Over the years, there have been several memory and display technologies that served a particular niche for a while, only to be replaced and forgotten when a more suitable technology came along. One of those was the dekatron: a combination memory and display tube that saw some use in the 1950s and ’60s but became obsolete soon after. Their retro design and combined memory/display functionality make them excellent components for today’s clock hackers however, as [grobinson6000] demonstrates in his Dekaclock project.
A dekatron tube is basically a neon tube with ten cathodes arranged in a circle. Only one of them is illuminated at any time, and you can make the tube jump to the next cathode by applying pulses to its pins. The Dekaclock uses the 50 Hz mains frequency to generate 20 ms pulses in one tube; when it reaches 100 ms, it triggers the next tube that counts hundreds of ms, which triggers another one that counts seconds, and so on with minutes and hours.
The Dekaclock uses no semiconductors at all: the entire system is built from glass tubes and passive components. However, [grobinson6000] also built an auxiliary system, full of semiconductors, that makes the clock a bit easier to use. It sits on top of the Dekaclock and automatically sets the correct time using a GPS receiver. It also keeps track of the time displayed by the dekatrons, and tells you how far they have drifted from their initial setting.
Both systems are housed in sleek wooden cases that perfectly fit the tubes’ retro aesthetic. [grobinson6000] was inspired to make the Dekaclock after watching another dekatron clock we featured earlier, and designed the GPS receiver to work alongside it. Dekatrons are surprisingly versatile devices: you can use them to make anything from internet speed gauges to kitchen timers.
Continue reading “Dekatron Clock Tells The Time, Sans Semiconductors” →
It took nearly a year for [Chris Crocker-White] to assemble this glorious mahogany and brass Geiger counter, but we think you’ll agree with us that it was time well spent. From the servo-actuated counter to the Nixie tubes and LED faux-decatrons, this project is an absolute love letter to antiquated methods of displaying information. Although for good measure, the internal Raspberry Pi also pushes all the collected radiation data into the cloud.
[Chris] says the design of this radiation monitor was influenced by his interest in steampunk and personal experience working on actual steam engines, but more specifically, he also drew inspiration from a counter built by [Richard Mudhar].
Based on a design published in Maplin back in 1987, [Richard] included a physical counter and LED “dekatron” displays as an homage to a 1960s era counter he’d used back in his school days. [Chris] put a modern spin on the electronics and added the glowing display of real-time Counts Per Minute (CPM) as an extra bonus; because who doesn’t like some Nixies in their steampunk?
Internally, the pulses generated by a common Geiger counter board are picked up by some custom electronics to drive the servo and LEDs. Triggered by those same pulses, the Raspberry Pi 3A+ updates the Nixie display and pushes the data out to the cloud for analysis and graphing. Note that the J305β Geiger tube from the detector has been relocated to the outside of the machine, with two copper elbows used as connectors. This improves the sensitivity of the instrument, but perhaps even more importantly, looks awesome.
We’ve seen some very high-tech DIY radiation detection gear over the years, but these clever machines that add a bit of whimsy to the otherwise mildly terrifying process of ionizing radiation are always our favorite.
Continue reading “Steampunk Geiger Counter Is A Mix Of Art And Science” →
One of the things that always attracts our eye in old movies is how many kinds of displays you see on old gear both real and imaginary. Really old stuff usually had meters or circular recorders. But slightly newer movies often had some kind of exotic digital display with Nixes or Numitron tubes. One of the really exotic display devices was a Dekatron. While these are pretty rare, you can make a stand-in using modern LEDs and [Dave] did just that in an entry into our square inch competition.
These were gas-filled tubes with ten positions. You had to reset the tube and then the tube would visibly count pulses providing a visual indicator from zero to nine. Depending on the tube configuration, you could use them to count or to act as a divider. Those with neon fill looked sort of orange, although there were argon-based ones that had a purple glow. You can see what an older version of the board looks like in the video below or skip to the second video if you want to see the real ones in action.
Continue reading “Packing 10 Into 1: A Square Inch Dekatron Replacement” →
A huge number of modern replicas of retro computers pass our screens here at Hackaday, and among them are an astonishing variety of technologies. Those who weren’t lucky enough to be present in the days when the building blocks of computing were coming together may have missed out on understanding gate-level operation of a computer. Put your super-powerful and super-complex systems-on-chip aside sometime and dig into the details of their distant ancestors.
Most such machines follow a very conventional architecture, so it is something of a surprise to find a project recreating a modern version of something far more obscure. The Harwell Dekatron, also known as the WITCH, can be found at the National Museum Of Computing in Bletchley, UK, and [David Anders] is building a modern all-electronic replica of it.
The original machine is currently the world’s oldest working digital computer, a hybrid electromechanical computer built at the start of the 1950s to perform calculations for British nuclear scientists. It was retired by the end of that decade and found its way — via a technical college, a museum, and a period of storage in a council archive — to Bletchley where it was restored to working order by 2012. Its special feature is the use of dekatron discharge tubes as memory, allowing an instant visual display of its working as it happens.
[David]’s replica uses modern logic chips to replicate the building blocks of the Harwell Dekatron, and his write-up is as fascinating for that as it is for his study of the real thing in the museum. We ran into [Dave] showing off this project at the Hackaday Dallas event last year and are excited to learn of the advancements since then from his Hackaday.io page. He’s put his research and designs on GitHub, and a series of YouTube videos, the introduction to which we’ve put below the break.
Continue reading “Reinventing The Harwell Dekatron” →
I was buying a new laptop the other day and had to make a choice between 4GB of memory and 8. I can remember how big a deal it was when a TRS-80 went from 4K (that’s .000004 GB, if you are counting) to 48K. Today just about all RAM (at least in PCs) is dynamic–it relies on tiny capacitors to hold a charge. The downside to that is that the RAM is unavailable sometimes while the capacitors get refreshed. The upside is you can inexpensively pack lots of bits into a small area. All of the common memory you plug into a PC motherboard–DDR, DDR2, SDRAM, RDRAM, and so on–are types of dynamic memory.
The other kind of common RAM you see is static. This is more or less an array of flip flops. They don’t require refreshing, but a static RAM cell is much larger than an equivalent bit of dynamic memory, so static memory is much less dense than dynamic. Static RAM lives in your PC, too, as cache memory where speed is important.
For now, at least, these two types of RAM technology dominate the market for fast random access read/write memory. Sure, there are a few new technologies that could gain wider usage. There’s also things like flash memory that are useful, but can’t displace regular RAM because of speed, durability, or complex write cycles. However, computers didn’t always use static and dynamic RAM. In fact, they are relatively newcomers to the scene. What did early computers use for fast read/write storage?
Continue reading “Thanks For The Memories: Touring The Awesome Random Access Of Old” →
[Sprite_tm], like most of us, is fascinated with the earlier ways of counting and controlling electrons. At a hacker convention, he found an old Dekatron tube hooked up to a simple spinner circuit. The prescription for this neon infatuation was to build something with a Dekatron, but making another spinner circuit would be a shame. Instead, he decided to do something useful and ended up building an Internet Speedometer with this vintage display tube.
Like all antique tubes, the Dekatron requires about 400V to glow. After a bit of Googling, [Sprite] found a project that drives a Dekatron with an AVR with the help of a boost converter. Borrowing the idea of controlling a boost converter with a microcontroller, [Sprite] built a circuit with the Internet’s favorite Internet of Things thing – the ESP8266 – that requires only a 12 volt wall wart and a handful of parts.
Controlling the rotating glow of a Dekatron is only half of the build; this device is an Internet speedometer, too. To read out his Internet speed, [Sprite] is using a managed switch that allows SNMP to read the number of incoming and outgoing octets on a network interface. By writing a simple SNMP client for the ESP8266, the device can read how clogged the Intertubes are, both incoming and outgoing.
With an acrylic case fresh out of the laser cutter and a remarkably good job at bending acrylic with a heat gun, [Sprite] has a tiny device that tells him how much Internet he’s currently using. He has a video of it running a speedtest, you can check that video out below.
Continue reading “An Internet Speedometer With A Dekatron” →
Sometimes, it’s the simple things that mesmerize. [JohnS_AZ] has created a simple dekatron style LED ring, but we can’t seem to stop watching his video. [John’s] LED ring began as a visual indicator for his Hackaday Prize entry, a water consumption display. Judging by his website, [John] is a bit of a display nut. Nixie tubes and huge clocks feature prominently.
We’ve seen plenty of LED projects using the trusty 74xx595 8-bit shift register. [John] personally isn’t a fan, as the entire chip is only rated to drive about 50mA. While hackers routinely push the chip several times past this limit, [John] found a chip designed for the task in the Texas Instruments TLC59282 16 channel constant current LED driver. (PDF link) While more expensive than the ‘595, the 59282 makes life much easier. Only one resistor is needed at the chip’s current sense pin, rather than a current-limiting resistor for each LED. The 59282 also provides a blank input, which is perfect for driving with PWM.
[John] designed a simple PCB with a the 59282 driving a ring of 16 LEDs. While he waited for the boards to come in, he wrote some test code for a Microchip PIC16F1509. [John’s] code is not optimized, but that makes it easy to see exactly which bit patterns he’s writing to the LEDs. It all makes for a great demo, and reminds us of those old Dekatron tubes.
It’s the demo video that makes this project. Click past the break and give it a watch. After several long days of judging entries, a really nice LED ring might be just what the doctor ordered.
Continue reading “LED Water Wheel Display Is Dekatron-tastic!” →