Editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams geek out about all things hackerdom. Did you catch all of our April Fools nods this week? Get the inside scoop on those, and also the inside scoop on parts that have been cut in half for our viewing pleasure. And don’t miss Mike’s interview with a chip broker in the Shenzhen Electronics markets.
We rap about the newly announced Hackaday Prize, a word clock to end all other word clocks, the delights of transformerless power supplies, and tricks of non-contact voltage testers. You’ll even find an ode to the App Note, as well as a time when electronics came in wooden cases. And who doesn’t love a Raspberry Pi that grinds for you on Nintendo Switch games?
Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!
A few years ago, I was out at the W6TRW swap meet at the parking lot of Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. Tucked away between TVs shaped like polar bears and an infinite variety of cell phone chargers and wall warts was a small wooden box. There was a latch, a wooden handle, and on the side a DB-25 port. There was a switch for half duplex and full duplex. I knew what this was. This was a modem. A wooden modem. Specifically, a Livermore Data Systems acoustically coupled modem from 1965 or thereabouts.
The probability of knowing what an acoustically coupled modem looks like is inversely proportional to knowing what Fortnite is, so for anyone reading this who has no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll spell it out. Before there was WiFi and Ethernet and cable modems and fiber everywhere, you connected to the Internet and BBSes via phone lines. A modem turns digital data, in this case a serial connection, into analog data or sound. Oh yeah, we had phone lines, too. The phone lines and the phones in your house were owned by AT&T. Yes, you rented a phone from the phone company.
90s kids might remember plugging in a US Robotics modem into your computer, then plugging an RJ-11 jack into the modem. When this wooden modem was built, that would have been illegal. Starting with the communications act of 1934, it was illegal to attach anything to the phone in your house. This changed in 1956 with Hush-A-Phone Corp v. United States, which ruled you could mechanically attach something to a phone’s headset. (In Hush-A-Phone’s case, it was a small box that fit over a candlestick phone to give you more privacy.)
The right to attach something to AT&T’s equipment changed again in 1968 with Carterphone decision that allowed anyone to connect something electronically to AT&T’s network. This opened the door for plugging an RJ-11 phone jack directly into your computer, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the tariffs, specifications, and certifications were worked out. The acoustically coupled modem was the solution to sending data through the phone lines from 1956 until 1978. It was a hack of the legal system.
This leaves an ancient modem like the one sitting on my desk in an odd position in history. It was designed, marketed and sold before the Carterphone decision, and thus could not connect directly to AT&T’s network. It was engineered before many of the integrated chips we take for granted were rendered in silicon. The first version of this modem was introduced only a year or so after the Bell 103 modem, the first commercially available modem, and is an excellent example of what can be done with thirteen or so transistors. It’s time for the teardown, so let’s dig in.
Do you remember the screeching of a dial-up modem as it connected to the internet? Do you miss it? Probably not, but [Erick Truter] — inspired by a forum post and a few suggestions later — turned a classic modem into a 3G Wi-Fi hotspot with the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi Zero.
Sourcing an old USRobotics USB modem — allegedly in ‘working’ condition — he proceeded to strip the modem board of many of its components to make room for the new electronic guts. [Truter] found that for him the Raspberry Pi Zero W struggled to maintain a reliable network, and so went with a standard Pi Zero and a USB Wi-Fi dongle dongle. He also dismantled a USB hub to compensate for the Zero’s single port. Now, to rebuild the modem — better, faster, and for the 21st century.
Some low-end or older routers might get you a decent WiFi network in your house or apartment, but often these cheaply made devices are plagued with subtle software problems that cause the router itself to become unresponsive after a few days of operating. One solution is to just power cycle the router by hand whenever the Internet disappears, but a better solution is to build something that does that for you.
[Charlie] had this problem as the de facto IT person in his family, and didn’t want to keep getting bothered for such a simple problem. His solution involves a relay, an ESP8266, and a Wemos D1 mini. The device connects to the Internet through the router and occasionally sends out pings to another address. If it can’t ping the address successfully after a certain time period, the device power cycles the router by activating the relay.
Since this isn’t the newest idea out there, there are many ways to solve this problem if you are constantly annoyed by router issues, whether from your own router or from friends and family who treat you as their personal IT department. One solution doesn’t involve any extra hardware at all as long as you have a computer near your router/modem already, and others solve this problem when it happens to the modem rather than the router.
There are a few old products that have rabid fan bases, and the TRS-80 Model 100 is one of those. Depending on your point of view it’s either a small laptop or a large organizer, but in 1983 it was the ultimate computer on the go. The $1100 version had a whopping 8K of memory and the LCD screen showed 8 lines of 40 characters in glorious monochrome. One cool feature was the built-in 300 baud phone modem, which [Trammell Hudson] wanted to try, but he doesn’t have a landline. He tried a VOiP phone, but it wouldn’t wedge into the acoustic couplers well enough. Then he decided to go cellular.
If you are beyond a certain age, you will recall when getting on the Internet was preceded by strange buzzing and squawking noises. Modems used tones to transmit and receive data across ordinary telephone lines. There were lots of tricks used to keep edging the speed of modem up until — at the end — you could download (but not upload) at a blazing 56,000 bits per second. [Martin Kirkholt Melhus] decided to recreate a modem. In a Web browser. No kidding.
We started to say something about a modem in the cloud, but that wouldn’t really be accurate. The modem uses the HTML 5 audio API, so it really runs in the browser. We would have been really surprised if [Martin] had cooked up a modem able to interact with a real modem, but as you might expect, the browser modem only communicates with other instances of itself. If you want a brief introduction to HTML 5 audio, you might enjoy the video below.
Retrocomputers are fun, but ultimately limited in capability compared to modern hardware. One popular pursuit to rectify this is the connection of early home computers to the Internet. To that end, [que] built the Retromodem for the Commodore 64.
The build starts with a case from an Intel 14.4 modem. A little fast for the Commodore 64 era, but anachronism is charming when done tastefully. Inside is an Arduino with an ethernet module to handle the heavy lifting of carrying packets to the outside world. [que] took the time to wire up status LEDs for the proper vintage look, which really adds something to the project. They switch on and off to indicate the various settings on the modem – it’s great to see in the video below the break the “HS” LED light up when the baud rate is changed to a higher speed.
The project implements most of the Hayes command set, so you can interface with it over a serial terminal just like it’s 1983. [que] doesn’t go into too many details of how it’s all put together, but for the experienced code warrior it’s a project that could be whipped up in a weekend or two. For a more modern take, perhaps you’d like to hook your C64 up over Wifi instead?