Should’ve Used A 555 — Or 276 Of Them

When asked to whip up a simple egg timer, most of us could probably come up with a quick design based on the ubiquitous 555 timer. Add a couple of passives around the little eight-pin DIP, put an LED on it to show when time runs out, and maybe even add a pot for variable timing intervals if we’re feeling fancy. Heck, many of us could do it from memory.

So why exactly did [Jesse Farrell] manage to do essentially the same thing using a whopping 276 555s? Easy — because why not? Originally started as an entry in the latest iteration of our 555 Contest, [Jesse]’s goal was simple — build a functional timer with a digital display using nothing but 555s and the necessary passives. He ended up needing a few transistors and diodes to pull it off, but that’s a minor concession when you consider how many chips he replaced with 555s, including counters, decoders, multiplexers, and display drivers. All these chips were built up from basic logic gates, a latch, and a flip-flop, all made from one or more 555s, or variants like the 556 or 558.

As one can imagine, 276 chips take a lot of real estate, and it took eleven PCBs to complete the timer. A main board acts as the timer’s control panel as well as serving as a motherboard for ten other cards, each devoted to a different block of functions. It’s all neat and tidy, and very well-executed, which is in keeping with the excellent documentation [Jesse] produced. The whole thing is wonderfully, needlessly complex, and we couldn’t be more tickled to feature it.

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Mysterious Adder From 1960s Bendix G-20

[David Lovett] aka Usagi Electric is taking a dive into yet another old computer design, this one from the early 1960s. He recently obtained eight mystery circuit boards on-loan for the purpose of reverse engineering them. It turns out these came from an old mainframe called the Bendix G-20, a successor to the 1965 G-15 vacuum tube model. The cards are:

  • Full Adder
  • AND Gate
  • OR Gate
  • Emitter Follower
  • Flip Flop
  • Quad Inverting Amplifier
  • DLO Amplifier
  • Gated CPA

Most of these are pretty straightforward to figure out, but he ran into some troubles trying to understand the full adder board. The first issue is there is some uncertainty surrounding the logic level voltages. This system uses negative voltages, with -3.5 V representing a logic 1 … or is it a logic 0? And even taking into account this ambiguity, [David] is having a hard time deciphering how the adder works. It uses a bunch of diodes to implement a logic lookup table of an adder — except he is not able to make it match any known addition scheme. [David] has called out to the community for help on this one, and if you have any ideas how this adder works, visit his wiki linked above for more information and give him shout.

We don’t know how [David] squeezes in the time for these side projects, when he is so busy on the Centurion mini-computer restoration and the monstrous single-bit vacuum tube computer he is building.

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Remoticon 2021 // Voja Antonic Makes You A Digital Designer

[Voja Antonic] has been building digital computers since before many of us were born. He designed with the Z80 when it was new, and has decades of freelance embedded experience, so when he takes the time to present a talk for us, it’s worth paying attention.

For his Remoticon 2022 presentation, he will attempt to teach us how to become a hardware expert in under forty minutes. Well, mostly the digital stuff, but that’s enough for one session if you ask us. [Voja] takes us from the very basics of logic gates, through combinatorial circuits, sequential circuits, finally culminating in the description of a general-purpose microprocessor.

A 4-bit ripple-carry adder with additional CPU flag outputs

As he demonstrates, complex digital electronics systems really are just built up in a series of steps of increasing complexity. starting with individual active elements (transistors operating as switches) forming logic elements capable of performing simple operations.

From there, higher level functions such as adders can be formed, and from those an ALU and so on. Conceptually, memory elements can be formed from logic gates, but it’s not the most efficient way to do it, and those tend to be made with a smaller and faster circuit. But anyway, that model is fine for descriptive purposes.

Once you have combinatorial logic circuits and memory elements, you have all you need to make the necessary decoders, sequencers and memory circuits to build processors and other kinds of higher complexity circuits.

Obviously forty minutes isn’t anywhere nearly enough time time to learn all of the intricacies of building a real microprocessor like the pesky details of interfacing with it and programming it, but for getting up the learning curve from just a knowledge of binary numbers to an understanding of how a CPU is built, it’s a pretty good starting point.

Now, If you can only tear your eyes away from his slick game-of-life wall mounted LED display, you might pick up a thing or two.

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555 Timer On Its Own In Electronic Dice

One of the most common clichés around here is that a piece of equipment chosen for a project is always too advanced. If a Raspberry Pi was used, someone will say they should have used an Arduino. If they use an Arduino, it should have been an ATtiny. And of course, if an ATtiny was used, there should have simply been a 555 timer. This time, however, [Tim] decided to actually show how this can be done by removing some of the integrated circuits from an electronic dice and relying entirely on the 555 timer for his build.

The electronic dice that [Tim] has on hand makes use of two main ICs: a NE555 and a CD4017 which is a decade counter/divider used for cycling through states. In order to bring the 555 to the forefront of this build, he scraps the CD4017 and adds an array of 555 timers. These are used to generate the clock signals necessary for this build but can also be arranged to form logic circuits. This comes at a great cost, however. The 555 chips take up an unnecessarily large area on the PCB (even though these are small surface-mount chips), consume an incredible amount of power, and are very slow. That’s fine for an electronic dice-rolling machine like this one, but that’s probably where [Tim] will leave this idea.

The 555 timer is a surprisingly versatile chip, and this project shows that there is some element of truth to the folks claiming that projects need naught but a few 555s. We’ve seen entire CPUs built using nothing but 555s, and even a classic project that uses a 555 timer to balance a robot.

Apollo DSKY Display Glows Again

We love seeing old technology brought back to life, especially when it’s done in the context of how the device was originally intended to be used. And double points when it’s space gear, like what [Curious Marc] and his usual merry band of cohorts did when they managed to light up a couple of real Apollo DSKY displays.

The “Display and Keyboard” formed the human interface to the Apollo Guidance Computer, the purpose-built machine that allowed Apollo missions to fly to the Moon, land safely, and return to Earth. Complete DSKYs are hard to come by, but a lucky collector named [Marcel] was able to score a pair of the electroluminescent panels, one a prototype and one a flight-qualified spare. He turned them over to AGC guru [Carl Claunch], who worked out all the details of getting the display working again —  a non-trivial task with a device that needs 250 volts at 800 Hertz.

The first third of the video below mostly concerns the backstory of the DSKY displays and the historical aspects of the artifacts; skip to around the 12:30 mark to get into the technical details, including the surprising use of relays to drive the segments of the display. It makes sense once you realize that mid-60s transistors weren’t up to the task, and it must have made the Apollo spacecraft a wonderfully clicky place. We were also intrigued by the clever way the total relay count was kept to a minimum, by realizing that not every combination of segments was valid for each seven-segment display.

The video has a couple of cameos, like [Ben Krasnow], no slouch himself when it comes to electroluminescent displays and DSKY replicas. We also get a glimpse of well-known component slicer and MOnSter 6502-tamer [TubeTime] too. Continue reading “Apollo DSKY Display Glows Again”

Control An IRL Home From Minecraft

Minecraft seems to be a game in which anything is possible, both in the virtual world and in the real one. As a sandbox-style game, we’ve seen all kinds of things implemented in it including arithmetic logic units and microcontroller emulators. On the other end of reality we’ve also seen a lot of projects in which real-world interfaces impact the virtual world in some way. As a game, the lines between these two worlds often seem to blur, and that’s no different for this project that allows for control of a smart home from within the game itself.

The project is called HomeAssistantMC and is built with Forge. The mod interfaces directly with a Minecraft game. From within the game, players can create a model of their home complete with light switches and other control interfaces. A WebSocket API listens to the game for changes to these devices, and interfaces with real-world controllers which control the home in real life. The game uses special state blocks to handle the control, and the entire control system can be configured in-game once all of the appropriate software has been installed.

For anyone willing to experiment with this software, all of the code for this project is available on its GitHub page. One of the other interesting things about this project is the ability to use other creations within Minecraft for home automation. For example, building logic gates allows for nuanced control of the home automation setup with creations we’ve already seen in Minecraft before. And, if you really want to go deep into the weeds, you could even build a complete 6502 processor from within the game as well.

Thousands Of Discrete MOSFETs Make Up This Compact CPU-Less Computer

How long has it been since a computer could boast about the fact that it contained 2,500 transistors? Probably close to half a century now, at a guess. So in a world with a couple of billion transistors per chip, is a 2,500-transistor computer really something to brag about? Yes. Yes, it is.

The CPU-less computer, called the TraNOR by its creator [Dennis Kuschel], is an elaboration on his previous MyNOR, another CPU-less machine that used a single NOR-gate made of discrete transistors as the core of its arithmetic-logic unit (ALU). Despite its architectural simplicity, MyNOR was capable of some pretty respectable performance, and even managed to play a decent game of Tetris. TraNOR, on the other hand, is much more complicated, mainly due to the fact that instead of relying on 74HC-series chips, [Dennis] built every single gate on the machine from discrete MOSFETs. The only chips on the four stacked PCBs are a trio of memory chips; we don’t fault him at all for the decision not to build the memory — he may be dedicated, but even art has its limits. And TraNOR is indeed a work of art — the video below shows the beautiful board layouts, with seemingly endless arrays of SMD transistors all neatly arranged and carefully soldered. And extra points for using Wintergatan’s marble machine melody as the soundtrack, too.

As much as we loved the original, TraNOR is really something special. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s functional — it’s even backward-compatible with MyNOR’s custom software. Hats off to [Dennis] for pulling off another wonderful build, and for sharing it with us.

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