Cesium Clock Teardown, Or Quantum Physics Playground

Half the fun of getting vintage test equipment is getting to open it up. Maybe that’s even more than half of the fun. [CuriousMarc] got an HP 5061A Cesium clock, a somewhat famous instrument as the model that attempted to prove the theory of relativity. The reason? The clock was really the first that could easily be moved around, including being put on an airplane. You can watch the video below.

According to the video, you can simplify special relativity to saying that time slows down if you go fast — that is known as time dilation. General relativity indicates that time slows down with increasing gravity. Therefore, using airborne Cesium clocks, you could fly a clock in circles high up or fly at high speeds and check Einstein’s predictions.
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Dissecting China-Sourced Vintage HP 1970s ICs: Genuine Or Not?

While repairing a real-time clock module for a 1970s HP computer that had been damaged by its leaky internal battery, [CuriousMarc] began to suspect that maybe the replacement clock chips which he had sourced from a seller in China were the reason why the module still wasn’t working after the repairs. This led him down the only obvious path: to decap and inspect both the failed original Ti chip and the replacement chip.

The IC in question is the Texas Instruments AC5948N (along with the AC5954N on other boards), which originally saw use in LED watches in the 1970s. HP used this IC in its RTC module, despite it never having been sold publicly. This makes it even more remarkable that a Chinese seller had the parts in stock. As some comments on the YouTube video mention, back then there wasn’t as much secrecy around designs, and it’s possible someone walked out of the factory with one of the masks for this chip.

Whether true or not, as the video (also included after the break) shows, both the original 1970s chip and the China-sourced one look identical. Are they original stock, or later produced from masks that made their way to Asia? We’ll probably never know for sure, but it does provide an exciting opportunity for folk who try to repair vintage equipment.

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A Modern Take On A Piece Of Old Test Equipment

The HP 11947A is something of a footnote in the back catalogue of Hewlett Packard test equipment. An attenuator and limiter with a bandwidth in the megahertz rather than the gigahertz. It’s possible that few laboratories have much use for one in 2019, but it does have one useful property: a full set of schematics and technical documentation. [James Wilson] chose the device as the subject of a clone using surface mount devices.

The result is very satisfyingly within spec, and he’s run a battery of tests to prove it. As he says, the HP design is a good one to start with.   As a device containing only passive components and with a maximum frequency in the VHF range this is a project that makes a very good design exercise for anyone interested in RF work or even who wishes to learn a bit of RF layout. At these frequencies there are still a significant number of layout factors that can affect performance, but the effect of conductor length and  stray capacitance is less than the much higher frequencies typically used by wireless-enabled microcontrollers.

Patch, Or Your Solid State Drives Roll Over And Die

Expiration dates for computer drives? That’s what a line of HP solid-state drives are facing as the variable for their uptime counter is running out. When it does, the drive “expires” and, well, no more data storage for you!

There are a series of stages in the evolution of a software developer as they master their art, and one of those stages comes in understanding that while they may have a handle on the abstracted world presented by their development environment they perhaps haven’t considered the moments in which the real computer that lives behind it intrudes. Think of the first time you saw an SQL injection attack on a website, for example, or the moment you realised that a variable type is linked to the physical constraints of the number of memory locations it has reserved for it. So people who write software surround themselves with an armoury of things they watch out for as they code, and thus endeavour to produce software less likely to break. Firmly in that arena is the size of the variables you use and what will happen when that limit is reached.

Your Drive Is Good For About 3 Years And 9 Months

Sometimes though even developers that should know better get it wrong, and this week has brought an unfortunate example for the enterprise wing of the hardware giant HP. Their manufacturer has notified them that certain models of solid-state disk drives supplied in enterprise storage systems contain an unfortunate bug, in which they stop working after 32,768 hours of uptime. That’s a familiar number to anyone working with base-2 numbers and hints at a 16-bit signed integer in use to log the hours of uptime. When it rolls over the value will then be negative and, rather than the drive believing itself to be in a renewed flush of youth, it will instead stop working.

Egg on the faces of the storage company then, and an urgently-released patch. We suspect that if you own a stack of these drives you will already know about the issue and be nervously pacing the racks of your data centre.

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Where Did Pocket Computing Start?

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]

Tearing Apart Pulse Transformer Switches

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.

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Plot Your Way Past A Tiny Buffer

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.