How Do You Fill The 1N34 Void?

The germanium point contact diode, and almost every semiconductor device using germanium, is now obsolete. There was a time when almost every television or radio would have contained one or two of them, but the world has moved on from both analogue broadcasting and discrete analogue electronics in its lower-frequency RF circuitry. [TSBrownie] is taking a look at alternatives to the venerable 1N34A point-contact diode in one of the few places a point-contact diode makes sense, the crystal radio.

In the video below the break, he settles on a slightly more plentiful Eastern European D9K as a substitute after trying a silicon rectifier (awful) and a Schottky diode (great in theory, not so good in practice). We’ve trodden this path in the past and settled on a DC bias to reduce the extra forward voltage needed for a 1N4148 silicon diode to conduct because, like him, we found a Schottky disappointing.

The 1N34 is an interesting component, and we profiled its inventor a few years ago. Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that sometimes, we just have to let old parts go.

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A 65-in-1 The 2024 Way

If necessity is the mother of invention, nostalgia must be its stepmother, or its aunt at the very least. The desire to recreate long-obsolete devices simply because they existed while we were growing up is a curious trait, but one that’s powerful enough to drive entire categories of hardware hacking — looking at you, retrocomputing buffs.

Hardware nostalgia isn’t all about 6502s and Z80s, though. Even more basic were the electronic toys of the 1970s, such as the Radio Shack 65-in-1 kit that [Tom Thoen] is currently recreating. The 65-in-1 was a breadboarding kit aimed at the budding electrical engineer, with components mounted to colorful cardboard by spring terminals. The included “lab manual” had circuits that could be quickly assembled using a handful of jumper wires. It was an endlessly fascinating toy that undoubtedly launched many careers, present company included.

The original 65-in-1 was $21.95 in 1976, or about $120 today.

While the passage of time may not have dulled [Tom]’s memories of his original 65-in-1, technology has marched on, meaning that certain allowances had to be made to create a modern version. He wisely eschews the cardboard for PCBs, one for each of the major component blocks provided in the original, and uses female header connectors in place of the springs. Component choice is tailored for the times; gone are the ferrite rod antenna and variable capacitor of the original, as well as the incandescent lamp, which is replaced by an LED that would have been a significant fraction of the kit’s $21.95 price back in 1976. There’s no BOM yet, so we can’t say for sure if any of the transistors are germanium, but it’s clear that there aren’t any of the old TO-1 cans. But dismay not, originalists, for the meter, relay, CdS photocell, and “solar battery” all made the final cut.

[Tom] has done some beautiful work here, with more to come. We imagine that 3D printing could be used to recreate some details like the original Morse key and speaker grille. We love the laser-engraved backing board, too, as it captures some of the charm of the original’s wooden box. This isn’t the only love for the “Science Fair” brand we’ve seen lately, either; the nostalgia seems to be contagious.

Multiband Crystal Radio Set Pulls Out All The Stops

Most crystal radio receivers have a decidedly “field expedient” look to them. Fashioned as they often are from a few turns of wire around an oatmeal container and a safety pin scratching the surface of a razor blade, the whole assembly often does a great impersonation of a pile of trash whose appearance gives little hope of actually working. And yet work they do, usually, pulling radio signals out of thin air as if by magic.

Not all crystal sets take this slapdash approach, of course, and some, like this homebrew multiband crystal receiver, aim for a feature set and fit and finish that goes way beyond the norm. The “Husky” crystal set, as it’s called by its creator [alvenh], looks like it fell through a time warp right from the 1920s. The electronics are based on the Australian “Mystery Set” circuit, with modifications to make the receiver tunable over multiple bands. Rather than the traditional galena crystal and cat’s whisker detector, a pair of1N34A germanium diodes are used as rectifiers — one for demodulating the audio signal, and the other to drive a microammeter to indicate signal strength. A cat’s whisker is included for looks, though, mounted to the black acrylic front panel along with nice chunky knobs and homebrew rotary switches for band selection and antenna.

As nice as the details on the electronics are, it’s the case that really sells this build. Using quarter-sawn oak salvaged from old floorboards. The joinery is beautiful and the hardware is period correct; we especially appreciate the work that went into transforming a common flat washer into a nickel-plated escutcheon for the lock — because every radio needs a lock.

Congratulations to [Alvenh] for pulling off such a wonderful build, and really celebrating the craftsmanship of the early days of radio. Need some crystal radio theory before tackling your build? Check out [Greg Charvat]’s crystal radio deep dive.

Old-school frequency counter

Edge-Mounted Meters Give This Retro Frequency Counter Six Decades Of Display

With regard to retro test gear, one’s thoughts tend to those Nixie-adorned instruments of yore, or the boat-anchor oscilloscopes that came with their own carts simply because there was no other way to move the things. But there were other looks for test gear back in the day, as this frequency counter with a readout using moving-coil meters shows.

We have to admit to never seeing anything like [Charles Ouweland]’s Van Der Heem 9908 electronic counter before. The Netherlands-based company, which was later acquired by Philips, built this six-digit, 1-MHz counter sometime in the 1950s. The display uses six separate edge-mounted panel meters numbered 0 through 9 to show the frequency of the incoming signal. The video below has a demo of what the instrument can do; we don’t know if it was restored at some point, but it still works and it’s actually pretty accurate. Later in the video, he gives a tour of the insides, which is the real treat — the case opens like a briefcase and contains over 20 separate PCBs with a bunch of germanium transistors, all stitched together with point-to-point wiring.

We appreciate the look inside this unique piece of test equipment history. It almost seems like something that would have been on the bench while this Apollo-era IO tester was being prototyped.

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Retrotechtacular: Manufacturing Philco Germanium Transistors

There was a time when all major corporations maintained film production departments to crank out public relations pieces, and the electronic industry was no exception. Indeed, in the sea-change years of the mid-20th century, corporate propaganda like this look at Philco transistor manufacturing was more important than ever, as companies tried to pivot from vacuum tubes to solid-state components, and needed to build the consumer electronics markets that would power the next few decades of rapid growth.

The film below was produced in 1957, just a decade since the invention of the transistor and only a few years since Philco invented the surface-barrier transistor, the technology behind the components. It shows them being made in their “completely air-conditioned, modern plant” in Pennsylvania. The semiconductor was germanium, of course — the narrator only refers to “silly-con” transistors once near the end of the film — but the SBT process, with opposing jets of indium sulfate electrolyte being used to both etch the germanium chip and form the collector and emitter of the transistor, is a fascinating process, and these transistors were quite the advance back in the day. It’s interesting, too, to watch the casual nature of the manufacturing process — no clean rooms, no hair nets, and only a lab coat and “vacuum welcome mats” to keep things reasonably clean.

As in most such corporate productions, superlatives abound, so be prepared for quite a bit of hyperbole on the part of the Mid-Atlantic-accented narrator. And we noticed a bit of a whoopsie near the end, when he proudly intoned that Philco transistors would be aboard the “first Earth satellite.” They were used in the radio of Explorer 1, but the Russians had other ideas about who was going to be first.

And speaking of propaganda, don’t forget that at around this time, vacuum tube companies were fighting for their lives too. That’s where something like this designer’s guide to the evils of transistors came from.

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The Simplest Microwave Receiver

We are used to microwave receivers requiring complex chipsets and exacting PCB layouts, but as [CHZ-soft] has shown, it does not always have to be that way. With nothing more complex than a germanium point-contact diode and an oscilloscope, you can quickly, easily, and cheaply resolve microwave signals, as we are shown with a 2.4GHz wireless mouse.

Of course, there’s nothing new here, what we’re being shown is the very simplest incarnation of a crystal set. It’s a wideband device, with only the length of the wires providing any sort of resonance, but surprisingly with the addition of a very selective cavity resonator it can be turned into a useful receiver. Perhaps the most interesting take-away is that the germanium point-contact diode — once a ubiquitous component — has almost entirely disappeared. In most applications it has been supplanted by the Schottky diode, but even those usually don’t quite possess the speed in the point contact’s home ground of radio detection. This is a shame, because there are still some bench-level projects for which they are rather useful.

So if you have a point contact diode and AM radio doesn’t attract, give it a go as a microwave detector. And if the point contact diode has attracted your interest then you may want to read our piece on Rufus Turner, who brought us its archetype, the 1N34A.

Via Hacker News.

Profiles In Science: Jack Kilby And The Integrated Circuit

Sixty years ago this month, an unassuming but gifted engineer sitting in a lonely lab at Texas Instruments penned a few lines in his notebook about his ideas for building complete circuits on a single slab of semiconductor. He had no way of knowing if his idea would even work; the idea that it would become one of the key technologies of the 20th century that would rapidly change everything about the world would have seemed like a fantasy to him.

We’ve covered the story of how the integrated circuit came to be, and the ensuing patent battle that would eventually award priority to someone else. But we’ve never taken a close look at the quiet man in the quiet lab who actually thought it up: Jack Kilby.

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