A 100th Birthday Celebration for the Flip Flop

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of creation as we’re building our latest widget. By the same token, it’s sometimes difficult to fully appreciate just how old some of the circuits we use are. Even the simplest of projects might make use of elements that were once a mess on some physicist’s or engineer’s lab bench, with components screwed to literal breadboards and power supplied by banks of wet-cell batteries.

One such circuit turns 100 years old in June, which is surprising because it literally is the building block of every computer. It’s the flip-flop, and while its inventors likely couldn’t have imagined what they were starting, their innovation became the basic storage system for the ones and zeros of the digital age.

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What to do with Your Brand New Ultrasonic Transducer

We wager you haven’t you heard the latest from ultrasonics. Sorry. [Lindsay Wilson] is a Hackaday reader who wants to share his knowledge of transducer tuning to make tools. The bare unit he uses to demonstrate might attach to the bottom of an ultrasonic cleaner tank, which have a different construction than the ones used for distance sensing. The first demonstration shows the technique for finding a transducer’s resonant frequency and this technique is used throughout the video. On the YouTube page, his demonstrations are indexed by title and time for convenience.

For us, the most exciting part is when a tuned transducer is squeezed by hand. As the pressure increases, the current drops and goes out of phase in proportion to the grip. We see a transducer used as a pressure sensor. He later shows how temperature can affect the current level and phase.

Sizing horns is a science, but it has some basic rules which are well covered. The basic premise is to make it half of a wavelength long and be mindful of any tools which will go in the end. Nodes and antinodes are explained and their effects demonstrated with feedback on the oscilloscope.

We have a recent feature for an ultrasonic knife which didn’t cut the mustard, but your homemade ultrasonic tools should be submitted to our tip line.

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Desperately Trying to Find a Use for the ChugPlug

[AkBKukU] writes in to tell us of his experiments with the rather vile-sounding “ChugPlug”, an odd portable AC power bank designed for the express purpose of powering MacBook chargers. It would seem more efficient to simply build a DC power bank with a MagSafe connector to cut out the charger all together, but presumably there is some market for this particular niche device. Especially at the $15 they are currently selling for on Amazon.

Unfortunately, the ChugPlug that [AkBKukU] bought doesn’t seem to work. After some experimenting he found that it appears to only be outputting 80 VAC, obviously too low for many devices to function. But he reasoned that some things, like switch mode power supplies or restive loads, might still work. He just needed to come up with a way to plug them into the ChugPlug.

If his testing setup gives you a case of sweaty palms, you aren’t alone. He breaks open a dead MacBook charger to recover the female AC connector, and then solders that directly to an AC grounding adapter. The resulting pigtail lets [AkBKukU] plug in various AC loads while allowing him to probe the wires with his multimeter and oscilloscope.

Once he’s satisfied his hack works conceptually, that is, he’s able to plug arbitrary AC loads into this purpose-built battery pack, he follows up with a less dangerous looking adapter. Making use of the shell of the dead MacBook charger and what some might describe as a salacious amount of hot glue, he produces a compact and relatively safe looking device that will let him use his handicapped ChugPlug as a general purpose source of AC power.

It’s not the most elaborate portable power supply we’ve ever seen, and certainly wouldn’t be our first choice in an emergency, but at least [AkBKukU] managed to wring some use out of the thing in the end.

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Debouncing the Old-Fashioned Way

If you were given the task of designing a computer at a time when computers weren’t really even a thing, how would you start? How would you take a collection of vacuum tubes, passive components, and a precious few germanium diodes and engineer something to sell to customers looking for an “electronic brain”?

Where there’s a paycheck, there’s a way, and computer archeologist [Ken Shirriff] laid his hands on some old IBM hardware that tells us a lot about how engineers thought in the earliest days of the computer industry. The gear is a pluggable module from IBM, one of hundreds that once went into their Model 705 computer from the mid-1950s. The particular module [Ken] has is a 5-channel contact debouncer, or in Big Blue’s mid-century parlance, a “Contact-Operated Trigger.” It was used to debounce five of the many, many mechanical contacts in the machine, both buttons and relays, and used eight dual triode tubes to do it. Other modules with the exact same footprint formed the flip-flops, inverters, buffers and clocks needed to build a computer.

[Ken]’s analysis of the debouncer is a fascinating look at what was possible with the technology of the day, and the fact that it led to a standardized framework for generic modules that were actually hot-swappable with what essentially was a zero insertion force plug was quite a feat of engineering. And as a bonus, [Ken] and friends actually got the module up in running in the video after the break.

Jonesing for more retro-computer pluggable goodness? Check out this reproduction IBM flip-flop module from the 1940s.

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Battery Management Module Hacked for Lithium-Iron Battery Bank

In a departure from his usual repair and tear down fare, [Kerry Wong] has set out on a long-term project — building a whole-house battery bank. From the first look at the project, this will be one to watch.

To be fair, [Kerry] gave us a tease at this project a few months back with his DIY spot welder for battery tabs. Since then, he appears to have made a few crucial design decisions, not least of which is battery chemistry. Most battery banks designed for an inverter with enough power to run household appliances rely on lead-acid batteries, although lithium-ion has certainly made some inroads. [Kerry] is looking to run a fairly small 1000-watt inverter, and his analysis led him to lithium-iron cells. The video below shows what happens when an eBay pack of 80 32650 LiFePo4 cells meets his spot welder. But then the problem becomes one of sourcing a battery management system that’s up to the charge and discharge specs of his 4s battery pack. We won’t spoil the surprise for you, but suffice it to say that [Kerry] really lucked out that only minimal modifications were needed for his $9 off-the-shelf BMS module.

We’re looking forward to seeing where this build goes, not least because we’d like to build something similar too. For a more traditional AGM-based battery bank, check out this nicely-engineered solar-charged system.

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Tiny Light Bulb Flasher Vies for World’s Record

We’re going to go out on a limb here and declare this minuscule incandescent light flasher the smallest such circuit in the world. After all, when you need a microscope to see it work, you’ve probably succeeded in making the world’s smallest something.

Even if it’s not record breaking, [Ben Krasnow]’s diminutive entry in the 2017 Flashing Light Contest, which we recently covered, is still pretty keen. For those not familiar with the contest, it’s an informal challenge to build something that electrically switches an incandescent light on and off in the most interesting way possible for the chance to win £200. [Ben] says he’ll donate the prize money to a STEM charity if he wins, and we’d say he has a good chance with this flea-sized entry.

The incandescent lamp he chose is a specialty item for model makers and scale railroad enthusiasts; we’d heard of “grain of wheat” bulbs before, but this thing is ridiculous. The bulb makes the 4.6 mm diameter SR416 hearing aid battery that powers the flasher look enormous. The driver is a clever Schmitt trigger inverter with a tiny RC network to flash the bulb at about 1 Hz. The video below shows the flasher working and details the development and the build, which featured spot welding to the battery. [Ben] has even spec’d precisely how many Joules of energy will rupture the thing steel cases on these cells — we suspect involuntarily through trial and error.

[Ben]’s entry in the contest is now our favorite, and not just because he’s been a great friend to Hackaday with such classic hacks as watching a phonograph needle with an electron microscope and a homebrew CT scanner. This circuit is genuinely fascinating, and we hope it inspires you to try to top it. There’s a little less than a month left in the contest, so get to it.

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An Electronic 90V Anode Battery

One of the miracle technological gadgets of the 1950s and 1960s was the transistor radio. Something that can be had for a few dollars today, but which in its day represented the last word in futuristic sophistication. Of course, it’s worth remembering that portable radios were nothing new when the transistor appeared. There had been tube radios in small attaché cases, but they had never really caught the imagination in the same way. They were bulky, like all tube radios they had to warm up, and they required a pair of hefty batteries to work.

If you have a portable tube radio today, the chances are you won’t be able to use it. The low voltage heater battery can easily be substituted with a modern equivalent, but the 90V anode batteries are long out of production. Your best bet is to build an inverter, and if you’re at a loss for where to start then [Ronald Dekker] has gone through a significant design exercise to produce a variety of routes to achieve that goal. It’s a page that’s a few years old, but still a fascinating read.

A problem with these radios lies with their sensitivity to noise. They are AM receivers from an era with a low electrical noise floor, so they don’t react well to high-frequency switch-mode power supplies. Thus, the inverters usually tasked for projects like this are low-frequency, at 50Hz as this is a European project, to mimic one source of electrical noise that would have been an issue for the designers in the 1950s.

We are taken through transformer selection and a variety of discrete inverter designs using multivibrators, investigating how to maximize efficiency through careful manipulation of switch-on and switch-off times. Then a PIC microcontroller design is presented, and finally a CMOS ring counter.

The final converter is mounted in a diecast box and covered with a printed card shell to mimic a period battery. If you weren’t intimately familiar with battery tube radios, you might mistake it for the real thing.

We’ve featured one of [Ronald]’s designs before, though only in passing. His Nixie PSU was used in this rather frightening clock with no PCB.