built around a pair of 555 timers, popularized in the 1980s and nicknamed the Atari Punk Console. Since APC is a popular circuit found in several other Hackaday-featured projects, [Emily] decided she needed to add something else to stand out. Thus in addition to building her circuit in three-dimensional brass, two photocells were incorporated to give it rudimentary vision into its environment. Stimulus for this now light-sensitive APC were provided in the form of a RGB LED. One with a self-contained circuit to cycle through various colors and blinking patterns.
These two projects neatly bookend the range of roles brass rods can take in your own creations. From a simple frame that stays out of the way to being the central nervous system. While our Circuit Sculpture Contest judges may put emphasis the latter, both are equally valid ways to present something that is aesthetic in addition to being functional. Brass, copper, and wood are a refreshing change of pace from our standard materials of 3D-printed plastic and FR4 PCB. Go forth and explore what you can do!
Do you still have an old analog CRT television lying around? With the advent of digital signals, analog TV´s are going to the dumpster or the recycling center. But you can still put them to good use, just as [GreatScott!] did, by converting the TV into a crude oscilloscope.
The trick is to take control of the two deflection coils that move the electron beam inside the CRT in the horizontal and vertical directions. The video describes in detail the process of identifying the coils and using an Arduino nano in combination with a DAC to amplify the input signal in order to get the waveform in the TV screen. Step by step explanations and great editing make this project delightful to watch.
Even if you do not follow [GreatScott!]´s steps to build a simple oscilloscope, don´t throw away that vintage TV!, it is a great source of analog parts. The flyback transformer can be used to make a high voltage power supply, and you also get some nice high voltage capacitors (both electrolytic and mylar ones), the horizontal output transistor which is a high voltage one, ferrite transformers, magnet wire, plus a lot of other small parts. Other uses for old TV sets that you may want to try is to convert your TV into a gaming console, or an audio synthesizer controlled by drawing with a light-sensitive pen on a CRT television.
Sure, you could make it into a web server, but [markie] sent me his Mac SE/30 visualizer. It was inspired by another’s mac mod, but he was kind enough to write up an entire how-to. The audio signal was run directly into the deflection coils on the macs tubes. The mod is so simple, I might have to pick one up just for CRT experimentation.
[The next regular podcast cometh, but It’s delayed by my cold.]