Tricking A Vintage Clock Chip Into Working On 50-Hz Power

Thanks to microcontrollers, RTC modules, and a plethora of cheap and interesting display options, digital clock projects have become pretty easy. Choose to base a clock build around a chip sporting a date code from the late 70s, though, and your build is bound to be more than run-of-the-mill.

This is the boat that [Fran Blanche] finds herself in with one of her ongoing projects. The chip in question is a Mostek MK50250 digital alarm clock chip, and her first hurdle was find a way to run the clock on 50 Hertz with North American 60-Hertz power. The reason for this is a lesson in the compromises engineers sometimes have to make during the design process, and how that sometimes leads to false assumptions. It seems that the Mostek designers assumed that a 24-hour display would only ever be needed in locales where the line frequency is 50 Hz. [Fran], however, wants military time at 60 Hz, so she came up with a circuit to fool the chip. It uses a 4017 decade counter to divide the 60-Hz signal by 10, and uses the 6-Hz output to turn on a transistor that pulls the 60-Hz output low for one pulse. The result is one dropped pulse out of every six, which gives the Mostek the 50-Hz signal it needs. Sure, the pulse chain is asymmetric, but the chip won’t care, and [Fran] gets the clock she wants. Pretty clever.

[Fran] has been teasing this clock build for a while, and we’re keen to see what it looks like. We hope she’ll be using these outsized not-quite-a-light-pipe LED displays or something similar.

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The Electrical Outlet and How It Got That Way

Right now, if you happen to be in Noth America, chances are pretty good that there’s at least one little face staring at you. Look around and you’ll spy it, probably about 15 inches up from the floor on a nearby wall. It’s the ubiquitous wall outlet, with three holes arranged in a way that can’t help but stimulate the facial recognition firmware of our mammalian brain.

No matter where you go you’ll find those outlets and similar ones, all engineered for specific tasks. But why do they look the way they do? And what’s going on electrically and mechanically behind that familiar plastic face? It’s a topic we’ve touched on before with Jenny List’s take on international mains standards. Now it’s time to take a look inside the common North American wall socket, and how it got that way.

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Mains Clocking A Microcontroller

[Lujji] is playing around with the STM8 microcontroller. In reviewing the official documentation for this chip, he read the external clock can be a sine wave, a triangle wave, or a square wave with a 50% duty cycle. The minimum CPU frequency is 0 Hz. [Lujji] doesn’t have a signal generator, and presumably, he’s all out of crystals. He does have mains AC, though, so why not clock a microcontroller with wall power?

Using mains power as a frequency standard is a concept a hundred years old. Synchronous motors turn at a rate proportional to the mains frequency, and this has been used in clocks for decades. If you’re really clever, you can clock digital circuits with mains AC, but we’ve never seen someone replace a tiny crystal in a microcontroller circuit with mains power.

After an experiment to prove the concept, [Lujji] went on to construct a circuit that wasn’t as dumb as connecting the microcontroller directly to a wall socket. The direct approach didn’t work that well anyway — the STM8 didn’t like low frequency clocks with slow edges. [Lujji] needed a clock with cleaner edges, and a 555 configured as a comparator fit the bill.

The completed circuit sends mains power through an optocoupler to drive a 555 configured as a comparator. The output is a clean 50Hz clock that is connected to the OSCIN pin on an STM8. This is now a chip running at 50Hz, and yes, it works. [Lujji] set up a circuit to write ‘Hello World’ on an old Nokia LCD. That took about three minutes. It works, though, even though it’s completely useless. Maybe this can be applied to some novel timekeeping similar to that one-instruction-per-day clock we looked earlier in the year.

Hacking on the Weirdest ESP Module

Sometimes I see a component that’s bizarre enough that I buy it just to see if I can actually do something with it. That’s the case with today’s example, the ESP-14. At first glance, you’d ask yourself what AI Thinker, the maker of many of the more popular ESP8266 modules, was thinking.

The ESP-14 takes the phenomenally powerful ESP8266 chip and buries it underneath one of the cheapest microcontrollers around: the 8-bit STM8S003 “value line” chip. Almost all of the pins of the ESP chip are locked inside the RF cage’s metal tomb — only the power, bootloader, and serial TX/RX pins see the light of day, and the TX/RX pins are shared with the STM8S. The rest of the module’s pins are dedicated to the STM8S. Slaving the ESP8266 to an STM8S is like taking a Ferrari and wrapping it inside a VW Beetle.

I had never touched an STM8 chip before, and just wanted to see what I could do with this strange beast. In the end, ironically, I ended up doing something that wouldn’t be too far out of place on Alibaba, but with a few very Hackaday twists: a monitor for our washer and dryer that reports power usage over MQTT, programmed in Forth with a transparent WiFi serial bridge into the chip for interactive debugging without schlepping down into the basement. Everything’s open, tweakable, and the Forth implementation for the STM8S was even developed here on Hackaday.io.

It’s a weird project for the weirdest of ESP modules. I thought I’d walk you through it and see if it sparks you to come up with any alternative uses for the ESP8266-and-STM8S odd couple that is the ESP-14.

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Tripping Out: A Field Guide to Circuit Protection

My introduction to circuit protection came at the tender age of eight. Being a curious lad with an inventive – and apparently self-destructive – bent, I decided to make my mother a lamp. I put a hose clamp around the base of a small light bulb, stripped the insulation off an old extension cord, and jammed both ends of the wires under the clamp. When I plugged my invention into an outlet in the den, I saw the insulation flash off the cord just before the whole house went dark. Somehow the circuit breaker on the branch circuit failed and I tripped the main breaker on a 200 amp panel. My mother has never been anywhere near as impressed with this feat as I was, especially now that I know a little bit more about how electricity works and how close to I came to being a Darwin Award laureate.

To help you avoid a similar fate, I’d like to take you on a trip (tee-hee!) through the typical household power panel and look at some of the devices that stand at the ready every day, waiting for a chance to save us from ourselves. As a North American, I’ll be focusing on the residential power system standards most common around here. And although there is a lot of technology that’s designed to keep you safe as a last resort, the electricity in your wall can still kill you. Don’t become casual with mains current!

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Upcycle An Isolation Transformer

There are several reasons you should have an isolation transformer. They can prevent ground loops and also prevent a device under test from having a DC path to ground (or isolate an oscilloscope from DC ground, which can be dangerous in its own right, but that’s another discussion). [Tanner_tech] noticed that finding ballast transformers for sodium vapor street lights is getting easier as more street lights move to LED technology. What to do with these transformers? Build an isolation transformer, of course.

Of course, your dumpster transformer might be a little different than the one shown in the post (and the video, below). [Tanner] shows how to work out the leads you need. A little wood work and a PC power supply case finished the project.

Judging from the comments, some people take [Tanner’s] talk about safety as an implication that a transformer makes working on mains safe. It doesn’t. It makes it safer if you know what you are doing. Working with high voltage isn’t a place to learn by doing.

If you want some practical advice, [Jenny List] has a good read for you. You probably also ought to invest an hour in watching this video that has a lot of practical advice.

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EPROM Timer

[glitch] had a cheap EPROM eraser with very few features. Actually, that might be giving it too much credit: it’s barely more than a UV light that turns on when it’s plugged in and turns off when it’s plugged out unplugged. Of course it would be nice to implement some safety features, so he decided he’d hook it up to a software-controlled power outlet.

Of course, controlling a relay that’s wired to mains is old hat around here, and in fact, we’ve covered [glitch]’s optoisolated mains switch already. He’s gone a little beyond the normal mains relay project with this one, though. Rather than use a microcontroller to run the relay, [glitch] wrote a simple Ruby script on his computer to turn the EPROM eraser on for the precise amount of time that is required to erase the memory.The Ruby script drives the relay control directly over a USB to serial adapter’s RTS handshake pin.

[glitch]’s hack reminds us that if you just need a quick couple bits of slow output, a USB-serial converter might be just the ticket. You could imagine driving everything from standard lamps to your 3D printer’s bed heater (provided you use similar hardware), but it’s especially helpful for [glitch] who claims to forget to turn off the eraser when it’s done its job, which leaves a potentially dangerous UV source just lying about. It’s always a good idea to add safety features to a dangerous piece of equipment!