3D Print Your Very Own Mechanical Computer

Most Hackaday readers are familiar with computers from the 70s and 80s, but what about ones even older than that? The Digi Comp 1 was a commercially available computer from the 1960s that actually cost less than a modern-day microcontroller. The catch? It was mechanical rather than electrical. Thanks to retro-wizard [Mike Gardi], now anyone can build a replica of one.

Admittedly the Digi Comp 1 was more of a toy than a tool, but it was still a working computer. It contained three flip-flops (memory) and had a lever that acted as a clock, allowing the user to perform boolean operations and some addition and subtraction. Certainly not advanced, but interesting nonetheless. [Mike]’s version of the Digi Comp 1 has an extra bit when compared to the original and includes some other upgrades, but largely remains faithful to the original design.

If you want to print one of these on your own, [Mike] has made all of the files available on Thingiverse. He has also experimented with other mechanical computers as well, including the sequel Digi Comp 2. We’ve seen some recent interest in that mechanical computer lately as well.

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Circuit VR: Redundant Flip Flops And Voting Logic

We are somewhat spoiled because electronics today are very reliable compared to even a few decades ago. Most modern electronics obey the bathtub curve. If they don’t fail right away, they won’t fail for a very long time, in all likelihood. However, there are a few cases where that’s not a good enough answer. One is when something really important is at stake — the control systems of an airplane, for example. The other is when you are in an environment that might cause failures. In those cases — near a nuclear reactor or space, for example, you often are actually dealing with both problems. In this installment of Circuit VR, I’ll show you a few common ways to make digital logic circuits more robust with some examples you can run in the Falstad simulator in your browser.

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Juggling Machine Listens To The Bounce To Keep Ball In The Air

It’s a seemingly simple task: bounce a ping-pong ball on a wooden paddle. So simple that almost anyone can pick up a ball and a paddle and make a reasonable job of it. Now, close your eyes and try to do it just by the sound the ball makes when it hits the paddle. That’s a little tougher, but this stepper-driven platform juggler manages it with aplomb.

That’s not to say that the path to the finished product in the video below was a smooth one for [tkuhn]. He went through multiple iterations over the last two years, including a version that surrounded the juggling platform with a fence of phototransistors to track where the ball was at any time. That drove four stepper motors through a cross-linkage that popped the platform up at just the right moment to keep the ball moving, and at just the right angle to nudge it back toward the center of the platform. The current version of the platform does away with the optical sensors in favor of four small microphones. The mics pick up the sharp, well-defined sound of the ball hitting the platform, process the signal through an analog circuit, and use that signal to trigger a flip-flop if the signal exceeds a setpoint. An Arduino then measures the time delay between arriving signals, calculates the ball’s position on the platform, and drives the steppers through a PID loop to issue the corrective bounce.

The video below is entrancing, but we found ourselves wishing for a side view of the action too. It’s an impressive build nonetheless, one that reminds us of the many maze-runner and Stewart platform robots we’ve seen.

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A 100th Birthday Celebration For The Flip Flop

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of creation as we’re building our latest widget. By the same token, it’s sometimes difficult to fully appreciate just how old some of the circuits we use are. Even the simplest of projects might make use of elements that were once a mess on some physicist’s or engineer’s lab bench, with components screwed to literal breadboards and power supplied by banks of wet-cell batteries.

One such circuit turns 100 years old in June, which is surprising because it literally is the building block of every computer. It’s the flip-flop, and while its inventors likely couldn’t have imagined what they were starting, their innovation became the basic storage system for the ones and zeros of the digital age.

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The One-Transistor Flip-Flop

A flip-flop is one of the most basic digital electronic circuits. It can most easily be built from just two transistors, although they can and have been built out of vacuum tubes, NAND and NOR gates, and Minecraft redstone. Conventional wisdom says you can’t build a flip-flop with just one transistor, but here we are. [roelh] has built a flip-flop circuit using only one transistor and some bizarre logic that’s been slowly developing over on hackaday.io.

[roelh]’s single transistor flip-flop is heavily inspired by a few of the strange logic projects we’ve seen over the years. The weirdest, by far, is [Ted Yapo]’s Diode Clock, a digital clock made with diode-diode logic. This is the large-scale proof of concept for the unique family of logic circuits [Ted] came up with that only uses bog-standard diodes to construct arbitrary digital logic.

The single-transistor flip-flop works just like any other flip-flop — there are set and reset pulses, and a feedback loop to keep the whatever state the output is in alive. The key difference here is the addition of a clock signal. This clock, along with a few capacitors and a pair of diodes, give this single transistor the ability to store a single bit of information, just like any other flip-flop.

This is, without a doubt, a really, really weird circuit but falls well into territory that is easily understood despite being completely unfamiliar. The key question here is, ‘why?’. [roelh] says this could be used for homebrew CPUs, although this circuit is trading two transistors for a single transistor, two diodes, and a few more support components. For vacuum tube-based computation, this could be a very interesting idea that someone at IBM in the 40s had, then forgot to write down. Either way, it’s a clever application of diodes and an amazing expression of the creativity that can be found on a breadboard.

Learning The 555 From The Inside

One way to understand how the 555 timer works and how to use it is by learning what the pins mean and what to connect to them. A far more enjoyable, and arguably a more useful way to learn is by looking at what’s going on inside during each of its modes of operation. [Dejan Nedelkovski] has put together just such a video where he walks through how the 555 timer IC works from the inside.

We especially like how he immediately removes the fear factor by first showing a schematic with all the individual components but then grouping them into what they make up: two comparators, a voltage divider, a flip-flop, a discharge transistor, and an output stage. Having lifted the internals to a higher level, he then walks through examples, with external components attached, for each of the three operating modes: bistable, monostable and astable. If you’re already familiar with the 555 then you’ll enjoy the trip down memory lane. If you’re not familiar with it, then you soon will be. Check out his video below.

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FPGA Metastability Solutions

Gisselquist Technology recently posted a good blog article about metastability and common solutions. If you are trying to learn FPGAs, you’ll want to read it. If you know a lot about FPGAs already, you might still pick up some interesting tidbits in the post.

Don’t let the word metastability scare you. It is just a fancy way of saying that a flip flop can go crazy if the inputs are not stable for a certain amount of time before the clock edge and remain stable for a certain amount of time after the clock edge. These times are the setup and hold times, respectively.

Normally, your design tool will warn you about possible problems if you are using a single clock. However, any time your design generates a signal with one clock and then uses it somewhere with another clock, metastability is a possible problem. Even if you only have one clock, any inputs from the outside world that don’t reference your clock — or, perhaps, any clock at all — introduce the possibility of metastability. Continue reading “FPGA Metastability Solutions”