Ergo Keyboard Build Issue Becomes Crystal Clear

Somewhere between the onset of annoying hand pain and the feeling of worn-out, mushy switches, [sinbeard]’s keyboard dissatisfaction came to a head. He decided it was time to slip into something bit more ergonomic and settled on building an Iris — a small split keeb with an ortholinear (non-staggered) key arrangement.

The Iris is open source and uses an on-board controller, so you can have the boards fabbed and do a lot of SMD soldering, or get a pair of PCBs with all of that already done. [sinbeard] went the latter route with this build, but there’s still plenty of soldering and assembly to do before it’s time to start clackin’, such as the TRRS jacks, the rotary encoders, and of course, all the switches. It’s a great way for people to get their feet wet when it comes to building keyboards.

Everything went according to plan until it was time to flash the firmware and it didn’t respond. It’s worth noting that both of the Iris PCBs are the same, and both are fully populated. This is both good and bad.

It’s bad you have two on-board microcontrollers and their crystals to worry about instead of one. It’s good because there’s a USB port on both sides so you can plug in whichever side you prefer, and this comes in mighty handy if you have to troubleshoot.

When one side’s underglow lit up but not the other, [sinbeard] busted out the ISP programmer. But in the end, he found the problem — a dent in the crystal — by staring at the board. A cheap replacement part and a little hot air rework action was all it took to get this Iris to bloom.

Want to build a keyboard but need a few more keys? Check out the dactyl and the ErgoDox.

A Simple Science Fair AM Transmitter

A crystal radio is a common enough science fair project, but the problem is, there isn’t much on anymore. The answer is, of course, obvious: build your own AM transmitter, too. AM modulation isn’t that hard to do and [Science Buddies] has plans for how to build one with a canned oscillator and an audio transformer.

We don’t imagine the quality of this would be so good, but for a kid’s science project it might be worth a shot. Maybe something like “What kind of materials block radio waves?” would be a good project statement.

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A PIC And A Few Passives Support Breakout In Glorious NTSC Color

“Never Twice the Same Color” may be an apt pejorative, but supporting analog color TV in the 1950s without abandoning a huge installed base of black-and-white receivers was not an option, and at the end of the day the National Television Standards System Committee did an admirable job working within the constraints they were given.

As a result of the compromises needed, NTSC analog signals are not the easiest to work with, especially when you’re trying to generate them with a microcontroller. This PIC-based breakout-style game manages to accomplish it handily, though, and with a minimal complement of external components. [Jacques] undertook this build as an homage to both the classic Breakout arcade game and the color standard that would drive the home version of the game. In addition to the PIC12F1572 and a crystal oscillator, there are only a few components needed to generate the chroma and luminance signals as well as horizontal and vertical sync. The game itself is fairly true to the original, although a bit twitchy and unforgiving judging by the gameplay video below. [Jacques] has put all the code and schematics up on GitHub for those who wish to revive the analog glory days.

Think NTSC is weird compared to PAL? You’re right, and it’s even weirder than you might know. [Matt] at Stand Up Maths talked about it a while back, and it turns out that a framerate of 29.97 fps actually makes sense when you think it through.

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Understanding The Quartz Crystal Resonator

Accurate timing is one of the most basic requirements for so much of the technology we take for granted, yet how many of us pause to consider the component that enables us to have it? The quartz crystal is our go-to standard when we need an affordable, known, and stable clock frequency for our microprocessors and other digital circuits. Perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at it.

The first electronic oscillators at radio frequencies relied on the electrical properties of tuned circuits featuring inductors and capacitors to keep them on-frequency. Tuned circuits are cheap and easy to produce, however their frequency stability is extremely affected by external factors such as temperature and vibration. Thus an RF oscillator using a tuned circuit can drift by many kHz over the period of its operation, and its timing can not be relied upon. Long before accurate timing was needed for computers, the radio transmitters of the 1920s and 1930s needed to stay on frequency, and considerable effort had to be maintained to keep a tuned-circuit transmitter on-target. The quartz crystal was waiting to swoop in and save us this effort.

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Oscillator Design By Simulation

[Craig] wanted to build a 19.2 MHz crystal oscillator. He knew he wanted a Pierce oscillator, but he also knew that getting a good design is often a matter of trial and error. He used a 30-day trial of a professional simulation package, Genesys from Keysight, to look at the oscillator’s performance without having to build anything. He not only did a nice write up about his experience, but he also did a great video walkthrough (see below).

The tool generates a sample schematic, although [Craig] deleted it and put his own design into the simulator. By running simulations, he was able to look at the oscillator’s performance. His first cut showed that the circuit didn’t meet the Barkhausen criteria and shouldn’t oscillate. Unfortunately, his prototype did, in fact, oscillate.

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Designing A Crystal Ladder Bandpass Filter

Most hobbyists use crystals as an external clock signal for a microcontroller. A less common use would be to make a bandpass filter (BPF) for an RF signal. [Dan Watson] explains his crystal ladder design on his blog and links to several sources for understanding the theory and creating your own crystal ladder band pass filter. If you want a set of these purple PCBs you can order them straight from the purple fab.

[Dan]’s schematic
One of the sources that [Dan] cites is [Larry Benko]’s personal site which is primarily dedicated to amateur radio projects. Which you can find much more in-depth information regarding the design of a xtal BPF. [Larry] goes into detail about the software he uses and some of the applications of crystal ladder filters.

BPF designed by [Larry]
BPF designed by [Larry]
The process includes measuring individual xtals to determine which ones will work together for your target frequency. [Larry] also walks you through the software simulation process using LTSpice. If you aren’t familiar with Spice simulation you can get caught up by checking out the series of Spice articles by our very own [Al Williams].

Thanks to Dangerous Prototypes for the tip.

The Evolution Of Oscillations

The laptop I’m using, found for 50 bucks in the junk bins of Akihabara has a CPU that runs at 2.53GHz. Two billion five hundred and thirty million times every second electrons systematically briefly pulse. To the human mind this is unimaginable, yet two hundred years ago humanity had no knowledge of electrical oscillations at all.

There were clear natural sources of oscillation of course, the sun perhaps the clearest of all. The Pythagoreans first proposed that the earth’s rotation caused the suns daily cycle. Their system was more esoteric and complex than the truth as we now know it and included a postulated Counter-Earth, lying unseen behind a central fire. Regardless of the errors their theory contained, a central link was made between rotation and oscillation.

And rotational motion was exploited in early electrical oscillators. Both alternators, similar to those in use today, and more esoteric devices like the interrupter. Developed by Charles Page in 1838, the interrupter used rocking or rotational motion to dip a wire into a mercury bath periodically breaking a circuit to produce a simple oscillation.

As we progressed toward industrial electrical generators, alternating current became common. But higher and higher frequencies were also required for radio transmitters. The first transmitters had used spark gaps. These simple transmitters used a DC supply to charge a capacitor until it reached the breakdown voltage of the gap between two pieces of wire. The electricity then ionized the air molecules in the gap. Thus allowing current to flow, quickly discharging the capacitor. The capacitor charged again, allowing the process to repeat.

An Alexanderson Alternator

As you can see and hear in the video above spark gaps produce a noisy, far from sinusoidal output. So for more efficient oscillations, engineers again resorted to rotation.

The Alexanderson alternator uses a wheel on which hundreds of slots are cut. This wheel is placed between two coils. One coil, powered by a direct current, produces a magnetic field inducing a current in the second. The slotted disc, periodically cutting this field, produces an alternating current. Alexanderson alternators were used to generate frequencies of 15 to 30 KHz, mostly for naval applications. Amazingly one Alexanderson alternator remained in service until 1996, and is still kept in working condition.

A similar principal was used in the Hammond organ. You may not know the name, but you’ll recognize the sound of this early electronic instrument:

The Hammond organ used a series of tone wheels and pickups. The pickups consist of a coil and magnet. In order to produce a tone the pickup is pushed toward a rotating wheel which has bumps on its surface. These are similar to the slots of the Alexanderson Alternator, and effectively modulate the field between the magnet and the coil to produce a tone.

Amplifying the Oscillation

The operation of a tank circuit (from wikipedia)

So far we have purely relied on electromechanical techniques, however amplification is key to all modern oscillators, for which of course you require active devices. The simplest of these uses an inductor and capacitor to form a tank circuit. In a tank circuit energy sloshes back and forth between an inductor and capacitor. Without amplification, losses will cause the oscillation to quickly die out. However by introducing amplification (such as in the Colpitts oscillator) the process can be kept going indefinitely.

Oscillator stability is important in many applications such as radio transmission. Better oscillators allow transmissions to be packed more closely on the spectrum without fear that they might drift and overlap. So the quest for better, more stable oscillators continued. Thus the crystal oscillator was discovered, and productionized. This was a monumental effort.

Producing Crystal Oscillators

The video below shows a typical process used in the 1940s for the production of crystal oscillators:

Natural quartz crystals mined in Brazil were shipped to the US, and processed. I counted a total of 13 non-trivial machining/etching steps and 16 measurement steps (including rigorous quality control). Many of these quite advanced, such as the alignment of the crystal under an X-Ray using a technique similar to X-Ray crystalography.

These days our crystal oscillator production process is more advanced. Since the 1970s crystal oscillators have been fabricated in a photolithographic process. In order to further stabilize the crystal additional techniques such as temperature compensation (TCXO) or operating the crystal at a temperature controlled by the use of a heating element (OCXO) have been employed. For most applications this has proved accurate enough… Not accurate enough however for the timenuts.

Timenuts Use Atoms

Typical timenut wearing atomic wristwatch

For timenuts there is no “accurate enough”. These hackers strive to create the most accurate timing systems they can, which all of course rely on the most accurate oscillator they can devise.

Many timenuts rely on atomic clocks to make their measurements. Atomic clocks are an order of magnitude more precise than even the best temperature controlled crystal oscillators.

Bill Hammack has a great video describing the operation of a cesium beam oscillator. The fundamental process is shown in the image below. The crux is that cesium gas exists in two energy states, which can be separated under a magnetic field. The low energy atoms are exposed to a radiation source, the wavelength of which is determined by a crystal oscillator. Only a wavelength of exactly 9,192,631,770Hz will convert the low energy cesium atoms to the high energy form. The high energy atoms are directed toward a detector, the output of which is used to discipline the crystal oscillator, such that if the frequency of the oscillator drifts and the cesium atoms are no longer directed toward the detector its output is nudged toward the correct value. Thus a basic physical constant is used to calibrate the atomic clock.

The basic operating principle of a cesium atomic clock

While cesium standards are the most accurate oscillators known, Rubidium oscillators (another “atomic” clock) also provide an accurate and relatively cheap option for many timenuts. The price of these oscillators has been driven down due to volume production for the telecoms industry (they are key to GSM and other mobile radio systems) and they are now readily available on eBay.

With accurate time pieces in hand timenuts have performed a number of interesting experiments. To my mind the most interesting of these is measuring time differences due to relativistic effects. As is the case with one timenut who took his family and a car full of atomic clocks up Mt. Rainier for the weekend. When he returned he was able to measure a 20 nanosecond difference between the clocks he took on the trip and those he left at home. This time dilation effect was almost exactly as predicted by the theory of relativity. An impressive result and an amazing family outing!

It’s amazing to think that when Einstein proposed the theory of special relatively in 1905, even primitive crystal oscillators would not have been available. Spark gap, and Alexanderson alternators would still have been in everyday use. I doubt he could imagine that one day the fruits of his theory would be confirmed by one man, on a road trip with his kids as a weekend hobby project. Hackers of the world, rejoice.