Remoticon 2021 // Rob Weinstein Builds An HP-35 From The Patent Up

Fifty years ago, Hewlett-Packard introduced the first handheld scientific calculator, the HP-35. It was quite the engineering feat, since equivalent machines of the day were bulky desktop affairs, if not rack-mounted. [Rob Weinstein] has long been a fan of HP calculators, and used an HP-41C for many years until it wore out. Since then he gradually developed a curiosity about these old calculators and what made them tick. The more he read, the more engrossed he became. [Rob] eventually decided to embark on a three year long reverse-engineer journey that culminated a recreation of the original design on a protoboard that operates exactly like the original from 1972 (although not quite pocket-sized). In this presentation he walks us through the history of the calculator design and his efforts in understanding and eventually replicating it using modern FPGAs.

The HP patent ( US Patent 4,001,569 ) contains an extremely detailed explanation of the calculator in nearly every aspect. There are many novel concepts in the design, and [Rob] delves into two of them in his presentation. Early LED devices were a drain on batteries, and HP engineers came up with a clever solution. In a complex orchestra of multiplexed switches, they steered current through inductors and LED segments, storing energy temporarily and eliminating the need for inefficient dropping resistors. But even more complicated is the serial processor architecture of the calculator. The first microprocessors were not available when HP started this design, so the entire processor was done at the gate level. Everything operates on 56-bit registers which are constantly circulating around in circular shift registers. [Rob] has really done his homework here, carefully studying each section of the design in great depth, drawing upon old documents and books when available, and making his own material when not. For example, in the course of figuring everything out, [Rob] prepared 338 pages of timing charts in addition to those in the patent. Continue reading “Remoticon 2021 // Rob Weinstein Builds An HP-35 From The Patent Up”

Nixie clock from a frequency counter

A Nixie Clock, The Hard Way

Notice: no vintage Hewlett Packard test equipment was harmed in the making of this overly complicated Nixie clock. In fact, if anything, the HP 5245L electronic counter came out better off than it went into the project.

HP 5245 hand-wired backplane
Beautiful hand-wired backplane in the HP 5245 counter.

We mention the fate of this instrument mainly because we’ve seen our fair share of cool-looking-old-thing-gutted-and-filled-with-Arduinos projects before, and while they can be interesting, there’s something deeply disturbing about losing another bit of our shared electronic heritage. To gut this device, which hails from the early 1960s and features some of the most beautiful point-to-point backplane wiring we’ve ever seen, would have been a tragedy, one that [Shahriar] wisely avoided.

After a bit of recapping and some power supply troubleshooting, the video below treats us to a tour of the Nixie-based beauty. It’s a wonderful piece, and still quite accurate after all these decades, although it did need a bit of calibration. Turning it into a clock non-destructively required adding a little bit of gear, though. Internally, [Shahriar] added a divide-by-ten card to allow the counter to use an external 10-MHz reference. Externally, an ERASynth++ programmable signal generator was used to send a signal to the counter from 0 Hz to 23,595.9 kHz, ramping up by 100 Hz every second.

The end result is the world’s most complicated 24-hour clock, which honestly wasn’t even the point of the build at all. It was to show off the glorious insides of the counter, introduce us to some cool new RF tools, and as always with [Shahriar]’s videos, to educate and inform. We’ve always enjoyed his wizardry, from his look into automotive radars to a million-dollar scope teardown, and this was another great project.

Continue reading “A Nixie Clock, The Hard Way”

Mystery HP Gear Teardown

What’s round, has what looks like a vacuum tube in the center, and was made in the 1950s by HP? We don’t know either, but [The Signal Path] restored one and shows us this mystery instrument in a recent video that you can see below. We aren’t going to spoil the surprise over what the device is, but we will share that he does reveal what it is very early in the video, so there’s not much of a tease.

We will, however, give you a few hints. Looking at it, you can guess that it is meant for high voltage use and, in fact, it is rated for up to 25 kV. We’ll also drop the hint that it is made for use with AC, not DC. The shape of the plug at the end of the wire is also a clue, we think.

There isn’t much inside the unusual round case (another clue, by the way), but there are some vintage parts we haven’t seen in quite awhile. One last clue: Why is there a metal rod and ball sticking out of one side of the device?

Honestly, the insides are a bit underwhelming so unlike some teardown videos we’ve seen, the real star of this video is the unusual device more so than its inner workings. If you have a hankering for a more sophisticated HP exploration, check out the HP3458A repair we covered earlier. Or go old school and peek inside an HP 150A.

Continue reading “Mystery HP Gear Teardown”

An HP15-C emulator PCB

Calculate Like It’s 1989 With This HP15C Emulator

Back in the day, your choice of calculator said a lot about your chops, and nothing made a stronger statement than the legendary Hewlett-Packard Voyager series of programmable calculators. From the landscape layout to the cryptic keycaps to the Reverse Polish Notation, everything about these calculators spoke to a seriousness of purpose.

Sadly, these calculators are hard to come by at any price these days. So if you covet their unique look and feel, your best bet might be to do like [alxgarza] and build your own Voyager-series emulator. This particular build emulates the HP15C and runs on an ATMega328. Purists may object to the 192×64 LCD matrix display rather than the ten-digit seven-segment display of the original, but we don’t mind the update at all. The PCB that the emulator is built on is just about the right size, and the keyboard is built up from discrete switches that are as satisfyingly clicky as the originals. We also appreciate the use of nothing but through-hole components — it seems suitably retro. The video below shows that the calculator is perfectly usable without a case; a 3D-printed case is available, though, as is an overlay that replicates the keypad of the original.

We’ve seen emulators for other classic calculators of yore, including Sinclair, Texas Instruments, and even other HP lines. But this one has a really nice design that gets us going.

Continue reading “Calculate Like It’s 1989 With This HP15C Emulator”

Boat Anchor Nixie Clock Plays The Cold Warrior Role Convincingly

The early Cold War years may have been suffused with existential dread thanks to the never-ending threat of nuclear obliteration, but at least it did have a great look. Think cars with a ton of chrome, sheet steel toys with razor-sharp edges, and pretty much the entire look of the Fallout franchise. And now you can add in this boat anchor of an electromechanical Nixie clock, too.

If [Teti]’s project looks familiar, perhaps it’s because the build was meant as an homage to the test equipment of yore, particularly some of the sturdier offerings from Hewlett-Packard. But this isn’t some thrift store find that has been repurposed; rather, the entire thing, from the electronics to the enclosure, is scratch built. The clock circuit is based on 4000-series CMOS chips and the display uses six IN-1 Nixies. Instead of transistors to drive the tubes, [Teti] chose to use relays, which in the video below prove to be satisfyingly clicky and relaxing. Not relaxing in any way is the obnoxious alarm, which would be enough to rouse a mission control officer dozing in his bunker. [Teti] has a blog with more details on the build, the gem of which is information on how he had the front panel so beautifully made.

We can’t say enough about the fit and finish of this one, as well as the functionality. What’s even more impressive is that this was reportedly [Teti]’s first project like this. It really puts us in mind of some of the great 6502 retrocomputer builds we’ve been seeing lately.

Continue reading “Boat Anchor Nixie Clock Plays The Cold Warrior Role Convincingly”

This Expedient Microfiche Reader Illuminates Retro Datasheets

You have to be of a certain vintage to remember doing research on microfilm and microfiche. Before the age of mass digitization of public records, periodicals, and other obscure bits of history, dead-tree records were optically condensed onto fine-grain film, either in roll form or as flat sheets, which were later enlarged and displayed on a specialized reader. This greatly reduced the storage space needed for documents, but it ended up being a technological dead-end once the computer age rolled around.

This was the problem [CuriousMarc] recently bumped into — a treasure trove of Hewlett-Packard component information on microfiche, but no reader for the diminutive datasheets. So naturally, he built his own microfiche reader. In a stroke of good luck, he had been gifted a low-cost digital microscope that seemed perfect for the job. The scope, with an HD camera and 5″ LCD screen, was geared more toward reflective than transmissive use, though, so [Marc] had trouble getting a decent picture of the microfiches, even with a white paper backing.

Version 2.0 used a cast-off backlight, harvested from a defunct DVD player screen, as a sort of light box for the stage of the microscope. It was just about the perfect size for the microfiches, and the microscope was able to blow up the tiny characters as well as any dedicated microfiche reader could, at a fraction of the price. Check out the video below for details on the build, as well as what [Marc] learned from the data sheets about his jackpot of HP parts.

With the wealth of data stored on microforms, we’re surprised that we haven’t seen any readers like this before. We have talked about microscopic wartime mail, though.

Continue reading “This Expedient Microfiche Reader Illuminates Retro Datasheets”

Retro Calculator Design Has Creative Tactile Touchscreen

We’ve all heard it a thousand times – they don’t make ’em like they used to. Sometimes, that’s for good reason, but there is a certain build quality to electronics of the mid-20th century that is hard to find in hardware today. This inspires great nostalgia and dedication in some, like [Michael Park], who set out to build a calculator reminiscent of the best HP designs from yesteryear.

The scissor mechanism allows the touch screen to move linearly and activate the tactile switch without twisting, no matter where along its surface it is pressed.

One of the major factors for [Michael] was the great feel of the keys on these classic units. Wanting to experiment with different layouts without a lot of rewiring, the idea of keys with individual displays became attractive. Existing parts on the market were prohibitively expensive, however. Instead, [Michael] used a single touchscreen with a switch mounted underneath to provide tactile feedback with a nifty scissor-arm guide mechanism. Combined with individual see-through plastic overlays, the MP-29 has a fully reconfigurable pad of 30 keys with dynamically updatable labels.

It’s a creative choice, and one that looks highly satisfying to use. It has all the tactile benefits of individual keys, both in the keypresses and being able to navigate the keypad without looking. Combined with the benefit of reconfigurable keys thanks to the touch screen underneath, it’s a great way to build a user-interface.

The rest of the calculator design closely mimics the HP-29, though [Michael] is also experimenting with alternative layouts too. There are plenty of religious wars in the calculator community over usability, after all – mostly over which side of the pad has the arithmetic functions.

We’ve lamented the demise of the standalone calculator recently; with so many smart devices around, it’s hard to see it making a major comeback anytime soon. Of course, if you’re opinionated on the topic, sound off in the comments below. Video after the break.

Continue reading “Retro Calculator Design Has Creative Tactile Touchscreen”