Historical Hackers: Hero Builds Vending Machines

We tend to think of mechanical contrivances as products of the industrial revolution and true automation as something computers handle. Yet even before computers, automation existed — using timing motors and cams and other mechanical contraptions. But it might surprise you to know that there was actually some sophisticated automation going way back. Really way back, invented in a world without computers, CAD software, or even electricity. For example, around 50 AD an inventor named Hero — sometimes known as Heron — built machines powered by steam and wind. His inventions included vending machines and music players.

It is hard to imagine what kind of music player or, indeed, vending machine you could build in 50AD. Some of Hero’s inventions were used in temples to, for example, dispense holy water. Others were used in theater to do things like automatically lighting a fire or creating thunder effects. There was even an entirely automated puppet show that used knotted ropes to put on a ten-minute production with no human assistance.

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The Robots Were Coming! The Robots Were Coming!

The recent influx of home assistants proves that everything old is new again. If we told you about a life-sized robot that was self-charging, had a map of your home for navigation, and responded to voice commands, you’d assume we were going to point you to a Kickstarter or a new product release. Instead, we will point you to this post about a robot marketed in 1985.

You have to put all this in context. In 1985 the personal computer was practically a solution in search of a problem. Back then it was wildly popular to predict that every home would one day have a computer. But we weren’t quite sure what they were going to be doing with it. Home finance, games, and storing recipes were all popular guesses. A few far-sighted folks realized that music, photos, and even video might one day be major selling points. Everyone wanted a piece of this market but no one really understood what the market would look like.

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Wireless Upgrade For A Heathkit HERO 1 Robot


For those of you that don’t know, the Heathkit HERO (Heathkit Educational Robot) was a ‘bot built in the early 1980s. [Rick] wasn’t satisfied with his model ETW-18’s programming interface, so decided to upgrade it to be able to run Python using a hacked wireless router. We’d agree that things have advanced since then, since this little guy was originally programmed in machine code using an onboard keypad.  As [Rick] points out, it’s “exactly as awful” as it sounds!

To begin restoring and upgrading his robot, a kit was obtained from [hero-1] to allow for a serial programming interface. Although an improvement, the desire was to be able to program this robot using Python, and to not have to have a cable running across the floor all the time. A router with a serial port was obtained from a thrift store, then hacked using [OpenWrt]. After fitting the components into the robot, [FR3DDY] was born, “A ~30 year old robot, accessible through wifi, capable of running Python.”

Be sure to check out his site, which has some videos we weren’t able to embed. He’s also included some Python code that he used to program it. If this has made you curious about the Python language, why not check out this recent post about learning it the hard way?


We didn’t believe this hack at all when we saw it, or rather heard it. Surly a guitar made out of a shovel couldn’t sound decent. But the video (after the jump, skip to 2:40 for the jam) to our untrained ears sounded pretty rad. Could be the supremely well done wood work, proper use of tools, high tech pickups, or maybe Russian magic, we don’t know.

In fact, if you continue the video it doesn’t stop there. The creators also made a 2 string bass and a few other instruments from shovels. Do I smell a new shovel hero?

Related: Guitars made out of things that should not be guitars.

[Thanks Paul]

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DIY Kidney Machine Saves Girl

When the tool you need doesn’t exist, you must make one. That’s exactly what [Dr. Malcolm Coulthard] and kidney nurse [Jean Crosier] from Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary did two years ago.

When a baby too small for the regular dialysis machine (similar to the one pictured above) needed help after her kidneys failed, the kind doctor designed and built a smaller version of the machine in his garage, then used it to save six-pound baby Millie Kelly’s life. Since then the machine has continued to be used in similar emergency situations.

[Photo: NomadicEntrepreneur]