A PDP 11 By Any Other Name: Heathkit H11 Teardown And Repair

[Lee Adamson] is no stranger to classic computers. He recently picked up a Heathkit H11A which, as you might remember, is actually a PDP-11 from DEC. Well, technically, it is an LSI-11 but still. Like a proper LSI-11, the computer uses the DEC QBus. Unlike a lot of computers of its day, the H11 didn’t have a lot of switches and lights, but it did have an amazing software library for its day.

[Lee] takes us through a tour of all the different cards inside the thing. It is amazing when you think of today’s laptop motherboards that pack way more into a much smaller space. He also had to fix the power supply.

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Heathkit IM-13 VTVM Repair

If you are under a certain age, you might not know the initialism VTVM. It stands for vacuum tube voltmeter. At first glance, you might just think that was shorthand for “old voltmeter” but, in fact, a VTVM filled a vital role in the old days of measuring instruments. [The Radio Mechanic] takes us inside a Heathkit IM-13 that needed some loving, and for its day it was an impressive little instrument.

Today, our meters almost always have a FET front end and probably uses a MOSFET. That means the voltage measurement probes don’t really connect to the meter at all. In a properly working MOSFET, the DC resistance between the gate and the rest of the circuit is practically infinite. It is more likely that a very large resistor (like 10 megaohms) is setting the input impedance because the gate by itself could pick up electrostatic voltage that might destroy the device. A high resistance like that is great when you make measurements because it is very unlikely to disturb the circuit you are trying to measure and it leads to more accurate measurements.

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VCF East 2021: Preserving Heathkit’s 8-Bit Computers

To say the Heathkit name is well known among Hackaday readers would be something of an understatement. Their legendary kits launched an untold number of electronics hobbies, and ultimately, plenty of careers. From relatively simple radio receivers to oscilloscopes and televisions, the company offered kits for every skill level from the post-war era all the way up to the 1990s.

So it’s hardly a surprise that in 1977, seeing the success of early home computers like the Altair 8800 and IMSAI 8080, Heathkit decided to join the fray with a computer kit of their own. But by that point the home computing market had started to shift from a hobbyist’s pursuit to something the whole family could enjoy. Compared to the Apple II and TRS-80, both of which also launched in 1977, Heathkit’s machine seemed like the product of a bygone era.

While it might not have gained the notoriety of the microcomputers it was designed to compete with, the Heathkit H8 is certainly not forgotten. Tucked away in a corner at the 2021 Vintage Computer Festival East was an impressive exhibit dedicated to the Society of Eight-Bit Heath Computerists (SEBHC)¬†called Heathkit: Keeping the Legacy Alive. Presented by Glenn Roberts, this collection of original and modern hardware demonstrated the incredible lengths to which this group of passionate Heathkit owners have gone to not just preserve the memory of these often overlooked computers, but to continue to improve upon the kit’s unique design.

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Q Multiplier — Er… Multiplies Q

If you are below a certain age, you’ve probably never heard of a Q multiplier. This is a device that increases the “Q” of a radio receiver’s intermediate frequency and, thus, provide a higher selectivity. If you enjoy nostalgia, you can see inside a 1960s-era Heathkit QF-1 Q multiplier in [Jeff’s] informative video, below.

The Q multiplier was a regenerative amplifier that operated at just below the oscillation point. This provided very high amplification for the frequency of interest and less amplification for other frequencies. Some radios had a stage like this built-in, but the QF-1 was made to add into an external radio. For some Heathkit receivers, there was a direct plug to tap into the IF stage for this purpose. Othe radios would require some hacking to get it to work.

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Retro Computer Trainer Gets A Raspberry Pi Refit

We know what you’re thinking: this is yet another one of those “Gut the retro gear for its cool old case and then fill it up with IoT junk” projects. Well, rest assured that extending and enhancing this 1970s computer trainer is very much an exercise in respecting the original design, and while there’s a Pi inside,¬† it doesn’t come close to spoiling the retro goodness.

Like many of a similar vintage as [Scott M. Baker], the Heathkit catalog was perhaps only leafed through marginally less than the annual Radio Shack catalog. One particularly desirable Heathkit item was the ET-3400 microcomputer learning system, which was basically a 6800-based computer surrounded by a breadboarding area for experimentation. [Scott] got a hold of one of these, but without the optional expansion accessory that would allow it to do interesting things such as running BASIC or even supporting a serial port. So [Scott] decided to roll his own expansion board.

The expansion card that [Scott] designed is not strictly a faithful reproduction, at least in terms of the original BOM. He turned to more modern — and more readily available — components, but still managed to provide the serial port, cassette interface, and RAM/ROM expansion of the original unit. The Raspberry Pi is an optional add-on, which just allows him to connect wirelessly if he wants. The card fits into a 3D-printed case that sits below the ET-3400 and maintains the original trainer’s look and feel. The longish video below shows the build and gives a tour of the ET-3400, both before and after the mods.

It looks as though trainers like these and other artifacts from the early days of the PC revolution are getting quite collectible. Makes us wish we hadn’t thrown some things out.

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Antique Oscilloscope Gets New Home And Purpose

As the pace of technology charges blindly forward, a lot of older tools or products get left in the dust, forgotten to most but those left with them. This doesn’t mean they’re useless, though. In fact, old technology that continues to survive in the present tends to be more robust and sturdy than most modern, cheap replacements. While this might be survivorship bias, this is certainly true in particular of oscilloscopes. Rugged CRTs in large metal housings with discrete through-hole components in simple layouts made them reliable, but they’re heavy, bulky, and lack features of modern instruments. With some modifications, though, you can give them a new home and keep their vintage aesthetic.

[BuildComics] had just such an oscilloscope on hand and set out to make it into something useful but aesthetically pleasing as well. With a small circuit board, formerly available as a kit from Sparkfun/Dutchtronix but now only available if you can build them yourself, the cathode ray tube can be modified to output not waveforms but rather a working clock face. The donor oscilloscope was a Heathkit IO-102 which was fine for its time but is now lacking, so the CRT was removed from its housing and placed in a custom-built enclosure with a 40s radio style that suits its new purpose well.

Seeing old hardware that is past its prime being put to work in a new way is great, both from a technical standpoint and also because that’s usable hardware that’s being kept out of the landfill. Oscilloscopes are popular for projects like these too since they are relatively easy to understand and modify. Besides being used as clocks, we’ve also seen them modified to play video games such as Pac-Man.

Reliving Heathkit’s Glory Days Through A Teardown And Rebuild

In its heyday, the experience offered by the Heath Company was second to none. Every step of the way, from picking something out of the Heathkit catalog to unpacking all the parts to final assembly and testing, putting together a Heathkit project was as good as it got.

Sadly, those days are gone, and the few remaining unbuilt kits are firmly in the unobtanium realm. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tear down and completely rebuild a Heathkit project to get a little taste of what the original experience was like. [Paul Carbone] chose a T-3 Visual-Aural signal tracer, a common enough piece that’s easy to find on eBay at a price mere mortals can afford. His unit was in pretty good shape, especially for something that was probably built in the early 1960s. [Paul] decided that instead of the usual recapping, he’d go all the way and replace every component with fresh ones. That proved easier said than done; things have changed a lot in five decades, and resistors are a lot smaller than they used to be. Finding hookup wire to match the original was also challenging, as was disemboweling some of the electrolytic cans so they could be recapped. The finished product is beautiful, though — even the Magic Eye tube works — and [Paul] reports that the noise level is so low he wasn’t sure if turned it on at first.

We’ve covered the rise and fall of Heathkit, as well as their many attempted comebacks, including an inexplicable solder-free radio and the “world’s most reliable” clock. Looking at these offerings, we think [Paul] may be onto something here.