If I were to ask you what is the oldest man-made orbiting satellite still in use, I’d expect to hear a variety of answers. Space geeks might mention the passive radar calibration spheres, or possibly one of the early weather satellites. But what about the oldest communication satellite still in use?
The answer is a complicated one. Oscar 7 is an amateur radio satellite launched on November 5th 1974, carrying two transponders and four beacons, all of which operate on bands available to amateur radio operators. Nearly 45 years later it still provides radio amateurs with contacts just as it did in the 1970s. But this bird’s history is anything but ordinary. It’s the satellite that came back from the dead after being thought lost forever. And just as it was fading from view it played an unexpected role in the resistance to the communist government in Poland.
It is an easy trap for us to write only about what we know when covering a topic, thus missing an entire facet of our subject matter. Take retrocomputing for example; we might write about American or Western European machines because we grew up with them, while completely ignoring the hardware being produced on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Thus it’s fascinating to see [Marek Więcek]’s project, a single board retrocomputer employing a Polish clone of the Intel 8080.
With greater detail on a Polish-language forum (Google Translate), he tells a story of being given an MCY7880 CPU for his collection, only to wonder whether it could be made into a machine in its own right. As a clone of the 8080 this also required equivalents of the Intel bus controller and clock generator chips, which we are guessing must be the UCY74S405 and UCY7404 that he’s also sourced for the project.
The build is completed in true retro style with a maze of point-to-point wiring on the reverse of a protoboard, and he’s put a TinyBASIC interpreter port and 8251 UART on board as well as an 8255 triple parallel I/O port for some GPIO action. We love this computer, and appreciate the light it shines on an obscure corner of microprocessor history.
If Eastern European retrocomputing is your thing, here at Hackaday we’re lucky enough to number among our colleagues someone who’s something of an authority on the matter. [Voja Antonic] has entertained us with the tale of how he designed the Galaksija, Yugoslavia’s first home computer. Sadly though he did not use a Polish 8080 in his design.
In today’s digital era, we almost take for granted that all our information is saved and backed up, be it on our local drives or in the cloud — whether automatically, manually, or via some other service. For information from decades past, that isn’t always the case, and recovery can be a dicey process. Despite the tricky challenges, the team at [Museo dell’Informatica Funzionante] and [mera400.pl], as well as researchers and scientists from various museums, institutions, and more all came together in the attempt to recover the Polish CROOK operating system believed to be stored on five magnetic tapes.
Originally stored at the Warsaw Museum of Technology, the tapes were ideally preserved, but — despite some preliminary test prep — the museum’s tape reader kept hanging at the 800 BPI NRZI encoded header, even though the rest of the tape was 1600 BPI phase encoding. Some head scratching later, the team decided to crack open their Qualstar 1052 tape reader and attempt to read the data directly off the circuits themselves!!
In the 1980s, Poland was under the grip of martial law as the Communist government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski attempted to repress the independent Solidarity trade union. In Western Europe our TV screens featured as much coverage of the events as could be gleaned through the Iron Curtain, but Polish state TV remained oblivious and restricted itself to wholesome Communist fare.
In September 1985, TV viewers in the city of Toruń sat down to watch an action adventure film and were treated to an unexpected bonus: the screen had a brief overlay with the messages “Solidarity Toruń: Boycotting the election is our duty,” and “Solidarity Toruń: Enough price hikes, lies, repression”. Sadly for the perpetrators, they were caught by the authorities after their second transmission a few days later when they repeated the performance over the evening news bulletin, and they were jailed for four months.
The transmission had been made by a group of dissident radio astronomers and scientists who had successfully developed a video transmitter that could synchronise itself with the official broadcast to produce an overlay that would be visible on every set within its limited transmission radius. This was a significant achievement using 1980s technology in a state in which electronic components were hard to come by. Our description comes via [Maciej Cegłowski], who was able to track down one of the people involved in building the transmitter and received an in-depth description of it.
The synchronisation came courtesy of the international effort at the time on Very Long Baseline Interferometry, in which multiple radio telescopes across the world are combined to achieve the effect of a single much larger instrument. Before GPS made available a constant timing signal the different groups participating in the experiment had used the sync pulses of TV transmitters to stay in time, establishing a network that spanned the political divide of the Iron Curtain. This expertise allowed them to create their transmitter capable of overlaying the official broadcasts. The police file on the event shows some of their equipment, including a Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer from the West that was presumably used to generate the graphics.
There is no surviving recording of the overlay transmission, however a reconstruction has been put on YouTube that you can see below the break, complete with very period Communist TV footage.
A short but highly detailed documentary by [Krzysztof Tyszecki] explores the split-flap display system in place at the Łódź Kaliska train station in Poland as well as the efforts needed by the staff to keep it running and useful to this day. Split-flap displays might be old technology, but many are still in use throughout the world. But even by those standards, the unit at Łódź Kaliska is a relic you wouldn’t expect to see outside a museum. “I doubt you’ll find an original anywhere else,” says a staff member. It requires constant upkeep to remain operational, and meeting the changing demands of a modern station within the limitations of the original system takes some cleverness. “In general the failure rate of the device is terrible,” he adds.
The system runs on punch cards. You can’t buy them anymore, so a local printer makes them – several hundred are needed every time there is a schedule change. The punching pliers (which also can no longer be purchased) get so worn out they replace the pins with custom-made ones from a local locksmith. The moving parts of the card reader have split-pins which need to be replaced every week or two – the stress of repeated movement simply wears them away. There’s nothing to do but replace them regularly. The assembly needs regular cleaning since dust accumulates on the cards and gets into the whole assembly. The list goes on… and so does the station.
There is no computation in the modern sense – it’s an electromechanical signing system managed and updated by human operators. It has more in common with a crossbar switch based telephone exchange than anything else. The punch cards are just a means of quickly, accurately, and repeatedly setting the displays to known states.
The short documentary goes into a lot of detail about every part of the system. The cards themselves are described in detail (1:07), as is the operator’s routine (2:27). We even see the back end controller (9:41), as well as see a split-flap module taken apart and tested (14:33) with an old tester the staffer isn’t sure will even work – but as with everything else we see, of course it does.