How IBM Stumbled Onto RISC

There are a ton of inventions out in the world that are almost complete accidents, but are still ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives. Things like bubble wrap which was originally intended to be wallpaper, or even superglue, a plastic compound whose sticky properties were only discovered later on. IBM found themselves in a similar predicament in the 1970s after working on a type of mainframe computer made to be a phone switch. Eventually the phone switch was abandoned in favor of a general-purpose processor but not before they stumbled onto the RISC processor which eventually became the IBM 801.

As [Paul] explains, the major design philosophy at the time was to use a large amount of instructions to do specific tasks within the processor. When designing the special-purpose phone switch processor, IBM removed many of these instructions and then, after the project was cancelled, performed some testing on the incomplete platform to see how it performed as a general-purpose computer. They found that by eliminating all but a few instructions and running those without a microcode layer, the processor performance gains were much more than they would have expected at up to three times as fast for comparable hardware.

These first forays into the world of simplified processor architecture both paved the way for the RISC platforms we know today such as ARM and RISC-V, but also helped CISC platforms make tremendous performance gains as well. In fact, RISC-V is a direct descendant from these early RISC processors, with three intermediate designs between then and now. If you want to play with RISC-V yourself, our own [Jonathan Bennett] took a look at a recent RISC-V SBC and its software this past March.

Thanks to [Stephen] for the tip!

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Mailblocks Makes Your Phone Work More Like The Post, Kinda?

Phones can be distracting, with notifications popping up all the time to snare our attention and maybe even ruin our lives. [Guy Dupont] wishes to be no slave to the machine, and thus built a solution. Enter Mailblocks.

The concept is simple. It’s a physical mailbox which [Guy] can put his phone in. All notifications on the phone are blocked unless he puts his phone into the box. When the phone is inside and the box is closed, the little red flag goes up, indicating “DOPAMINE” is available, and [Guy] can check his notifications.

To achieve this, [Guy] is running a custom DNS server. It redirects all the lookups for push notifications on Android so they go nowhere. Placing the phone in the mailbox turns the re-directions off, so the phone can contact the usual servers and get its notifications as normal.

It’s a novel way of fighting against the constant attention suck of modern smartphones. Rather than being bombarded by notifications in real time, [Guy] instead has to take a significant intentional physical action to check the notifications. It cuts the willpower required and the interruptions to his work in a fell swoop.

We’ve featured [Guy’s] innovative and outside-the-box projects before, too. His smart pants were an absolute tour de force, I might add.

Continue reading “Mailblocks Makes Your Phone Work More Like The Post, Kinda?”

What Can You Do With Thousands Of Vintage Telephones?

Telephones. We’ve got a few around the place, and some may remember all the weird and wonderful varieties produced over the years. But, vintage phone dealers [Ron and Mary Knappen] may have a few too many. With a large 41,000 sqft property, at least three farm buildings, and no fewer than 33 semi-trailers loaded to busting with racks of phones, the retiring couple have a job sorting it all out and finding someone passionate enough to take over this once-strong business.

Technology has moved on somewhat since 1971 when they got into the retro business, and there are only so many period dramas being produced that could make a dent in a collection of a thousand steel desk phones. Nobody seems interested in taking on their business, so they are concentrating on emptying that large property in order to sell it, but the fate of the crazy number of other storage locations seems uncertain. Perhaps, other than a few museums around the world purchasing a few, this collection really is likely heading to the recyclers.

So what can we do with a vintage phone in this modern era? Here’s a primer to get you started. How about going cellular? Or maybe just add them to your existing designer collection?

Thanks to [Jeremy] and Adafruit for the tip!

Open-Source Cell Phone Based On ESP32

Over the past decade or so, smartphones have exploded in popularity and seamlessly integrated themselves into nearly every aspect of most people’s lives. Although that comes with a few downsides as well, with plenty of people feeling that the smart phone makes it a little too easy to waste time and looking to switch to something simpler, like an older-style flip phone. If this style of phone is more your speed, take a look at this DIY cell phone which takes care of everything a phone really needs to do. (Google Translate from French)

The phone uses an ESP32 at its core, with a SIM800L GSM modem to interact with the cell network, including retrieving the system time. A small battery is included as well as all of the support circuitry for charging it as well as a USB interface that can communicate to a PC. The operating system for the phone is built from the ground up as well, with a touch screen interface allowing the user to make phone calls, send text messages, store contacts, and a few other basic features. There’s also a GPS application though, allowing the phone to know basic location information.

Another perk of this device is that its creator, [Gabriel], made the design schematics, print files for the case, and the operating system software completely open source for anyone to build this phone on their own. Everything is available on the project’s GitHub page. It’s a fairly remarkable achievement, especially considering [Gabriel] is only 16. And, if you’re not one to eschew modern smart phone technology there are some DIY smart phones available to build as well.

Thanks to [come2] for the tip!

Bringing Back The Minitel

If you didn’t live in France in the 80s or 90s, it’s likely you missed out on one of the most successful computer networks in existence prior to the modern Internet. Known as Minitel, it was an online service available over existing phone lines that offered a connected computer terminal for users to do most things we associate with the modern world, such as booking travel, viewing news, looking up phone numbers, and plenty of other useful activities. While a lot of the original system was never archived, there are still some efforts to restore some of its original functionality like this MiniMit.

The build requires either an original or a recreation of a Minitel terminal in all its 80s glory, but pairs an ESP32 to support modern network connectivity. The ESP32 interfaces with the Minitel’s DIN socket and provides it with a translation layer between WiFi and the networking type that it would have originally expected to see from the telephone lines. Two of the original developers of Minitel are working on restoring some of the services that would have been available originally as well, which means that the entire system is being redeveloped and not just the original hardware.

We’ve mentioned that this system was first implemented in the 80s, but the surprising thing is that even well after broadband Internet would have been available to most people in France, the Minitel system still had widespread use, not being fully deactivated until 2012. They remain popular as inspiration for other projects as well, like this one which was brought a little more up-to-date with the help of a modern display and Raspberry Pi.

A Mobile Phone From 1985

It might seem quaint through the lends of history we have the luxury of looking through, but in the mid 1980s it was a major symbol of status to be able to communicate on-the-go. Car phones and pagers were cutting-edge devices of the time, and even though there were some mobile cellular telephones, they were behemoths compared to anything we would recognize as a cell phone today. It wasn’t until 1985 that a cell phone was able to fit in a pocket, and that first device wasn’t just revolutionary because of its size. It made a number of technological advancements that were extremely impressive for its time, and [Janus Cycle] takes us through some of those in this teardown video.

The Technophone came to us from Great Britain by way of a former Ericsson engineer named Nils M√•rtensson. It was able to achieve its relatively small stature using a surface-mount PCB, which was a cutting-edge manufacturing process for the time. Not only did it use surface-mount components and boards, but the PCB itself has 12 layers and two sides and hosts two custom Technophone chips. The phone is relatively modular as well, with the screen, battery pack, and other components capable of easily disconnecting from the main board. Continue reading “A Mobile Phone From 1985”

Old Czech Telephone Teardown Is Beautiful Purposeful Art

The 20th century saw everything from telephones to computers become mainstream. Many of these devices were beautifully designed in the mid-century period, something that’s hard to say about a lot of today’s cheaper technology. [John Graham-Cumming] has shown us one exquisite example, with his teardown of a simple Czech telephone.

The model in question is a DS3600 telephone built by Tesla Stropkov in the early 1980s. Despite this, it’s a design that looks like it hails more from the 1960s based on its smooth curves and rounded features. It’s a rotary dial phone, though a push-button version was also produced.

Inside the phone is a simple single-sided PCB clearly marked out with a tidy silkscreen. The ringer and a few capacitors make up the bulk of the circuitry inside the base, along with the rotary dial. The handset itself plays host to most of the other componentry, including the mystery “WNB 068 hybrid circuit” which [John] couldn’t positively identify.

It’s great to get a look inside vintage hardware and see how things were done in yesteryear. It’s particularly funny to think about how simple telephones used to be in contrast to today.

[Thanks to Saint Aardvark for the tip!]