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.

Hacked CCFL Inverter becomes an Arc Lighter

[GreatScott!] needs to light off fireworks with an arc rather than a flame, because “fireworks and plasma” is cooler than fireworks and no plasma. To that end, he attempted to reverse engineer an arc lighter, but an epoxy potted high-voltage assembly thwarted him. Refusing to accept defeat, he modified a CCFL inverter into an arc lighter, and the process is pretty educational.

With his usual impeccable handwriting and schematic drawing skills, [GreatScott!] documents that his CCFL inverter is a resonant Royer oscillator producing a sine wave of about 37 kHz, which is then boosted to about 2400 volts. That’s pretty good, but nowhere near the 15 kilovolts needed for a self-sustaining arc across electrodes placed 5 mm apart. A little math told him that he could achieve this by rewinding the transformer’s primary with only 4 turns. After some testing, the rewound transformer was fitted back into the Royer circuit and with a few modifications the arc was struck.

It’s not a finished project yet, and we’re looking forward to seeing how [GreatScott!] puts this to use. For now, we’re grateful for the lesson is Royer oscillators and rewinding transformers. But if you’d rather hack an off-the-shelf arc lighter, there’s always this arc lighter pyrography pen, or this mini plasma cutter.

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Portable Battery Bank Only Looks Like a Bomb

If one of the design goals of [wsw4jr]’s portable solar battery bank build was to make something that the local bomb squad would not hesitate to detonate with a water cannon if he leaves it unattended, then mission accomplished.

We kid, but really, the whole thing has a sort of “Spy vs. Spy” vibe that belies its simple purpose. A battery bank is just an array of batteries, some kind of charge controller, and an inverter. The batteries are charged by any means possible – in this case by a small array of solar panels. The mains output of the inverter is used to power whatever doodads you have.

[wsw4jr] didn’t mention of the inverter specs, but from the size of the batteries and the wiring – both of which he admits are not yet up to snuff in his prototype – it’s a safe guess that the intended loads are pretty small.  Tipping the scale at 60 pounds, the unit tends toward the luggable end of the portability scale. Still, this could be a great tool for working out in the field, or maybe even tailgating.

We’ve seen expedient battery banks and emergency power from cordless drill batteries before, but this build is quite a bit more sophisticated. We’ll be watching for updates on this one.

Afroman And The Case Of The Suspect Inverter

If you search the internet for 12 volt to mains AC inverter designs, the chances are you’ll encounter a simple circuit which has become rather ubiquitous. It features a 4047 CMOS astable multivibrator chip driving a pair of MOSFETs in a push-pull configuration which in turn drive a centre-tapped mains transformer in reverse. Not a new design, its variants and antecedents could be found even in those pre-Internet days when circuits came from books on the shelves of your local lending library.

afroman-inverter-featured[Afroman], no stranger to these pages, has published a video in which he investigates the 4047 inverter, and draws attention to some of its shortcomings. It is not the circuit’s lack of frequency stability with voltage that worries him, but the high-frequency ringing at the point of the square-wave switching when the device has an inadequate load. This can reach nearly 600 volts peak-to-peak with a 120 volt American transformer, or over a kilovolt if you live somewhere with 230 volt mains. The Internet’s suggested refinement, a capacitor on the output, only made the situation worse. As he remarks, it’s fine for powering a lightbulb, but you wouldn’t want it near your iPhone charger.

If this video achieves anything, it is a lesson to the uninitiated that while simple and popular designs can sometimes be absolute gems it must not be assumed that this is always the case.

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