Robert Hall and the Solid-State Laser

The debt we all owe must be paid someday, and for inventor Robert N. Hall, that debt came due in 2016 at the ripe age of 96. Robert Hall’s passing went all but unnoticed by everyone but his family and a few close colleagues at General Electric’s Schenectady, New York research lab, where Hall spent his remarkable career.

That someone who lives for 96% of a century would outlive most of the people he had ever known is not surprising, but what’s more surprising is that more notice of his life and legacy wasn’t taken. Without his efforts, so many of the tools of modern life that we take for granted would not have come to pass, or would have been delayed. His main contribution started with a simple but seemingly outrageous idea — making a solid-state laser. But he ended up making so many more contributions that it’s worth a look at what he accomplished over his long career.

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Clive Sinclair, The Other Author

A reasonable selection of the Hackaday readership will have had their first experiences of computing on an 8-bit machine in a black case, with the word “Sinclair” on it. Even if you haven’t work with one of these machines you probably know that the man behind them was the sometimes colourful inventor Clive (now Sir Clive) Sinclair.

The finest in 1950s graphic design, applied to electronics books.
The finest in 1950s graphic design, applied to electronics books.

He was the founder of an electronics company that promised big results from its relatively inexpensive electronic products. Radio receivers that could fit in a matchbox, transistorised component stereo systems, miniature televisions, and affordable calculators had all received the Sinclair treatment from the early-1960s onwards. But it was towards the end of the 1970s that one of his companies produced its first microcomputer.

At the end of the 1950s, when the teenage Sinclair was already a prolific producer of electronics and in the early stages of starting his own electronics business, he took the entirely understandable route for a cash-strapped engineer and entrepreneur and began writing for a living. He wrote for electronics and radio magazines, later becoming assistant editor of the trade magazine Instrument Practice, and wrote electronic project books for Bernard’s Radio Manuals, and Bernard Babani Publishing. It is this period of his career that has caught our eye today, not simply for the famous association of the Sinclair name, but for the fascinating window his work gives us into the state of electronics at the time.

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Adding Optics to a Consumer Thermal Camera

[David Prutchi] writes in to tell us about his recent experiments with building lenses for thermal imaging cameras, which to his knowledge is a first (at least as far as DIY hardware is concerned). With his custom designed and built optics, he’s demonstrated the ability to not only zoom in on distant targets, but get up close and personal with small objects. He’s working with the Seek RevealPro, but the concept should work on hardware from other manufacturers as well.

In his detailed whitepaper, [David] starts by describing the types of lenses that are appropriate for thermal imaging. Glass doesn’t transmit the wavelengths that thermal camera is looking for, so the lenses need to be made of either germanium or zinc selenide. These aren’t exactly the kind of thing you can pick up at the local camera shop, and even small lenses made of these materials can cost hundreds of dollars. He suggests keeping an eye out on eBay for surplus optics you could pull them out of to keep costs down.

Creating the macro adapter is easy enough, you simply put a convex lens in front of the thermal camera. But telephoto is a bit more involved, and the rest of the whitepaper details the math and construction techniques used to assemble it the optics. [David] gives a complete bill of materials and cost breakdown for his telephoto converter, but prepare for a bout of sticker shock: the total cost with all new hardware is nearly $500 USD. The majority of that is for the special lenses though, so if you can score some on the second-hand market it can drop the cost significantly.

We’ve seen an impressive array of thermal camera hacks and projects recently, no doubt due to the falling prices of consumer-level imaging hardware. Given their utility as a diagnostic tool, a thermal camera might be something worth adding to your bag of tricks.

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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