Bell Labs, Skunk Works, and the Crowd Sourcing of Innovation

I’ve noticed that we hear a lot less from corporate research labs than we used to. They still exist, though. Sure, Bell Labs is owned by Nokia and there is still some hot research at IBM even though they quit publication of the fabled IBM Technical Disclosure Bulletin in 1998. But today innovation is more likely to come from a small company attracting venture capital than from an established company investing in research. Why is that? And should it be that way?

The Way We Were

There was a time when every big company had a significant research and development arm. Perhaps the most famous of these was Bell Labs. Although some inventions are inevitably disputed, Bell Labs can claim radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, Unix, C, and C++ among other innovations. They also scored a total of nine Nobel prizes.

Bell Labs had one big advantage: for many years it was part of a highly profitable monopoly, so perhaps the drive to make money right away was less than at other labs. Also, I think, times were different and businesses often had the ability to look past the next quarter.

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Blowing the Dust off of an IBM AS/400 Server

If you’ve never seen an IBM AS/400 machine, don’t feel bad. Most people haven’t. Introduced in 1988 as a mid-range server line, it used a unique object-based operating system and was geared specifically towards business and enterprise customers. Unless you’re a particularly big fan of COBOL you probably won’t have much use for one today, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth playing around with if the opportunity presents itself.

So when a local IT company went belly up and was selling their old hardware, including a late 90’s era IBM AS/400e Series, [Rik te Winkel] jumped at the chance to take this unique piece of computing history home. He knew it was something of a risk, as maintenance and repair tasks for these machines were intended to be done by IBM certified technicians rather than the DIYer, leaving little in the way of documentation or even replacement parts. But in the end it worked out, and best of all, he documented the successful process of dragging this 90’s behemoth into the blinding light of the twenty-first century for all the world to see.

After getting the machine home and sitting through its thirty minute boot process, [Rik] was relieved to see the code 01 B N pop on the server’s display. This meant the system passed all the internal checks and was ready to go, he just had to figure out how to talk to the thing. Built to be a pure server, the machine didn’t offer any video output so he’d have to log into it over the network.

[Rik] noted that there was no new DHCP entry in his router for the server, but of course that was hardly surprising as the machine would have certainly had a static IP when it was in use. So he shut the server down, plugged it directly into his laptop’s Ethernet port, and watched the output of Wireshark as it went through its arduous boot sequence. Eventually he started to pick up packets coming from the IP address 10.10.10.9, and he had his target.

There are a few clients out there that allow you to remotely log into an AS/400, so he downloaded one and pointed it to the server’s IP. He was surprised to see the operating system was apparently in Dutch, but at least he was in. He tried a few common usernames and passwords, helped along by the fact that this OS from a somewhat more innocent era will actually tell you if you have the username right or wrong, and eventually managed to hack the Gibson with the classic admin/admin combo.

So he was in, but now what? [Rik] decided that he couldn’t truly call this machine bested until he could pull up the Hackaday Retro Edition, so he started work on writing a program to let him pull down the page directly on the AS/400 in IBM’s proprietary Report Program Generator (RPG) programming language. You know, as one does. He didn’t quite feel up to writing a whole HTML parser, but he got as far as generating a HTTP GET request, downloading the page’s source, and opening it up as a local file. That’s good enough for us.

Our very own [Al Williams] documented his adventures poking around an Internet-connected AS/400 machine, which might serve as a helpful primer if you ever find one of these delightfully oddball computers kicking around the local recycling center.

Vintage IBM 1403 Printer Problem Evades an Easy Fix

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View has two operational IBM 1401 mainframes, which use IBM 1403 high-speed printers. They aren’t some decades-old notion of “high speed” that barely looks sluggish today, either. These monsters slam out ten lines per second thanks to a rotating chain of type slugs and an array of electromagnetic hammers. Every 11.1 microseconds, a character in the chain would be lined up with a hammer, and if the control circuitry identified it as a character that needed to be printed, the hammer behind the paper would drive the paper into the print ribbon and the slug, putting an imprint of the character onto the paper. When one of these printers failed with a sync error, it kicked off some serious troubleshooting to diagnose the problem.

The IBM 1403’s type chain has a repeating set of characters that spins around at high speed. Unlike a typewriter or label maker, the hammers are not inside this unit. The hammers are on the outside, and work by pressing the paper onto the type slugs as the required characters line up.

Investigation of the problem ultimately led to an intermittent connection in a driver card due to a broken PCB trace, but by then some fuses had been blown as well. In the end the printer was brought back online, but possibly with a slightly damaged coil on one of the hammers.

[Ken]’s writeup on the repair process is highly detailed and walks through the kind of troubleshooting and repairs involved when solving problems with vintage electronics. Electrical fundamentals might be the same, but a deep understanding of not only the architecture but also the failure modes of vintage hardware is needed in order to troubleshoot effectively.

If IBM 1401 mainframes and fixing 1403 printers sounds familiar, it’s because a printer fix has been done before. That was due to a different problem, but still a challenging task to narrow down and fix.

Laptop Chargers Team Up To Get The Juice Flowing

There’s perhaps nothing harder to throw away than a good power supply. Whether it’s the classic “wall wart” whose mate has long since been misplaced or a beefy ATX you pulled out of a trashed computer, it always seems like there should be something you could do with these little wonders of modern power conversion. So into the parts bin it goes, where it will stay evermore. But not for the [TheRainHarvester], who figured out that the secret to putting a drawer full of old laptop chargers to use was combing them like hacker Voltron.

Using three old IBM laptop chargers, he’s able to produce up to 48 volts DC at a healthy 4.5 amps. His cobbled together power supply even features an variable output, albeit with some mighty coarse adjustment. As each charger is individually rated for 16V, he can unplug one of the adapters to get 32V.

In the video after the break [TheRainHarvester] walks viewers through the construction of his simple adapter, which could easily be made with salvaged parts. Built on a trace-free piece of fiber board, the adapter consists of the three barrel jacks for the chargers and a trio of beefy Schottky diodes.

The nature of the barrel jacks (which short a pin once the plug is removed) along with the diodes allows [TheRainHarvester] to combine the output of the three adapters in series without running the risk of damaging them if for example one is left plugged into the adapter but not the wall. He’s also looking to add some status LEDs to show which chargers are powered on.

Unfortunately, [TheRainHarvester] realized a bit too late that what he thought was an inert piece of board actually had a ground plane, so he’s going to have to come up with a new way to tie the whole thing together on the next version which he says is coming now that he knows the concept seems workable.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking of hacking something together with the wealth of old laptop chargers we know are kicking around the lab, you might want to take a look at our primer for understanding all those hieroglyphs on the back of the thing.

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Remember When Blockbuster Video Tried Burning Game Cartridges On Demand?

By the onset of the 1990s one thing was clear, the future was digital. Analog format sales for music were down, CD sales were up; and it was evident, at least in the US, that people were bringing more computing devices into their homes. At the beginning of the decade, roughly 1 in 3 American households had a Nintendo Entertainment System in them, according to this Good Morning America segment.

With all those consoles out there, every shopping season became a contest of “who could wait in line the longest” to pickup the newest titles. This left last minute shoppers resorting to taking a rain check or return home empty handed. Things didn’t have to be this way. The digital world had emerged and physical media just needed to catch up. It would take an unlikely alliance of two disparate companies for others to open their minds.

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Wired and IBM Explain Quantum Computing to Students from Grade School to Grad School

Have you ever heard the old axiom that if you want to design a simple system, ask yourself if your grandmother could use it? Maybe that was on Wired’s mind because they asked a quantum computing expert — particularly IBM’s [Dr. Talia Gershon] — to explain what exactly quantum computing is at 5 levels. In the video they shot, which you can see below, [Dr. Gershon] talks to a younger child, a teenager, an undergraduate computer science student, a graduate student, and then a physicist.

We enjoyed some of the analogies of spinning pennies and the way she was able to bring the topic to an appropriate level for each of the participants. Truthfully, the final segment with the physicist ([Dr. Steven Girvin] was more of a conversation than an explanation, but it was interesting to hear his views on fault tolerance and how likely certain things were to occur in the near future.

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Trashed Vector Game Console Revived With Vintage IBM Monitor

We’ve all had the heartbreak of ordering something online, only to have it arrive in less than mint condition. Such are the risks of plying the global marketplace, only more so for used gear, which seems to be a special target for the wrath of sadistic custom agents and package handlers all along the supply chain.

This cruel fate befell a vintage Vectrex game console ordered by [Senile Data Systems]; the case was cracked and the CRT was an imploded mass of shards. Disappointing, to say the least, but not fatal, as he was able to make a working console from the remains of the Vectrex and an old IBM monitor. The Google translation is a little rough, but from what we can gather, the Vectrex, a vector-graphics console from the early 80s with such hits as MineStorm, Star Castle, and Clean Sweep, was in decent shape apart from the CRT. So with an old IBM 5151 green phosphor monitor, complete with a burned-in menu bar, was recruited to stand in for the damaged components. The Vectrex guts, including the long-gone CRT’s deflection yoke assembly, were transplanted to the new case. A little room was made for the original game cartridges, a new controller was fashioned from a Nintendo candy tin, and pretty soon those classic games were streaking and smearing across the long-persistence phosphors. We have to admit the video below looks pretty trippy.

If arcade restorations are your thing, display replacements like this are probably part of the fun. Here’s a post about replacing an arcade display with a trash bin CRT TV, an important skill to have is this business.

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