Retrotechtacular: The Speaking Clock Goes Silent

It used to be that time was a lot more relative than it is today. With smartphones synced to GPS and network providers’ clocks, we all pretty much have access to an authoritative current time, giving few of us today the wiggle room to explain a tardy arrival at work to an impatient boss by saying our watch is running slow.

Even when that excuse was plausible, it was a bit weak, since almost every telephone system had some sort of time service. The correct time was but a phone call away, announced at first by live operators then later by machines called speaking clocks. Most of these services had been phased out long ago, but one, the speaking clock service in Australia, sounded for the last time at the end of September.

While the decommissioned machine was just another beige box living in a telco rack, the speaking clocks that preceded it were wonderfully complex electromechanical devices, and perfect fodder for a Retrotechtacular deep-dive. Here’s a look at the Australian speaking clock known as “George” and why speaking clocks were once the highest of technology.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Speaking Clock Goes Silent”

Watching The Watchers: The State Of Space Surveillance

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the recent release of a high-resolution satellite image showing the aftermath of Iran’s failed attempt to launch their Safir liquid fuel rocket. The geopolitical ramifications of Iran developing this type of ballistic missile technology is certainly a newsworthy story in its own right, but in this case, there’s been far more interest in how the picture was taken. Given known variables such as the time and date of the incident and the location of the launch pad, analysts have determined it was likely taken by a classified American KH-11 satellite.

The image is certainly striking, showing a level of detail that far exceeds what’s available through any of the space observation services we as civilians have access to. Estimated to have been taken from a distance of approximately 382 km, the image appears to have a resolution of at least ten centimeters per pixel. Given that the orbit of the satellite in question dips as low as 270 km on its closest approach to the Earth’s surface, it’s likely that the maximum resolution is even higher.

Of course, there are many aspects of the KH-11 satellites that remain highly classified, especially in regards to the latest hardware revisions. But their existence and general design has been common knowledge for decades. Images taken from earlier generation KH-11 satellites were leaked or otherwise released in the 1980s and 1990s, and while the Iranian image is certainly of a higher fidelity, this is not wholly surprising given the intervening decades.

What we know far less about are the orbital surveillance assets that supersede the KH-11. The satellite that took this image, known by its designation USA 224, has been in orbit since 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has launched a number of newer spacecraft since then, with several more slated to be lifted into orbit between now and 2021.

So let’s take a closer look at the KH-11 series of reconnaissance satellites, and compare that to what we can piece together about the next generation or orbital espionage technology that’s already circling overhead might be capable of.

Continue reading “Watching The Watchers: The State Of Space Surveillance”

Tuning Into Atomic Radio: Quantum Technique Unlocks Laser-Based Radio Reception

The basic technology of radio hasn’t changed much since an Italian marquis first blasted telegraph messages across the Atlantic using a souped-up spark plug and a couple of coils of wire. Then as now, receiving radio waves relies on antennas of just the right shape and size to use the energy in the radio waves to induce a current that can be amplified, filtered, and demodulated, and changed into an audio waveform.

That basic equation may be set to change soon, though, as direct receivers made from an exotic phase of matter are developed and commercialized. Atomic radio, which does not rely on the trappings of traditional radio receivers, is poised to open a new window on the RF spectrum, one that is less subject to interference, takes up less space, and has much broader bandwidth than current receiver technologies. And surprisingly, it relies on just a small cloud of gas and a couple of lasers to work.

Continue reading “Tuning Into Atomic Radio: Quantum Technique Unlocks Laser-Based Radio Reception”

Reviving A Casio Scientific Calculator, With A CNC Router

Before Wolfram Alpha, before the Internet, before even PCs, calculations more complex than what could be accomplished with a “four banger” required some kind of programmable calculator. There were many to choose from, if you had the means, and as time passed they became more and more sophisticated. Some even added offline storage so your painstakingly written and tediously entered programs didn’t evaporate when the calculator was turned off.

One such programmable calculator, a Casio PRO fx-1 with magnetic card storage, came across [amen]’s bench recently. Sadly, it didn’t come with any cards, so [amen] reverse engineered the card reader and brought the machine back to its 1970s glory. The oddball mag cards for it are no longer available, so [amen] had to make do with. He found some blank cards of approximately the right size for cheap, but somehow had to replicate the band of vertical stripes adjacent to the magnetic strip on the card. Reasoning that they provide an optical synchronization signal, he decided to use a CNC router to cut a series of fine-pitched slots in the plastic card. It took a little effort to get working, including tapping the optical sensor and reading the signal on an oscilloscope, but as the video below shows, the hacked cards work fine with the vintage calculator.

Kudos to [amen] for reviving this retro-cool calculator. Now that it’s back in action, it might be fun to visualize domains on the magnetic strip. A flatbed scanner can be used for that job.

Continue reading “Reviving A Casio Scientific Calculator, With A CNC Router”

Home-Brew CNC Router Mills A Wooden Mouse

First off, we’ll admit that there no real practical reason for wanting a wooden mouse – unless of course the cellulose rodent in question is the one that kicked it all off in “The Mother of All Demos” fifty years ago. Simply putting a shell around the guts of a standard wireless optical mouse is just flexing, but we’re OK with that.

That said, [Jim Krum]’s design shows some impressive skills, both in the design of the mouse and the build quality of his machine. Starting with what looks like a block of white oak, [Jim] hogs out the rough shape of the upper shell and then refines it with a small ball-end mill before flipping it over to carve the other side. His registration seems spot on, because everything matches up well and the shell comes out to be only a few millimeters thick. The bottom plate gets the same treatment to create the complex shape needed to support the mouse guts and a battery holder. He even milled a little battery compartment cover. He used a contrasting dark wood for the scroll wheel and a decorative band to hold the top and bottom together and finished it with a light coat of sealer.

It’s a great look, and functional too as the video below reveals. We’ve seen a few other fancy mice before, like this wood and aluminum model or even one that would look at home on [Charles Babbage]’s desk.

Continue reading “Home-Brew CNC Router Mills A Wooden Mouse”

Billiard Ball Finds A New Home In Custom Trackball Mouse

They walk among us, unseen by polite society. They seem ordinary enough on the outside but they hide a dark secret – sitting beside their keyboards are trackballs instead of mice. We know, it’s hard to believe, but that’s the wacky world we live in these days.

But we here at Hackaday don’t judge based on alternate input lifestyles, and we quite like this billiard ball trackball mouse. A trackball aficionado, [Adam Haile] spotted a billiard ball trackball in a movie and couldn’t resist the urge to make one of his own, but better. He was hoping for a drop-in solution using an off-the-shelf trackball, but alas, finding one with the needed features that fit a standard American 2-1/4″ (57.3 mm) billiard ball. Besides, he’s in the thumb control camp, and most trackballs that even come close to fitting a billiard ball are designed to be fiddled with the fingers.

So he started from the ground up – almost. A 1980s arcade-style trackball – think Centipede or Missile Command – made reinventing the trackball mechanism unnecessary, and was already billiard ball compatible. [Adam] 3D-printed a case that perfectly fit his hand, with the ball right under his thumb and arcade buttons poised directly below his fingers. A palm swell rises up to position the hand naturally and give it support. The case, which contains a Teensy to translate the encoder signals into USB commands, is a bit on the large side, but that’s to be expected for a trackball.

Still curious about how the other half lives? We’ve got plenty of trackball hacks for you, from the military to the game controller embedded to the strangely organic looking.

Seeing A Webcam’s PCBs In A Whole Different Light

When it comes to inspection of printed circuits, most of us rely on the Mark I eyeball to see how we did with the soldering iron or reflow oven. And even when we need the help of some kind of microscope, our inspections are still firmly in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Pushing the frequency up a few orders of magnitude and inspecting PCBs with X-rays is a thing, though, and can reveal so much more than what the eye can see.

Unlike most of us, [Tom Anderson] has access to X-ray inspection equipment in the course of his business, so it seemed natural to do an X-ray enhanced teardown and PCB inspection. The victim for this exercise was nothing special – just a cheap WiFi camera of the kind that seems intent on reporting back to China on a regular basis. The guts are pretty much what you’d expect: a processor board, a board for the camera, and an accessory board for a microphone and IR LEDs. In the optical part of the spectrum they look pretty decent, with just some extra flux and a few solder blobs left behind. But under X-ray, the same board showed more serious problems, like vias and through-holes with insufficient solder. Such defects would be difficult to pick up in optical inspection, and it’s fascinating to see the internal structure of both the board and the components, especially the BGA chips.

If you’re stuck doing your inspections the old-fashioned way, fear not – we have tips aplenty for optical inspection. But don’t let that stop you from trying X-ray inspection; start with this tiny DIY X-ray tube and work your way up from there.

Thanks for the tip, [Jarrett].