A 555-Shaped Discrete Component 555

While the “should have used a 555” meme is strong around these parts, we absolutely agree with [Kelvin Brammer]’s decision to make this 555-shaped plug-in replacement for the 555 timer chip using discrete parts, rather than just a boring old chip.

As [Kelvin] relates, this project started a while back as an attempt to both learn EDA and teach students about the inner workings of the venerable timer chip. The result was a 555-equivalent circuit on a through-hole PCB, with the components nicely laid out into the IC’s functional blocks. As a bonus, the PCB was attached to an 8-pin header which could be plugged right in as a direct replacement for the chip.

Fast forward a few years, and [Kelvin] needed to learn yet another EDA package; what better way than to repeat the 555 project? It was also a good time to step into SMD design, as well as add a little zazzle. While the updated circuit isn’t as illustrative of the internal arrangement of the 555, the visual celebration of the “triple nickel” is more than worth it. And, just like the earlier version, this one has a header so you can just plug and chug — with style.

Want to know how the 555 came to be? We’ve covered that. You can also look at some basic 555 circuits to put your 555-shaped 555 to work. We’ve even seen a vacuum tube 555 if that’s more your thing.

Keeping Track Of The Night Sky With Discrete Logic Chips

As hobbies go, stargazing has a pretty low barrier to entry. All you really need is a pair of Mark 1 eyeballs and maybe a little caffeine to help you stay up late enough. Astronomy, on the other hand, takes quite a bit more equipment, not least of which is a telescope and a way to get it pointed in the right direction at the right time, and to make up for the pesky fact that we’re on a moving, spinning ball of rock.

Yes, most of the equipment needed for real astronomy is commercially available, but [Mitsuru Yamada] decided to go his own way with this homebrew retro-style telescope motor controller. Dubbed MCT-6, the controller teams up with his dual-6502 PERSEUS-9 computer to keep his scope on target. There are a lot of literally moving parts to this build, including the equatorial mount which is made from machined aluminum and powered by a pair of off-the-shelf stepper-powered rotary stages for declination and right ascension. The controller that runs the motors is built completely from discrete 74HCxx logic chips that divide down a 7.0097-MHz crystal oscillator signal to drive the steppers precisely at one revolution per diurnal day. The pulse stream can also be sped up for rapid slewing, to aim the telescope at new targets using a hand controller.

As impressive as all this is, the real star (sorry) of the show here is the fit and finish. In typical [Yamada-san] fashion, the impeccably wire-wrapped mainboard fits in a robust die-cast aluminum case that fits the retro aesthetic of the whole project. The PERSEUS-9 is used mainly as a display and control terminal, running custom software to show where the telescope is pointed and calculate the coordinates of various heavenly bodies. As a bonus, the 40×7 alphanumeric red LED display should be easy on dark-adapted eyes.

Hats off to [Mitsuru Yamada] on another fabulous build. If you haven’t had enough of his build style yet, be sure to check out his PERSEUS-8 or even his foray into the analog world.

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MikroLeo, A 4-Bit Retro Learning Platform

MikroLeo is a discrete TTL logic-based microcomputer intended for educational purposes created by [Edson Junior Acordi], an Electronics Professor at the Brazilian Federal Institute of Paraná, Brazil. The 4-bit CPU has a Harvard RISC architecture built entirely from 74HCT series logic mounted on a two-sided PCB using only through-hole parts. With 2K words of instruction RAM and 2K words of addressable RAM, the CPU has a similar resource level to comparable machines of old, giving students a feel for how to work within tight constraints.

Simulation of the circuit is possible with digital, with the dedicated PCB designed with KiCAD, so there should be enough there to get cracking with it. Four 4-bit IO ports make interfacing easy, with dedicated INput and OUTput instructions for the purpose. An assembler, compiler, and emulator are all being worked on (as far as we can tell) so keep an eye out for that, if this project is of interest to you.

We like computers a bit around these parts, the “hackier” and weirder the better. Even just in the 4-bit retro space, we’ve seen so many, from those built around ancient ALU chips to those built from discrete transistors and diodes, but you don’t need to go down that road, an emulation platform can scratch that retro itch, without the same level of pain.

Should’ve Used A 555 — Or 276 Of Them

When asked to whip up a simple egg timer, most of us could probably come up with a quick design based on the ubiquitous 555 timer. Add a couple of passives around the little eight-pin DIP, put an LED on it to show when time runs out, and maybe even add a pot for variable timing intervals if we’re feeling fancy. Heck, many of us could do it from memory.

So why exactly did [Jesse Farrell] manage to do essentially the same thing using a whopping 276 555s? Easy — because why not? Originally started as an entry in the latest iteration of our 555 Contest, [Jesse]’s goal was simple — build a functional timer with a digital display using nothing but 555s and the necessary passives. He ended up needing a few transistors and diodes to pull it off, but that’s a minor concession when you consider how many chips he replaced with 555s, including counters, decoders, multiplexers, and display drivers. All these chips were built up from basic logic gates, a latch, and a flip-flop, all made from one or more 555s, or variants like the 556 or 558.

As one can imagine, 276 chips take a lot of real estate, and it took eleven PCBs to complete the timer. A main board acts as the timer’s control panel as well as serving as a motherboard for ten other cards, each devoted to a different block of functions. It’s all neat and tidy, and very well-executed, which is in keeping with the excellent documentation [Jesse] produced. The whole thing is wonderfully, needlessly complex, and we couldn’t be more tickled to feature it.

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Thousands Of Discrete MOSFETs Make Up This Compact CPU-Less Computer

How long has it been since a computer could boast about the fact that it contained 2,500 transistors? Probably close to half a century now, at a guess. So in a world with a couple of billion transistors per chip, is a 2,500-transistor computer really something to brag about? Yes. Yes, it is.

The CPU-less computer, called the TraNOR by its creator [Dennis Kuschel], is an elaboration on his previous MyNOR, another CPU-less machine that used a single NOR-gate made of discrete transistors as the core of its arithmetic-logic unit (ALU). Despite its architectural simplicity, MyNOR was capable of some pretty respectable performance, and even managed to play a decent game of Tetris. TraNOR, on the other hand, is much more complicated, mainly due to the fact that instead of relying on 74HC-series chips, [Dennis] built every single gate on the machine from discrete MOSFETs. The only chips on the four stacked PCBs are a trio of memory chips; we don’t fault him at all for the decision not to build the memory — he may be dedicated, but even art has its limits. And TraNOR is indeed a work of art — the video below shows the beautiful board layouts, with seemingly endless arrays of SMD transistors all neatly arranged and carefully soldered. And extra points for using Wintergatan’s marble machine melody as the soundtrack, too.

As much as we loved the original, TraNOR is really something special. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s functional — it’s even backward-compatible with MyNOR’s custom software. Hats off to [Dennis] for pulling off another wonderful build, and for sharing it with us.

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A Superheterodyne Receiver With A 74xx Twist

In a world with software-defined radios and single-chip receivers, a superheterodyne shortwave radio might not exactly score high on the pizzazz scale. After all, people have been mixing, filtering, and demodulating RF signals for more than a century now, and the circuits that do the job best are pretty well characterized. But building the same receiver using none of the traditional superhet trappings? Now that’s something new.

In what [Micha] half-jokingly calls a “74xx-Defined Radio”, easily obtained discrete logic chips, along with some op-amps and a handful of simple components, take the place of the tuned LC circuits and ganged variable capacitors that grace a typical superhet receiver. [Micha] started by building an RF mixer out of a 74HC4051 analog multiplexer, which with the help of a 2N3904 phase splitter forms a switching mixer. The local oscillator relies on the voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) in a 74HC4046 PLL, a chip that we’ve seen before in [Elliot Williams]’ excellent “Logic Noise” series. The IF filter is a simple op-amp bandpass filter; the demodulator features an op-amp too, set up as an active half-wave rectifier. No coils to wind, no capacitors to tune, no diodes with mysterious properties — and judging by the video below, it works pretty well.

It may not be the most conventional way to tune in the shortwave bands, but we always love the results of projects that are artificially constrained like this one. Hats off to [Micha] for the interesting trip down the design road less travelled.

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A CPU-Less Computer With A Single NOR-Gate ALU

We see a lot of discrete-logic computer builds these days, and we love them all. But after a while, they kind of all blend in with each other. So what’s the discrete logic aficionado to do if they want to stand out from the pack? Perhaps this CPU-less computer with a single NOR-gate instead of an arithmetic-logic unit is enough of a hacker flex? We certainly think so.

We must admit that when we first saw [Dennis Kuschel]’s “MyNor” we thought all the logic would be emulated by discrete NOR gates, which of course can be wired up in various combinations to produce every other logic gate. And while that would be really cool, [Dennis] chose another path. Sitting in the middle of the very nicely designed PCB is a small outcropping, a pair of discrete transistors and a single resistor. These form the NOR gate that is used, along with MyNor’s microcode, to perform all the operations normally done by the ALU.

While making the MyNor very slow, this has the advantage of not needing 74-series chips that are no longer manufactured, like the 74LS181 ALU. It may be slow, but as seen in the video below, with the help of a couple of add-on cards of similar architecture, it still manages to play Minesweeper and Tetris and acts as a decent calculator.

We really like the look of this build, and we congratulate [Dennis] on pulling it off. He has open-sourced everything, so feel free to build your own. Or, check out some of the other CPU-less computers we’ve featured: there’s the Gigatron, the Dis-Integrated 6502, or the jumper-wire jungle of this 8-bit CPU-less machine.

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