Hackaday Links: October 27, 2019

A year ago, we wrote about the discovery of treasure trove of original documentation from the development of the MOS 6502 by Jennifer Holdt-Winograd, daughter of the late Terry Holdt, the original program manager on the project. Now, Ms. Winograd has created a website to celebrate the 6502 and the team that built it. There’s an excellent introductory video with a few faces you might recognize, nostalgia galore with period photographs that show the improbable styles of the time, and of course the complete collection of lab notes, memos, and even resumes of the team members. If there were a microchip hall of fame – and there is – the 6502 would be a first-round pick, and it’s great to see the history from this time so lovingly preserved.

Speaking of the 6502, did you ever wonder what the pin labeled SO was for? Sure, the data sheets all say pin 38 of the original 40-pin DIP was the “Set Overflow” pin, an active low that set the overflow bit in the Processor Status Register. But Rod Orgill, one of the original design engineers on the 6502, told a different story: that “SO” was the initials of his beloved dog Sam Orgill. The story may be apocryphal, but it’s a Good Doggo story, so we don’t care.

You may recall a story we ran not too long ago about the shortage of plutonium-238 to power the radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) for deep-space missions. The Cold War-era stockpiles of Pu-238 were running out, but Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists and engineers came up with a way to improve production. Now there’s a video showing off the new automated process from the Periodic Videos series, hosted by the improbably coiffed Sir Martyn Poliakoff. It’s fascinating stuff, especially seeing workers separated from the plutonium by hot-cells with windows that are 4-1/2 feet (1.4 meters) thick.

Dave Murray, better known as YouTube’s “The 8-Bit Guy”, can neither confirm nor deny the degree to which he participated in the golden age of phone phreaking. But this video of his phreaking presentation at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo reveals a lot of suspiciously detailed knowledge about the topic. The talk starts at 4:15 or so and is a nice summary of blue boxes, DTMF hacks, war dialing, and all the ways we curious kids may or may not have kept our idle hands busy before the Interwebz came along.

Do you enjoy a puzzle? We sure do, and one was just laid before us by a tipster who prefers to stay anonymous, but for whom we can vouch as a solid member of the hacker community. So no malfeasance will befall you by checking out the first clue, a somewhat creepy found footage-esque video with freaky sound effects, whirling clocks, and a masked figure reading off strings of numbers in a synthesized voice. Apparently, these clues will let you into a companion website. We worked on it for a bit and have a few ideas about how to crack this code, but we don’t want to give anything away. Or more likely, mislead anyone.

And finally, if there’s a better way to celebrate the Spooky Season than to model predictions on how humanity would fare against a vampire uprising, we can’t think of one. Dominik Czernia developed the Vampire Apocalypse Calculator to help you decide when and if to panic in the face of an uprising of the undead metabolically ambiguous. It supports several models of vampiric transmission, taken from the canons of popular genres from literature, film, and television. The Stoker-King model makes it highly likely that vampires would replace humans in short order, while the Harris-Meyer-Kostova model of sexy, young vampires is humanity’s best bet except for having to live alongside sparkly, lovesick vampires. Sadly, the calculator is silent on the Whedon model, but you can set up your own parameters to model a world with Buffy-type slayers at your leisure. Or even model the universe of The Walking Dead to see if it’s plausible that humans are still alive 3599 days into the zombie outbreak.

Of Roach Killer And Rust Remover: Sam Zeloof’s Garage-Made Chips

A normal life in hacking, if there is such a thing, seems to follow a predictable trajectory, at least in terms of the physical space it occupies. We generally start small, working on a few simple projects on the kitchen table, or if we start young enough, perhaps on a desk in our childhood bedroom. Time passes, our skills increase, and with them the need for space. Soon we’re claiming an unused room or a corner of the basement. Skills build on skills, gear accumulates, and before you know it, the garage is no longer a place for cars but a place for pushing back the darkness of our own ignorance and expanding our horizons into parts unknown.

It appears that Sam Zeloof’s annexation of the family garage occurred fairly early in life, and to a level that’s hard to comprehend. Sam seems to have caught the hacking bug early, and by the time high school rolled around, he was building out a remarkably well-equipped semiconductor fabrication lab at home. Sam has been posting his progress regularly on his own blog and on Twitter, and he dropped by the 2018 Superconference to give everyone a lesson on semiconductor physics and how he became the first hobbyist to produce an integrated circuit using lithographic processes.

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Hackaday Links: August 5, 2018

Here’s something of historical interest. The daughter of Terry Holdt, project manager for the 6502, cleaned out a garage and found shelves full of MOS Technology binders, test results, notes, instructions for processes, letters to customers, and datasheets full of errata. Some of these documents have been posted on Twitter, and efforts are underway to collect, scan, upload, and preserve them. In the distance, a man in a fabulous suit is screaming, ‘donate them to the Internet Archive’.

This is a link to Defcad, the repository of 3D printable files for weapons. Under an agreement with the US Department of State, Defcad was set to go online on August 1st. This caused much handwringing in the tech journalist thoughtspace, with reporters calling to end the first amendment because they don’t like the second. Alyssa Milano chimed in. Defcad was ordered shut down by a federal judge in the western district of Washington before going live.

As you may well be aware, Printrbot ceased operations last month. It’s sad to see them go, but they made some acceptable machines and were really pushing the boundaries of what was possible with their infinite build volume prototype printer. But what about all those existing printrbots in the wild, you might ask. Well, good news for anyone who hasn’t changed their hotend over to an E3D yet: Ubis is going to be selling hotends. Get ’em while they’re hot (or not, I don’t know how this pun works).

File this one into the ‘awesome government auctions’ category. The city of Longmont, Colorado decommissioned their tornado sirens last year because they ‘self-activated’ and malfunctioned. These sirens were put up for auction, with a winning bid of $526. Someone bought the most annoying thing imaginable for just over five bills. The world of government auctions is amazing.

Sad Without A SID? This Comes Pretty Close

The MOS Technologies 6851, popularly known as the SID, is a legendary sound synthesiser integrated circuit from the early 1980s that is most famous for providing the Commodore 64 home computer with its ability to make noise. At the time it was significantly better than what could be found in competitor machines, making it a popular choice for today’s chiptune and demo scene artists.

There’s a snag for a modern-day SID-jockey though, the chip has been out of production for a quarter century and is thus in short supply. Emulation is a choice, but of little use for owners of original hardware so it’s fortunate that [Petros Kokotis] has produced a SID replacement using a Teensy 3.6.

The operation is simple enough, the Teensy provides all the requisite SID data lines via some level shifters for the host microcomputer, and uses [Frank Boesing]’s ReSID library to do the heavy lifting part of being a SID. You can download the code from a GitHub repository, and he’s posted a video we’ve put below the break showing a prototype in action with a real Commodore 64. The audio quality isn’t brilliant due to a phone camera recording from a very tinny speaker, but notwithstanding that it has the air of the real thing.

This isn’t the first SID we’ve seen here. How about a MIDI synth using one?

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Federico Faggin: The Real Silicon Man

While doing research for our articles about inventing the integrated circuit, the calculator, and the microprocessor, one name kept popping which was new to me, Federico Faggin. Yet this was a name I should have known just as well as his famous contemporaries Kilby, Noyce, and Moore.

Faggin seems to have been at the heart of many of the early advances in microprocessors. He played a big part in the development of MOS processors during the transition from TTL to CMOS. He was co-creator of the first commercially available processor, the 4004, as well as the 8080. And he was a co-founder of Zilog, which brought out the much-loved Z80 CPU. From there he moved on to neural networking chips, image sensors, and is active today in the scientific study of consciousness. It’s time then that we had a closer look at a man who’s very core must surely be made of silicon.

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Giving The World A Better SID

Here’s a business plan for you, should you ever run into an old silicon fab sitting in a dumpster: build Commodore SID chips. The MOS 6581 and 8580 are synthesizers on a chip, famously used in the demoscene, and even today command prices of up to $40 USD per chip. There’s a market for this, and with the right process, this could conceivably be a viable business plan.

Finding a silicon fab in a dumpster is a longshot, but here’s the next best thing: an FPGASID project. The FPGASID is a project to re-create the now-unobtanium MOS 6581 found in the Commodore 64.

The Commodore SID chip has been out of production for a while now, and nearly every available SID chip has already been snapped up by people building MIDIbox SIDs, or by Elektron for their SidStation, which has been out of production for nearly a decade. There is a demand for SID chips, one that has been filled by “clones” or recreations using ATmegas, Propellers, and nearly every other microcontroller architecture available. While these clones can get the four voices of the SID right, there’s one universal problem: the SID had analog filters, and no two SIDs ever sounded alike.

From the audio samples available on the project page for the FPGASID, the filters might be a solved problem. The output from the FPGASID sounds a lot like the output from a vintage SID. Whether or not this is what everyone agrees a SID should sound like is another matter entirely, but this is the best attempt so far to drag the synth on a chip found in the Commodore 64 into modern times.

The files, firmware, and FPGA special sauce aren’t available yet, but the FPGASID is in alpha testing, with a proper release tentatively scheduled for early 2017. Maybe now it’s time to dig out those plans for the Uber MIDIbox, with octophonic SID goodness.

Building The First Digital Camera

While the official history of the digital camera begins with a Kodak engineer tinkering around with digital electronics in 1975, the first digital camera was actually built a few months prior. At the Vintage Computer Festival East, [William Sudbrink] rebuilt the first digital camera. It’s wasn’t particularly hard, either: it was a project on the cover of Popular Electronics in February, 1975.

Cromemco catalog page for the Cyclops, the first digital camera
Cromemco catalog page for the Cyclops, the first digital camera

[William]’s exhibit, Cromemco Accessories: Cyclops & Dazzler is a demonstration of the greatest graphics cards you could buy for S-100 systems and a very rare, very weird solid-state TV camera. Introduced in the February, 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, the Cyclops was the first digital camera. This wasn’t a device that used a CCD or a normal image sensor. The image sensor in the Cyclops was a 1 kilobit DRAM from MOS, producing a digital image thirty-two pixels square.

The full description, schematic, circuit layout, and theory of operation are laid out in the Popular Electronics article; all [William] had to do was etch a PCB and source the components. The key part – a one kilobit MOS DRAM in a metal can package, carefully decapsulated – had a date code of 1976, but that is the newest component in the rebuild of this classic circuit.

To turn this DRAM into digital camera, the circuit sweeps across the rows and columns of the DRAM array, turning the charge of each cell into an analog output. This isn’t a black or white camera; there’s gray in there, or green if you connect it to an oscilloscope.

This project in Popular Electronics would be manufactured by Cromemco in late 1975 and was released as their first product in January, 1976. The Cromemco was marketed as a digital camera, designed to interface with the MITS Altair 8800 computer, allowing anyone to save digital images to disk. This was the first digital camera invented, and the first digital camera sold to consumers. It’s an amazing piece of history, and very happy [William] was able to piece this together and bring it out to the Vintage Computer Festival this weekend.