A smartphone in 2019 is an essential piece of everyday equipment. Many of you are probably reading this page on one, and it will pack a very significant quantity of computing power into your hand. Pocket computing has a long history stretching back decades before the mass adoption of smartphones though, and Paleotronic has an interesting retrospective of that earlier history.
The piece starts with the Radio Shack PC-1, a rebadged Sharp with a calculator-style keyboard and a one-line alphanumeric LCD display, then continues through the legendary TRS-80 Model 100 to the era of the palmtop. It’s a difficult subject to cover in its entirety as there are so many milestones on the pocket computing path, but it’s an interesting read nevertheless as it successfully evokes the era when a 300 Baud connection via an acoustic coupler was a big deal. We might for example have mentioned the Atari Portfolio if only for its use by a young John Connor to scam an ATM in Terminator 2, and as any grizzled old sysadmin will tell you, there was a time when owning a Nokia Communicator might just save your bacon.
Of the classic pocket computing devices mentioned, only one has received significant coverage here. The TRS-80 model 100 still has a huge following, and among quite a few hacks featuring it we’ve seen one brought into the smartphone age by getting the ability to make a cellular connection.
TRS-80 Model 100 image: Jeff Keyzer from Austin, TX, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0]
If you like mechanical keyboards, you like switches. Historically, switches were weird, with strange capacitive rubber dome switches in Topre boards, buckling springs in the IBM Model M, and beamsprings in earlier IBM keyboards. This teardown of an HP signal generator has the weirdest keyboard switches ever. They’re being called pulse transformer switches, but they are the strangest, weirdest, and most complicated keyboard switch we’ve ever seen
Mechanically, these keys are mounted on a 1×5 plastic frame with a plunger that presses down on a (brass?) photoetched plate. Mechanically, this is effectively a metal dome keyboard that simply presses a springy bit of metal against a contact on a printed circuit board. That’s the mechanical explanation, the electrical theory of operation is much, much weirder.
Electrically, this keyboard consists of a printed circuit board with two coils underneath each key. The circuit is wired up so two keys are ‘read’ at the same time with a pulse from a multiplexer. This pulse induces a current in the ‘sense’ coil of two individual keys which is sent to a comparator. If both keys are not pressed, the comparator sees a positive and a negative voltage which cancels out, meaning no keys are pressed. If one key is pressed, the metal dome shorts out the transformer underneath the keyboard, meaning only one voltage is seen by the comparator, and that key is registered as being pressed.
This is some crazy keyboard circuitry, and I do not say that lightly. There are ‘acoustic’ keyboards out there which consist of a row of keys striking a metal bar with an acoustic transducer on each end. By measuring the time it takes for the sound of a keypress to reach either end of the metal bar, a keypress can be registered. This is weird and expensive to build, and it’s still simpler than a pulse transformer switch. Check out the video below.
Continue reading “Tearing Apart Pulse Transformer Switches”
There is a dedicated community of plotter enthusiasts who keep their often-aging X-Y axis pen drawing devices going decades after they were built, and who share plotter-generated paper artwork online. [Dhananjay Balan] was seduced by this, so acquired a second-hand HP7440A through eBay and set about bringing it to life.
Bringing it to life was in the first instance the usual progression of cleaning the mechanism and checking all was in order, before doing a bit of research to find that the missing power supply was a 10-0-10V AC item. Then some adapters and a USB-to-serial port had it talking to a modern PC, and thanks to the wonders of HPGL it was working once more. This could thus have been a very simple tale worthy of the dreaded Not A Hack moniker, had the focus then not changed from the hardware into the software.
Back in the day, a 60-byte buffer in a plotter must have seemed huge. But in 2019 a plotter can be sent data at a rate that will swiftly fill it, after which the commands are not stored and are never drawn. Introducing a delay between sending commands solves the problem, but at the expense of very slow plotting. This was solved with a very clever use of the HPGL command to send the pen position, which waits until the pen has finished moving before sending its return value. This became a handy way to detect when the plotter was ready for more, allowing speedier printing without buffer overruns.
The plotter has an expansion port into which an optional module containing trigonometric drawing functions could have been plugged, but was missing in this example. HP’s idea was that the buffer was so small that a programmer would have difficulty writing their own, but the buffer hack in the previous paragraph put paid to that. Python code for all this and more is in a handy GitHub repository.
Via Hacker News.
We are fantastically lucky not only in the parts that are easily available to us at reasonable cost, but also for the affordable test equipment that we can have on our benches. It was not always this way though, and [NFM] treats us to an extensive teardown and upgrade of a piece of test equipment from the days when a hacker’s bench would have been well-appointed with just a multimeter and a 10MHz ‘scope.
The Hewlett Packard 4276A LCZ meter is, or perhaps was, the king of component testers. A 19″ rack unit that would comfortably fill a shelf, it has a host of functions and a brace of red LED displays. This particular meter had clearly seen better days, and required a look inside just to clean up connectors and replace aged batteries.
In the case is a backplane board with a series of edge connectors for a PSU, CPU, and analogue boards. Aged capacitors and those batteries were replaced, and those edge connectors cleaned up again. The CPU board appears to have a Z80 at its heart, and we’re sure we spotted a 1987 date code. There are plenty of nice high-quality touches, such as the individual 7-segment digits being socketed.
An after-market option for this equipment included a DC offset board, and incredibly HP publish its full schematic and a picture of its PCB in their manual. It was thus a simple process and quick PCB ordering to knock up a modern replica, with just a few component substitutions and single resistors replacing an HP specific encapsulated resistor pack.
As a treat we get a ringside seat for the set-up and alignment of the machine. The DC offset board gives the wrong voltage, which he traces to a voltage reference with a different tolerance to the original HP part. [NFM] makes some adjustments to resistor values, and is able to pull the voltage to the correct value. Finally we see the instrument put through its paces, and along the way have a demonstration of how capacitance of a ceramic capacitor can vary with voltage close to its working voltage. Even if you never have the need for an LCZ meter or never see an HP 4276A, this should be worth a watch. And if you now have an urge to find a bench full of similar treasures, take a look at our guide to old test equipment.
Continue reading “Restoring An HP LCZ Meter From The 1980s”
LEDs are now a mature technology, with all manner of colors and flavors available. However, back in the 1970s, it was early days for this fledgling display tech, and things looked very different. [IMSAI Guy] happened to work at the optoelectronics division of Hewlett-Packard during their development of LED displays, and has a handful of prototypes from those heady days.
The video is a great look at not only vintage display hardware, but also rarely seen prototypes that seldom left the HP offices. Matrix, 7-segment and even 16-segment devices are all in attendance here. There’s great macro photography of the packages, including the now-forgotten bubble displays as well as hermetically sealed glass packages. The parts all have a uniquely 1970s look, drenched in gold plating and otherwise just looking very expensive.
The followup video breaks out the microscope and powers up the displays. [IMSAI Guy] shares some useful tips on how to best tinker with unknown LED parts, as well as knowledge about the chemical compounds and manufacturing processes involved in LED production. If you don’t know your III-V compounds from your II-VI compounds, prepare to learn.
It’s always interesting to take a look back, and even better to get a peek at the experiments of engineers of the past.
If you’re wondering about applications of this hardware, we’ve seen messageboards and watches before. Video after the break.
Continue reading “Let’s Look At Some Cool Old LEDs”
You normally think of HP as producing inkjet and laser printers. But they’ve been quietly building 3D printers aimed at commercial customers. Now they are moving out with metal printers called — predictably — the HP Metal Jet. The video (see below) is a little glitzy, but the basic idea is that print bars lay down powder on a 21-micron grid. A binding agent prints on the powder, presumably in a similar way to a conventional inkjet printer. A heat source then evaporates the liquid from the binder.
The process repeats for each layer until you remove the part and then sinter it using a third-party oven-like device. According to HP, their technique has more uniform material properties than fusing the powder on the bed with a laser. They also claim to be much faster than metal injection molding.
Continue reading “HP Rolls Out Metal 3D Printers”
It’s fair to say that Moore’s Law is not delivering on its promise of advancing semiconductor capabilities as fast as it used to, as the limits of current fabrication techniques are being met. Where this is being written for example there are two laptops, one from the last year and one that is 11 years old, and while the new one is undeniably faster it has not overtaken the other by as much as a ten year gap between 1990s machines would have revealed.
So with older laptops being still so relatively quick, what possible attraction could there be for working on a machine from the 1990s, when the Moore’s Law curve was steeper? It’s something [Jim W] is doing, with his HP Internet Advisor (J2522B), and when you see the machine in question perhaps you’ll understand why. The J2522B is a laptop, but it’s no ordinary ’90s road warrior’s status symbol. This 486-powered beast is a piece of test equipment, specifically one for examining Ethernet ports, thus it’s built like a tank and is mains powered only. It boasts a 486DX4, 16 MB of memory, a then-colossal 1.3 GB hard drive, and an ISA Fast Ethernet card. Oh, and WIndows 95, which with a couple of decades’ hindsight seems an amusing choice to power a piece of security test equipment. Impressive specs for the day, but the $20,000 price tag would still have been steep compared to a comparable laptop.
[Jim]’s machine is destined for classic gaming, though with only the little HP pop-out mouse you saw on their Omnibook range at the time, he needed a PS/2 port. Some chipset hunting found that, but at the cost of accidentally frying a MOSFET when a screen connector was incorrectly re-inserted. We’re then treated to a guide to substituting older MOSFETs with modern parts, useful in itself, but followed by a marvelous piece of bodge work as an SOIC-8 part is placed on a DPAK footprint.
This is an interesting series of posts, partly from a retro angle as they deal with an interesting machine, but also from a hacking angle as he’s getting closer to the vintage PC hardware than most of us to. Keep an eye on it, there is sure to be more in the pipeline.