VCF: Popular Electronics And Southwest Technical Products Corporation

Hackaday owes a lot to the hobbyist electronics magazines of yesteryear. Back in the day, Popular Electronics and Radio-Electronics would publish projects and articles about DIY electronics – more or less the same editorial purview we hold today. Some of these projects would become full-fledged products, and you need only look at the Altair for what can happen at this confluence of publishing and engineering.

One of the more popular companies to come out of these hobbyist trade magazines was SWTPC, or Southwest Technical Products Corporation. This was the company that brought one of the first microcomputers to the masses with the SWTPC 6800. This wasn’t just a homebrew microcomputer company – there were Nixie clocks, test gear, and stereo preamplifiers – all things that could easily find a place on the pages of Hackaday today.

This year at the Vintage Computer Festival East, [Michael Holley] brought out the test gear he’s been collecting for the past few decades. These are machines that wouldn’t be out of place on any DIY electronics blog today. This is by all accounts the pre-history of the maker movement.

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Vintage COSMAC Elf is Pretty Close to Original

Popular Electronics was famous for the article introducing the Altair 8800 back in 1975 (well, the cover date was 1975; it really came out in late 1974). That was so popular (no pun intended), that they ran more computer construction articles, including the SWTPC 680 late in 1975. But in 1976 a very popular article ran on building a very simple computer called the COSMAC ELF. [Youtubba] had an Altair, but always wanted a “cute” COSMAC ELF. Now, forty-something years later, he finally got around to it. He made the very detailed video about his experience, below.

Surprisingly, he didn’t have to look very hard for too many of the components as most of them were available from Digikey. He had to get compatible RAM chips, the 1802 CPU and LED displays. He also couldn’t find a look-alike crystal, so he used a fake one and a hidden oscillator. The result looks awfully close to the original. He even did a nice front panel using Front Panel Express.

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Vintage Electronics Magazines Predicted Our Current Future

Do you remember the magazine Popular Electronics? What about Radio Electronics? These magazines were often the first exposure we had to the world of hacking. In December we learned that Americanradiohistory.com has gone to the trouble of scanning nearly every copy of both, and continues to add many many others — posting them online for us to enjoy once more. Since then we’ve been pouring through the archive pulling out some of the best in terms of nostalgia, entertainment, and fascinating engineering.

Yes much of this material is very dated; CB Radios, all-mighty computers, phasors, stun guns, levitating machines, overly complex circuits for simple tasks, and aviator eyeglasses. But found among all of this, many innovative mixed-signal circuits and other interesting ideas that have been developed into our tech-centric world. Many of those modern inventions you’ve welcomed into your life actually started long-long ago in the forward-thinking hacks shown off in these publications. The Google Glass precursor seen above is but one example. Keep reading to see the early roots of the tech we tend to think of as “new”.

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Popular Electronics Magazine Archive Online

They began publishing Popular Electronics magazine in 1954, and it soon became one of the best-selling DIY electronics magazines. And now you can relive those bygone days of yore by browsing through this archive of PDFs of all back issues from 1954 to 1982.

Reading back through the magazine’s history gives you a good feel for the technological state of the art, at least as far as the DIYer is concerned. In the 1950s and 1960s (and onwards) radio is a big deal. By the 1970s, hi-fi equipment is hot and you get an inkling for the dawn of the digital computer age. Indeed, the archive ends in 1982 when the magazine changed its name to Computers and Electronics magazine.

It’s fun to see how much has changed, but there’s a bunch of useful material in there as well. In particular, each issue has a couple ultra-low-parts-count circuit designs that could certainly find a place in a modern project. For example, a “Touch-Controlled Solid State Switch” in July 1982 (PDF), using a hex inverter chip (CD4049) and a small handful of passive components.

But it’s the historical content that we find most interesting. For instance there is a nice article on the state of the art in computer memory (“The Electronic Mind — How it Remembers”) in August 1956 (PDF).

Have a good time digging through the archives, and if you find something you really like, let us know in the comments.