Teaching students about logic gates is often done in two parts, once on the whiteboard for the theory, and again on the breadboard for the practice. [shurik179] wasn’t a fan of the abstraction between easy-to-understand symbols on the whiteboard, and small IC packages full of many gates in reality. Instead, he built a set of real-world logic gates that can be wired together as a teaching tool.
Each “gate’ consists of a PCB roughly the size of a business card that features LEDs to indicate the state of its inputs and outputs, and a silkscreen indicating the name and symbol of the gate in question. There’s also a master PCB, which features three seed values, A, B, and C, to feed into the system. Students can set these values to 1 or 0, and feed them into the gates, which are wired together with 3-conductor servo cables, and observe the input on the built-in LEDs.
It’s a great way to demonstrate logic gates in the classroom. The design also allows the PCBs to be flipped over to show the actual electronic components responsible for implementing the logic, serving as a great bridge towards better understanding of real electronic design. Of course, it’s not the only way to learn – even Fallout 4 has a fully fledged logic toolkit these days!
Join us on Wednesday, December 9th at noon Pacific for the Vacuum Tube Logic Hack Chat with David Lovett!
For most of us, circuits based on vacuum tubes are remnants of a technological history that is rapidly fading from our collective memory. To be sure, there are still applications for thermionic emission, especially in power electronics and specialized switching applications. But by and large, progress has left vacuum tubes in a cloud of silicon dust, leaving mainly audiophiles and antique radio enthusiasts to figure out the hows and whys of plates and grids and filaments.
But vacuum tubes aren’t just for the analog world. Some folks like making tubes do tricks they haven’t had to do in a long, long time, at least since the birth of the computer age. Vacuum tube digital electronics seems like a contradiction in terms, but David Lovett, aka Usagi Electric on YouTube, has fallen for it in a big way. His channel is dedicated to working through the analog building blocks of digital logic circuits using tubes almost exclusively. He has come up with unique circuits that don’t require the high bias voltages typically needed, making the circuits easy to work with using equipment likely to be found in any solid-state experimenter’s lab.
David will drop by the Hack Chat to share his enthusiasm for vacuum tube logic and his tips for exploring the sometimes strange world of flying electrons. Join us as we discuss how to set up your own vacuum tube experiments, learn what thermionic emission can teach us about solid-state electronics, and maybe even get a glimpse of what lies ahead in his lab.
Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, December 9 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.
Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
Continue reading “Vacuum Tube Logic Hack Chat”
We see a lot of discrete-logic computer builds these days, and we love them all. But after a while, they kind of all blend in with each other. So what’s the discrete logic aficionado to do if they want to stand out from the pack? Perhaps this CPU-less computer with a single NOR-gate instead of an arithmetic-logic unit is enough of a hacker flex? We certainly think so.
We must admit that when we first saw [Dennis Kuschel]’s “MyNor” we thought all the logic would be emulated by discrete NOR gates, which of course can be wired up in various combinations to produce every other logic gate. And while that would be really cool, [Dennis] chose another path. Sitting in the middle of the very nicely designed PCB is a small outcropping, a pair of discrete transistors and a single resistor. These form the NOR gate that is used, along with MyNor’s microcode, to perform all the operations normally done by the ALU.
While making the MyNor very slow, this has the advantage of not needing 74-series chips that are no longer manufactured, like the 74LS181 ALU. It may be slow, but as seen in the video below, with the help of a couple of add-on cards of similar architecture, it still manages to play Minesweeper and Tetris and acts as a decent calculator.
We really like the look of this build, and we congratulate [Dennis] on pulling it off. He has open-sourced everything, so feel free to build your own. Or, check out some of the other CPU-less computers we’ve featured: there’s the Gigatron, the Dis-Integrated 6502, or the jumper-wire jungle of this 8-bit CPU-less machine.
Continue reading “A CPU-Less Computer With A Single NOR-Gate ALU”
In addition to just being fun and interesting, there were a lot of links of interest in the video (see below) and its comments. For one, someone watching the channel took the code and made a Verilog-like IDE that is impressive.
It’s best to admit upfront that vacuum tubes can be baffling to some of the younger generation of engineers. Yes, we get how electron flow from cathode to anode can be controlled with a grid, and how that can be used to amplify and control current. But there are still some things that just don’t always to click when looking at a schematic for a tube circuit. Maybe we just grew up at the wrong time.
Someone who’s clearly not old enough to have ridden the first wave of electronics but still seems to have mastered the concepts of thermionic emission is [Usagi Electric], who has been doing some great work on reverse engineering modules from old vacuum tube computers. The video below focuses on a two-tube pluggable module from an IBM 650, a machine that dates clear back to 1954. The eBay find was nothing more than two tube sockets and a pair of resistors joined to a plug by a hoop of metal. With almost nothing to go on, [Usagi] was still able to figure out what tubes would have gone in the sockets — the nine-pin socket was a big clue — and determine that the module was likely a dual NAND gate. To test his theory, [Usagi] took some liberties with the original voltages used by IBM and built a breakout PCB. It’s an interesting mix of technologies, but he was able to walk through the truth table and confirm that his module is a dual NAND gate.
The video is a bit long but it’s chock full of tidbits that really help clear up how tubes work. Along with some help from this article about how triodes work, this will put you on the path to thermionic enlightenment.
Continue reading “Reverse Engineering A Module From A Vacuum Tube Computer”
Pity the poor TTL computer aficionado. It’s an obsession, really — using discrete logic chips to scratch-build a computer that would probably compare unfavorably to an 80s era 8-bit machine in terms of performance. And yet they still forge ahead with their breadboards full of chips and tangles of wire. It’s really quite beautiful when you think about it.
[Duncan] at Shepherding Electrons has caught the TTL bug, and while building his 8-bit machine outfitted it with this discrete logic UART. The universal asynchronous receiver-transmitter is such a useful thing that single-chip versions of the device have been available since the early 1970s. [Duncan]’s version makes the magic of serial communications happen in just 12 chips, all from the 74LS logic family.
As if the feat of building a discrete logic UART weren’t enough, [Duncan] pulled this off without the aid of an oscilloscope. Debugging was a matter of substituting the 2.4576 MHz crystal oscillator clock with a simple 1 Hz 555 timer circuit; the reduced clock speed made it easier to check voltages and monitor the status of lines with LEDs. Once the circuit was working, the full-speed clock was substituted back in, allowing him to talk to his 8-bit computer at up to 38,400 bps. Color us impressed.
For more TTL computer goodness, and to see where [Duncan] got his inspiration, check out [Ben Eater]’s many discrete logic projects — his scratch-built 6502, a low-end video card, or even his take on serial communications.
Breadboard 8-bit computer builds seem all the rage these days, and with good reason: building your own CPU from the board up using discrete logic chips is a great way to really learn how microprocessors work. Not to mention that it’s an incredible flex. But once you’ve conquered the eight-bit, what do you do? Easy: build a 16-bit computer from 74HC logic chips.
Attentive readers will likely remember this computer’s builder, [Paulo Constantino], from his previous work on 8-bit breadboard computers. As gloriously entropic as that tangled mass of wires was, it must have been a nightmare for [Paulo] to maintain. And so when the time came to upgrade, he wisely chose a more integrated construction method. The construction method is wire-wrapping, with multiple cards plugged into backplane and connected by ribbon cables. The whole card cage is far neater than the previous build, and seems to lend itself to rapid modifications. The top card in the cage acts as a control panel for now; eventually, [Paulo] planes to put a real front panel on the cage to support all the switches and blinkenlights such builds demand. Stretch goals include supporting audio and video and getting the machine online so anyone can log in.
The video below is an overview of the current state of the machine; earlier videos in the playlist cover the design and build in more detail. We hope to see schematics soon, and we’d love to know where to get some of those wire-wrap PCBs for projects of our own.
Continue reading “Homebrew 16-Bit Computer Is A Wire-Wrapped Work Of Art”