Calculating Like It’s 1962

We sometimes forget that the things we think of as trivial today were yesterday’s feats of extreme engineering. Consider the humble pocket calculator, these days so cheap and easy to construct that they’re essentially disposable. But building a simple “four-banger” calculator in 1962 was anything but a simple task, and it’s worth looking at what one of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand today accomplished with practically nothing.

If there’s anything that [Cliff Stoll]’s enthusiasm can’t make interesting, we don’t know what it would be, and he certainly does the job with this teardown and analysis of a vintage electronic calculator. You’ll remember [Cliff] from his book The Cuckoo’s Egg, documenting his mid-80s computer sleuthing that exposed a gang of black-hat hackers working for the KGB. [Cliff] came upon a pair of Friden EC-132 electronic calculators, and with the help of [Bob Ragen], the engineer who designed them in 1962, got one working. With a rack of PC boards, cleverly hinged to save space and stuffed with germanium transistors, a CRT display, and an acoustic delay-line memory, the calculators look ridiculous by today’s standards. But when you take a moment to ponder just how much work went into such a thing, it really makes you wonder how the old timers ever brought a product to market.

As a side note, it’s great to see the [Cliff] is still so energetic after all these years. Watching him jump about with such excitement and passion really gets us charged up.

Continue reading “Calculating Like It’s 1962”

Model Sputnik Finds its Voice After Decades of Silence

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the human race becoming a spacefaring species, Sputnik nostalgia will no doubt be on the rise. And rightly so — even though Sputnik was remarkably primitive compared to today’s satellites, its 1957 launch was an inflection point in history and a huge achievement for humanity.

The Soviets, understandably proud of their accomplishment, created a series of commemorative models of Earth’s first artificial moon as gifts to other countries. How one came into possession of the Royal Society isn’t clear, but [Fran Blanche] found out about it through a circuitous route detailed in the video below, and undertook to reproduce the original electronics from the model that made the distinctive Sputnik beeps.

The Royal Society’s version of the model no longer works, but luckily it came with a schematic of the solid-state circuit used to emulate the original’s vacuum-tube guts. Intent on building the circuit as close to vintage as possible and armed with a bag of germanium transistors from the 60s, [Fran] worked through the schematic, correcting a few issues here and there, and eventually brought the voice of Sputnik back to life.

If you think we’ve covered Sputnik’s rebirth before, you may be thinking about our article on how some hams rebuilt Sputnik’s guts from a recently uncovered Soviet-era schematic. [Fran]’s project just reproduces the sound of Sputnik — no license required!

Continue reading “Model Sputnik Finds its Voice After Decades of Silence”

Books You Should Read: Instruments Of Amplification

Psst… Wanna make a canning jar diode? A tennis ball triode? How about a semiconductor transistor? Or do you just enjoy sitting back and following along an interesting narrative of something being made, while picking up a wealth of background, tips and sparking all sorts of ideas? In my case I wanted to make a cuprous oxide semiconductor diode and that lead me to H.P. Friedrichs’ wonderful book Instruments of Amplification. It includes such a huge collection of amplifier knowledge and is a delight to read thanks to a narrative style and frequent hands-on experiments.

Friedrichs first authored another very popular book, The Voice of the Crystal, about making crystal radios, and wanted to write a second one. For those not familiar with crystal radios, they’re fun to make radios that are powered solely by the incoming radio waves; there are no batteries. But that also means the volume is low.

Readers of that book suggested a good follow-up would be one about amplifier circuits, to amplify the crystal radio’s volume. However, there were already an abundance of such books. Friedrichs realized the best follow-up would be one on how to make the amplifying components from scratch, the “instruments of amplification”.  It would be unique and in the made-from-scratch spirit of crystal radios. The book, Instruments of Amplification was born.

The Experiments

Microphonic relays
Microphonic relays, via H.P. Friedrichs Homepage

The book includes just the right amount of a history, giving background on what an amplifier is and how they first came in the electrical world. Telegraph operators wanted to send signals over greater and greater distances and the solution was to use the mix of electronics and mechanics found in the telegraph relay. This is the springboard for his first project and narrative: the microphonic relay.

The microphonic relay example shown on the right places a speaker facing a microphone; the speaker is the input with the microphone amplifying the output. He uses a carbon microphone salvaged from an old telephone headset, housing everything in an enclosure of copper pipe caps, steel bar stock, nuts and bolts mounted on an elegant looking wood base. All the projects are made with simple parts, with care, and they end up looking great.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Instruments Of Amplification”

Hackaday Prize Entry: Germanium Vision

The first digital cameras didn’t come out of a Kodak laboratory or from deep inside the R&D department of the CIA or National Reconnaissance Office. The digital camera first appeared in the pages of Popular Electronics in 1975, using a decapsulated DRAM module to create fuzzy grayscale images on an oscilloscope. For his Hackaday Prize project, [Alexander] is recreating this digital camera not with an easy to use decapsulated DRAM, but with individual germanium transistors.

Phototransistors are only normal transistors with a window to the semiconductor, and after finding an obscene number of old, Soviet metal can transistors, [Alex] had either a phototransistor or a terrible solar cell in a miniaturized package.

The ultimate goal of this project is to create a low resolution camera out of a matrix of these germanium transistors. [Alex] can already detect light with these transistors by watching a multimeter, and the final goal – generating an analog NTSC or PAL video signal – will “just” require a single circuit duplicated hundreds of times.

Digital cameras, even the earliest ones built out of DRAM chips, have relatively small sensors. A discrete image sensor, like the one [Alex] is building for his Hackaday Prize entry, demands a few very interesting engineering challenges. Obviously there must be some sort of lens for this image sensor, so if anyone has a large Fresnel sitting around, you might want to drop [Alex] a line.

The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by:

A Rubidium Reference for Discrete Component Clocks

Sometimes you open a freshly created project and discover more than you expect. A moment of idle curiosity turns into a lengthy read involving several projects you wonder how you managed to miss the first time around. So it was this morning, with [Yann Guidon]’s documentation of his eBay-purchased rubidium frequency standard. In itself an interesting write-up, with details of reverse engineering the various different internal clock signals to derive more than just the standard 1-second pulses, and touching on the thermal issues affecting frequency lock.

Transistors were EXCITING back then!
Transistors were EXCITING back then!

It is when you look at his intended use for the standard that you’ll see the reason for the lengthy read. He has a couple of discrete component clock projects on the go. His first, a low-powered MOSFET design, promises to break the mold of boring silicon bipolar transistors with hefty power consumption. It is his second, a design based on germanium transistors and associated vintage components, that really stands apart. Not a Nixie tube in sight, but do browse the project logs for a fascinating descent into the world of sourcing vintage semiconductors in 2016.

Neither clock project is finished, but both show significant progress and they’ll certainly keep time now that they’ll be locked to a rubidium standard. Take a look, and keep an eye on progress, we’re sure there will be more to come.

We’ve featured a couple of rubidium standards here in the past. This rather impressive clock has one, and here’s one assembled into a piece of bench equipment. They’re readily available as surplus items for the curious constructor, we’re sure that more will feature here in the future.

Do You Know Rufus Turner?

It is hard to be remembered in the electronics business. Edison gets a lot of credit, as does Westinghouse and Tesla. In the radio era, many people know Marconi and de Forest (although fewer remember them every year), but less know about Armstrong or Maxwell. In the solid-state age, we tend to remember people like Shockley (even though there were others) and maybe Esaki.

If you knew most or all of those names without looking them up, you are up on your electronics history. But do you know the name Rufus Turner?
Continue reading “Do You Know Rufus Turner?”

400 Transistors and 1800 Resistors Form This 1967 Personal Computer

What kind of computer could you build in 1967? Well, if you were reading Wireless World (a UK magazine) and had a good bit of spare cash, you could build [Brian Crank’s] Wireless World Computer. You only needed 400 germanium transistors, 1800 resistors, and an odd number of capacitors, switches, diodes, and neon bulbs. You also needed a good bit of patience, we suspect.

In 1967, the computer cost about 50 pounds to build (perhaps $125 at 1967 exchange rates which would now be about $900 in today’s money). To save parts (and thus money and build complexity), the computer used a trick: it processed data one bit at a time. Many older computers did this, including another UK computer named EDSAC.

Continue reading “400 Transistors and 1800 Resistors Form This 1967 Personal Computer”