A computer is, at its core, just a bunch of transistors wired together. Once you have enough transistors on a board, though, one of the first layers of abstraction that arises is the Arithmetic Logic Unit. The ALU takes in two sets of data, performs a chosen math function, and outputs one data set as the result. It really is the core of what makes computers compute.
An ALU is built into modern processors, but that wasn’t always how it was done. If you’re looking to build a recreation of an early computer you may need a standalone, and that’s why [roelh] designed an ALU that fits in a square inch piece of circuit board using five multiplexer chips and two XOR chips.
One of the commonly used components for this purpose, the 74LS181 ALU, is not in production anymore. [roelh’s] ALU is intended to be a small footprint replacement of sorts, and can perform seven functions: ADD, SUB, XOR, XNOR, AND, OR, A, B, and NOT A. The small footprint for the design is a constraint of our recent contest: Return of the Square Inch Project. Of course, this meant extra design challenges, such as needing to move the carry in and carry out lines to a separate header because there wasn’t enough space on one edge.
Exploring the theory behind an ALU isn’t just for people building retrocomputers. It is integral to gaining an intuitive understanding of how all computers work. Everyone should consider looking under the hood by walking through the nand2tetris course which uses simulation to build from a NAND gate all the way up to a functioning computer based on The Elements of Computing Science textbook.
If you’re a homebrew computer builder, it might be worthwhile to use one of these ALUs rather than designing your own. Of course, if building components from scratch is your thing we definitely understand that motivation as well.
There are a variety of techniques employed by electronic constructors seeking the convenience of a printed circuit board without the inconvenience of making a printed circuit board. Dead bug style construction in which the components float on a spiders-web of soldered leads above a ground plane is one, Manhattan style construction in which pads made from small cut squares of bare copper-clad PCB are glued on top of a groundplane is another.
[Freestate QRP] has another take on this type of electronics, with what he calls “Scribble style” construction. He cuts away copper from bare board to create pads and rudimentary tracks, and for him the magic ingredient comes from his choice of an engineer’s scribe to do the job. This is where the “scribble” comes from, creating a pad is as simple as drawing it with the scribe.
Of course, this technique is not entirely new, constructors have been doing this type of work for years with Dremel tools, hand engraving tools, and similar. If you’ve ever tried to do it with a knife or scalpel you will know that it’s hardly an easy task with those hand tools so the prospect of another one doing a better job is rather interesting. He’s ready and able to demonstrate it in action, showing us a couple of RF circuits using the technique.
Sometimes it starts with a 555 timer and an op-amp. Other times with a small microcontroller. But the timing’s not so great and needs a dedicated timing crystal circuit. And maybe some more memory, and maybe the ATtiny should be swapped out for some 74LS-series chips. And now of course it needs video output too. Before you know it, you’re staring at a 40-chip computer that hearkens back to a simpler, yet somehow more complex, time of computing. At least that’s where [Marcel] is with his breadboard computer based on 1970s-era chips.
For what it does, this homebrew computer is relatively simple and straightforward. It gets 8 bits of processing power from 34 TTL chips. Another 6 round out the other features needed for the computer to operate. It is capable of rendering 64 colors in software and has more than enough memory for a computer of this sort. So far the only recurring problem [Marcel] has had has been with breadboard fatigue, as some of the chips keep popping out of the sockets.
This is a great project for anyone interested in homebrew or 8-bit computing, partially because of some of the self-imposed limitations that [Marcel] imposed on himself, like “only chips from the 70s”. It’s an impressive build on its own and looks to get much better since future plans call for a dedicated PCB to solve the issue with the worn-out breadboards. If you’re already invested in a project like this, don’t forget that the rabbit hole can go a little deeper: you can build a computer out of discrete transistors as well.
Back in 2014 [Johan] decided to celebrate BASIC’s 30 50 year anniversary by writing his own BASIC interpreter. Now, a few years later, he says he feels he has hit a certain milestone: he can play Flappy Bird, written in his own version of BASIC, running on his own home-built computer, the BASIC-1.
Inside the BASIC-1 is an Atmel XMega128A4, a keyboard from a broken Commodore 64, a joystick port, a serial to TV out adapter, and an SD card adapter for program storage. An attractively laser-cut enclosure with kerf bends houses the keyboard and hardware. The BASIC-1 boots into BASIC just like many of its home computer counterparts from the 80s.
Brewing beer or making wine at home isn’t complicated but it does require an attention to detail and a willingness to measure and sanitize things multiple times, particularly when tracking the progress of fermentation. This job has gotten easier thanks to the iSpindel project; an ESP8266 based IoT device intended as a DIY alternative to a costly commercial solution.
Tracking fermentation normally involves a simple yet critical piece of equipment called a hydrometer (shown left), which measures the specific gravity or relative density of a liquid. A hydrometer is used by winemakers and brewers to determine how much sugar remains in a solution, therefore indicating the progress of the fermentation process. Using a hydrometer involves first sanitizing all equipment. Then a sample is taken from the fermenting liquid, put into a tall receptacle, the hydrometer inserted and the result recorded. Then the sample is returned and everything is cleaned. [Editor (and brewer)’s note: The sample is not returned. It’s got all manner of bacteria on/in it. Throw those 20 ml away!] This process is repeated multiple times, sometimes daily. Every time the batch is opened also increases the risk of contamination. Continue reading “IoT Device Pulls Its Weight in Home Brewing”→
Homebrew laser cutters are nifty devices, but scorching your pals, burning the house down, or smelling up the neighborhood isn’t anyone’s idea of a great time. Lets face it. A 60-watt laser that can cut plastics offers far more trouble than even the crankiest 3D-printers (unless, of course, our 3D printed spaghetti comes to life and decides to terrorize the neighborhood). Sure, a laser’s focused beam is usually pointed in the right direction while cutting, but even an unfocused beam that reflects off a shiny material can start fires. What’s more, since most materials burn, rather than simply melt, a host of awful fumes spew from every cut.
Despite the danger, the temptation to build one is irresistible. With tubes, power supplies, and water coolers now in abundance from overseas re-sellers, the parts are just a PayPal-push away from landing on our doorsteps. We’ve also seen a host of exciting builds come together on the dining room table. Our table could be riddled with laser parts too! After combing through countless laser build logs, I’ve yet to encounter the definitive guide that tells us how to take the proper first steps forward in keeping ourselves safe while building our own laser cutter. Perhaps that knowledge is implicit to the community, scattered on forums; or perhaps it’s learned by each brave designer on their own from one-too-many close calls. Neither of these options seems fair to the laser newb, so I decided to lay down the law here.
If you have ever browsed an amateur radio magazine you could be forgiven for receiving the impression that it is a pursuit exclusively for the wealthy. Wall-to-wall adverts for very large and shiny transceivers with hefty price tags abound, and every photograph of someone’s shack seems to sport a stack of them.
Of course, this is only part of the story. Amateur radio is and always has been an astonishingly diverse interest, and away from the world of shiny adverts you’ll find a lot of much more interesting devices. A lot of radio amateurs still design and build their own equipment, and the world of homebrew radio is forever producing new ideas.
One such project came to our attention recently, the Minima, an all-band HF SSB transceiver. It’s an interesting device for several reasons, it uses readily available components, it’s an impressively simple design, and it should cost under $100 to build. This might sound a little far-fetched, were it not from the bench of [Ashhar Farhan, VU2ESE], whose similarly minimalist BITX single band SSB transceiver set a new standard for accessible SSB construction a few years ago.
The circuit shares some similarities with the tried-and-tested BITX, using bi-directional amplifier building blocks. The mixers are now FETs rather than diodes, the intermediate frequency has moved from 9MHz to 20MHz, and the local oscillator is now an Arduino-controlled clock generator. The whole thing is designed to be built dead-bug-style if necessary, and two prototypes have been built. We’d expect this design to follow a similar evolution to the BITX, with the global community of radio amateurs contributing performance modifications, and no doubt with some kit suppliers producing PCBs and kits. We think this can only be a good thing, and look forward to covering some of the results.