With regard to retro test gear, one’s thoughts tend to those Nixie-adorned instruments of yore, or the boat-anchor oscilloscopes that came with their own carts simply because there was no other way to move the things. But there were other looks for test gear back in the day, as this frequency counter with a readout using moving-coil meters shows.
We have to admit to never seeing anything like [Charles Ouweland]’s Van Der Heem 9908 electronic counter before. The Netherlands-based company, which was later acquired by Philips, built this six-digit, 1-MHz counter sometime in the 1950s. The display uses six separate edge-mounted panel meters numbered 0 through 9 to show the frequency of the incoming signal. The video below has a demo of what the instrument can do; we don’t know if it was restored at some point, but it still works and it’s actually pretty accurate. Later in the video, he gives a tour of the insides, which is the real treat — the case opens like a briefcase and contains over 20 separate PCBs with a bunch of germanium transistors, all stitched together with point-to-point wiring.
We appreciate the look inside this unique piece of test equipment history. It almost seems like something that would have been on the bench while this Apollo-era IO tester was being prototyped.
Do you have an EMC probe in your toolkit? Probably not, unless you’re in the business of electromagnetic compatibility testing or getting a product ready for the regulatory compliance process. Usually such probes are used in anechoic chambers and connected to sophisticated gear like spectrum analyzers – expensive stuff. But there are ways to probe the electromagnetic mysteries of your projects on the cheap, as this DIY EMC testing setup proves.
As with many projects, [dimtass]’ build was inspired by a video over on EEVblog, where [Dave] made a simple EMC probe from a length of semi-rigid coax cable. At $10, it’s a cheap solution, but lacking a spectrum analyzer like the one that [Dave] plugged his cheap probe into, [dimtass] went a different way. With the homemade probe plugged into an RTL-SDR dongle and SDR# running on a PC, [dimtass] was able to get a decent approximation of a spectrum analyzer, at least when tested against a 10-MHz oven-controlled crystal oscillator. It’s not the same thing as a dedicated spectrum analyzer – limited bandwidth, higher noise, and not calibrated – but it works well enough, and as [dimtass] points out, infinitely hackable through the SDR# API. The probe even works decently when plugged right into a DSO with the FFT function running.
Again, neither of these setups is a substitute for proper EMC testing, but it’ll probably do for the home gamer. If you want to check out the lengths the pros go through to make sure their products don’t spew signals, check out [Jenny]’s overview of the EMC testing process.
Sure, we all love fixing stuff, but there’s often a fine line between something that’s worth repairing and something that’s cheaper in the long run to just replace. That line gets blurred, though, when there’s something to be learned from a repair.
This wonky temperature-compensated crystal oscillator is a good example of leaning toward repair just for the opportunity to peek inside. [Kerry Wong] identified it as the problem behind a programmable frequency counter reading significantly low. A TCXO is supposed to output a fixed frequency signal that stays stable over a range of temperatures by using a temperature sensor to adjust a voltage-controlled oscillator that corrects for the crystal’s natural tendency to vary its frequency as it gets hotter or colder. But this TCXO was pretty old, and even the trimmer capacitor provided was no longer enough to nudge it back in range. [Kerry] did some Dremel surgery on the case and came to the conclusion that adding another trim cap between one of the crystal’s leads and ground would help. This gave him a much wider adjustment range and let him zero in on the correct 10-MHz setting. [Mr. Murphy] still runs the show, though – after he got the TCXO buttoned up with the new trimmer inaccessible, he found that the frequency was not quite right. But going from 2 kHz off to only 2 Hz is still pretty good.
For those of us who like to wrangle electrons from time to time, there are some exceptional deals out there for low (or at least lower) cost imported test equipment. If you’re willing to part with a few hundred dollars US, you can get some serious hardware that a decade ago would have been effectively outside the reach of the hobbyist. Right now you can order a four channel oscilloscope for less than what a new Xbox costs; but which one you’ll rack up more hours staring at slack-jawed is up to you.
Of course, these “cheap” pieces of equipment aren’t always perfect. [Paul Lutus] was pretty happy with his relatively affordable Siglent SDG 1025 Arbitrary Function Generator, but found its accuracy to be a bit lacking. Fortunately, the function generator accepts an external clock which can be used to increase its accuracy, so he decided to build one.
[Paul] starts off by going over the different options he considered for this project, essentially boiling down to whether or not he wanted to jump through the extra hoops required for an oven-controlled crystal oscillator (OCXO). But the decision was effectively made for him when his first attempt at using a more simplistic temperature controlled oscillator failed due to an unfortunate misjudgment in terms of package size.
In the end, he decided to spring for the OCXO, and was able to use the USB port on the front panel of the SDG 1025 to provide the power necessary for the crystal to warm up and remain at operating temperature. After he got the oscillator powered, he just needed to put it in a suitable metal enclosure (to cut down external interference) and calibrate it. [Paul] cleverly used the NIST WWV broadcast and his ears to find when his frequency standard overlapped that of the source, therefore verifying it was at 10 MHz.
The crystals you’ll find attached to microcontrollers or RTCs are usually accurate to 100 parts per million at most, but that still means if you’re using one of these crystals as a clock’s time base, you could lose or gain a second per day. For more accuracy without an atomic clock, a good solution is an oven controlled crystal oscillator – basically, a temperature controlled crystal. It’s not hard to build one, and as [Roman] demonstrates, can be built with a transistor and a few resistors.
The heating element for this OCXO are just a few resistors placed right on the can of a crystal. A thermistor senses the heat, and with more negative feedback than the Hackaday comments section, takes care of regulating the crystal’s temperature. A trimpot is used for calibrating the temperature, but once everything is working that can be replaced with a fixed resistor.
This deadbugged circuitry is then potted in five minute epoxy. That’s a bit unconventional as far as thermal management goes, but the results speak for themselves: [Roman] can get a clock with this circuit accurate to a few seconds per year.
[Kerry Wong] recently got himself a frequency counter. Not just any counter, a classic Hewlett-Packard 5350B Microwave Counter. This baby will go 10Hz all the way up to 20GHz with only one input shift. A true fan of Hackaday Prize judge [Dave Jones], [Kerry] didn’t turn it on, he took it apart. In the process, he gave us some great pictures of late 80’s vintage HP iron.
Everything seemed to be in relatively good working order, with the exception of the oven indicator, which never turned off. The 5350B had three time bases available: a Thermally Compensated Crystal Oscillator (TCXO), an Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillator (OCXO), and a high stability OCXO. [Kerry’s] 5350B had option 001, the OCXO. Considering it was only a $750 USD upgrade to the 5350B’s $5500 USD base price, it’s not surprising that many 5350B’s in the wild have this option.
[Kerry] checked the wattage of his 5350B, and determined that it pulled about 27 watts at power up and stayed there. If the OCXO was working, wattage would have dropped after about 10 minutes when the oven came up to temperature. Time to tear open an oven!
Armed with a copy of the 5350B service manual from HP’s website, [Kerry] opened up his OCXO. The Darlington transistors used as heaters were fine. The control circuit was fine. The problem turned out to be a simple thermal fuse. The service manual recommended jumping out the fuse for testing. With the fuse jumped, the oven came to life. One more piece of classic (and still very useful) test equipment brought back to full operation.
If you have an old “Racal-Dana 199x” frequency counter or similar 10 MHz internally referenced gear with a poor tolerance “standard quartz crystal oscillator” or bit better “temperature compensated crystal oscillator” (TCXO) you could upgrade to a high stability timebase “oven controlled crystal oscillator” (OCXO) for under $25. [Gerry Sweeney] shares his design and fabrication instructions for a DIY OCXO circuit he made for his Racal-Dana frequency counter. We have seen [Gerry] perform a similar upgrade to his HP 53151A, however, this circuit is more generic and can be lashed up on a small section of solderable perf board.
Oven controlled oscillators keep the crystal at a stable temperature which in turn improves frequency stability. Depending on where you’re starting, adding an OCXO could improve your frequency tolerance by 1 to 3 orders of magnitude. Sure, this isn’t as good as a rubidium frequency standard build like we have seen in the past, but as [Gerry] states it is nice to have a transportable standalone frequency counter that doesn’t have to be plugged into his rubidium frequency standard.
[Gerry’s] instructions, schematics and datasheets can be used to upgrade any lab gear which depends on a simple 10 MHz reference (crystal or TXCO). He purchased the OCXO off eBay for about $20 — it might be very old, yet we are assured they get more stable with age. Many OCXO’s require 5 V, 12 V or 24 V so your gear needs to accommodate the correct voltage and current load. To calibrate the OCXO you need a temperature stable variable voltage reference that can be adjusted from 1 to 4 volts. The MAX6198A he had on hand fit the bill at 5 ppm/°C temperature coefficient. Also of importance was to keep the voltage reference and trim pot just above the oven for added temperature stability as well as removing any heat transfer through the mounting screw.
You can watch the video and get more details after the break.