All Hail Your New Giant 555 Timer Overlord

You asked for it, and now you’ve got it. It’s taken more than a decade of accumulated complaining, but this gigantic 555 timer IC has finally gathered enough psychokinetic energy to take corporeal form and demand fealty from the readers of Hackaday.

Or not. The less exciting explanation is that creator [Rudraksha Vegad] was looking for a way to combine his interests in discrete electronic components and woodworking. The result is an incredible build that’s more than just a conversation starter; this desktop-sized version of the iconic integrated timer circuit is fully functional. You can even hook it up to a breadboard, assuming you’ve got some alligator clips handy.

Lifting the lid on this wooden “chip” uncovers an intricate hand-wired array of discrete components that stand in for the microscopic goings on inside the real thing. He’s even gone through the trouble of recreating the symbols for the comparators and flip-flops that you’d see in a diagram of a 555 using wooden shapes to elevate their respective components. It might not fit the classical definition, but surely this must count as some form of circuit sculpture.

[Rudraksha] credits several other projects for not just inspiring him to create his own mega 555, but for helping him wrap his head around the internal workings of everyone’s favorite IC. Using components he salvaged from old hardware, he says the project ended up being very educational for him. These days, when most makers are more likely to reach for a microcontroller than a logic chip, spending some quality time with transistors and passives can be quite illuminating.

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A close-up view of surface-mount components on a circuit board

Smaller Is Sometimes Better: Why Electronic Components Are So Tiny

Perhaps the second most famous law in electronics after Ohm’s law is Moore’s law: the number of transistors that can be made on an integrated circuit doubles every two years or so. Since the physical size of chips remains roughly the same, this implies that the individual transistors become smaller over time. We’ve come to expect new generations of chips with a smaller feature size to come along at a regular pace, but what exactly is the point of making things smaller? And does smaller always mean better?

Smaller Size Means Better Performance

Over the past century, electronic engineering has improved massively. In the 1920s, a state-of-the-art AM radio contained several vacuum tubes, a few enormous inductors, capacitors and resistors, several dozen meters of wire to act as an antenna, and a big bank of batteries to power the whole thing. Today, you can listen to a dozen music streaming services on a device that fits in your pocket and can do a gazillion more things. But miniaturization is not just done for ease of carrying: it is absolutely necessary to achieve the performance we’ve come to expect of our devices today. Continue reading “Smaller Is Sometimes Better: Why Electronic Components Are So Tiny”

Homebrew RISC-V Computer Has Beauty And Brains

Building your own CPU is arguably the best way to truly wrap your head around how all those ones and zeros get flung around inside of a computer, but as you can probably imagine even a relatively simple processor takes an incredible amount of time and patience to put together. Plus, more often than not you’re then left with a maze of wires and perfboards that takes up half your desk and doesn’t do a whole lot more than blink some LEDs.

An early prototype of the Pineapple ONE.

But the Pineapple ONE, built by [Filip Szkandera] isn’t your average homebrew computer. Oh sure, it still took two years for him to design, debug, and assemble, his 32-bit RISC-V CPU and all its associated hardware; but the end result is a gorgeous looking machine that runs C programs and offers a basic interactive shell over VGA. In fact with its slick 3D printed enclosure, vertically stacked construction, and modular peripheral connections, it looks more like some kind of high-tech scientific instrument than a computer; homebrew or otherwise.

[Filip] says he was inspired to build this 500 kHz (yes, kilohertz) beauty using only discrete logic components by [Ben Eater]’s well known 8-bit  breadboard computer and [Robert Baruch]’s LMARV-1 (Learn Me A RISC-V, version 1). He spent six months simulating the machine before he even started creating the schematics, let alone design the individual boards. He tried to keep all of his PCB’s under 100 x 100 mm to take advantage of discounts from the fabricator, which ultimately led to the decision to align the nine boards vertically and connect them together with pin headers.

In the video below you can see [Filip] start up the computer, call up a bit of system information, and even play a rudimentary game of snake before peeking and poking some of the machine’s 512 kB of RAM. It sounds like there’s still some work to be done and bugs to squash, but we’ve already seen enough to say this machine has more than earned entry into the pantheon of master-crafted homebrew computers.

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Won’t Somebody, Please, Think Of The Transistors!

At what age did you begin learning about electronics? What was the state of the art available to you at the time and what kinds of things were you building? For each reader these answers can be wildly different. Our technology advances so quickly that each successive generation has a profoundly different learning experience. This makes it really hard to figure out what basic knowledge today will be most useful tomorrow.

Go on, guess the diode!
Go on, guess the diode!

Do you know the forward voltage drop of a diode? Of course you do. Somewhere just below 0.7 volts, give or take a few millivolts, of course given that it is a silicon diode. If you send current through a 1N4148, you can be pretty certain that the cathode voltage will be that figure below the anode, every time. You probably also have a working knowledge that a germanium diode or a Schottky diode will have a lower forward voltage, and you’ll know in turn that a bipolar transistor will begin to turn on when the voltage between its base and emitter achieves that value. If you know Ohm’s Law, you can now set up a biasing network and without too many problems construct a transistor amplifier.

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Capacitors Made Easy The Hackaday Way

If you build electronic circuits on a regular basis the chances are you will have used capacitors many times. They are a standard component along with the resistor whose values are lifted off the shelf without a second thought. We use them for power supply smoothing and decoupling, DC blocking, timing circuits, and many more applications.

Different capacitor applications. By Elcap (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Different capacitor applications. By Elcap (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
A capacitor though is not simply a blob with two wires emerging from it and a couple of parameters: working voltage and capacitance. There is a huge array of capacitor technologies and materials with different properties. And while almost any capacitor with the right value can do the job in most cases, you’ll find that knowing more about these different devices can help you make something that doesn’t just do the job, but does the best possible job. If you’ve ever had to chase a thermal stability problem or seek out the source of those extra dBs of noise for example you will appreciate this.

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Transistor Logic Clock Has 777 Transistors

Sometimes, the parts list says it all. 777 transistors, 1223 resistors, 136 LEDs, 455 crimp connectors, 41 protoboards and 500 grams of solder. That’s what went into this transistor logic clock build.

While additional diodes and capacitors were tolerated in this project, a consequent implementation of a discrete transistor logic clock, of course, does not contain a quarz oscillator. Instead, it extracts its clock signal from the mains frequency in its power supply. Because mains frequency is slow, it can be stepped down to a clock-applicable 1 Hz by a simple counter unit which already spreads its discrete transistors across 4 protoboards.

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Most Of What You Wish You Knew About Coils Of Wire But Were Afraid To Ask

If you are a novice electronic constructor, you will become familiar with common electronic components. Resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes, LEDs, integrated circuits. These are the fodder for countless learning projects, and will light up the breadboards of many a Raspberry Pi or Arduino owner.

There is a glaring omission in that list, the inductor. True, it’s not a component with much application in simple analogue or logic circuits, and it’s also a bit more expensive than other passive components. But this omission creates a knowledge gap with respect to inductors, a tendency for their use to be thought of as something of a black art, and a trepidation surrounding their use in kits and projects.

We think this is a shame, so here follows an introduction to inductors for the inductor novice, an attempt to demystify them and encourage you to look at them afresh if you have always steered clear of them.

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