The Primordial Sinclair ZX Spectrum Emerges From The Cupboard

The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, UK, receive many donations from which they can enrich their collection and museum displays. Many are interesting but mundane, but the subject of their latest video is far from that. The wire-wrapped prototype board they reveal with a flourish from beneath a folded antistatic mat is no ordinary computer, because it is the prototype Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

It came to the museum from Nine Tiles, a local consultancy firm that had been contracted by Sinclair Research in the early 1980s to produce the BASIC ROM that would run on the replacement for their popular ZX81 home microcomputer. The write-up and the video we’ve placed below the break give some detail on the history of the ROM project, the pressures from Sinclair’s legendary cost-cutting, and the decision to ship with an unfinished ROM version meaning that later peripherals had to carry shadow ROMs with updated routines.

The board itself is a standard wire-wrap protoboard with all the major Spectrum components there in some form.  This is a 16k model, there is no expansion connector, and the layout is back-to-front to that of the final machine. The ULA chip is a pre-production item in a ceramic package, and the keyboard is attached through a D connector. Decent quality key switches make a stark contrast to the rubber keys and membrane that Spectrum owners would later mash to pieces playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon.

This machine is a remarkable artifact, and we should all be indebted to Nine Tiles for ensuring that it is preserved for those with an interest in computing to study and enjoy. It may not look like much, but that protoboard had a hand in launching a huge number of people’s careers in technology, and we suspect that some of those people will be Hackaday readers. We’ll certainly be dropping in to see it next time we’re in Cambridge.

If you haven’t been to the Centre for Computing History yet, we suggest you take a look at our review from a couple of years ago. And if prototype home computers are your thing, this certainly isn’t the first to grace these pages.

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Test PCBs on a Bed of Nails

While it might be tempting to start soldering a circuit together once the design looks good on paper, experience tells us that it’s still good to test it out on a breadboard first to make sure everything works properly. That might be where the process ends for one-off projects, but for large production runs you’re going to need to test all the PCBs after they’re built, too. While you would use a breadboard for prototyping, the platform you’re going to need for quality control is called a “bed of nails“.

This project comes to us by way of [Thom] who has been doing a large production run of circuits meant to drive nixie tubes. After the each board is completed, they are laid on top of a number of pins arranged to mate to various points on the PCB. Without needing to use alligator clamps or anything else labor-intensive to test, this simple jig with all the test points built-in means that each board can be laid on the bed and tested to ensure it works properly. The test bed looks like a bed of nails as well, hence the name.

There are other ways of testing PCBs after production, too, but if your board doesn’t involve any type of processing they might be hard to implement. Nixie tubes are mostly in the “analog” realm so this test setup works well for [Thom]’s needs.

Mini Vectrex Prototype Restored By National Videogame Museum

The crash of the videogame market in 1983 struck down a slew of victims, and unique products such as the Vectrex were not immune to its destructive ways. The all-in-one console featured a monochromatic vector display and offered an arcade-like experience at home complete with an analog joystick controller. It sadly never made it to its second birthday before being axed in early 1984, however, thanks to the [National Videogame Museum] we now how a glimpse of an alternate history for the Vectrex. They posted some photos of an unreleased Vectrex prototype that was restored to working order.

Little was known about this “Mini version” of the Vectrex as its very existence was called into question. The console came into and left the videogame market in such short order that its distributor, Milton Bradley, would have killed any additional model posthaste. Little thought was given to the idea, though a rumor appeared in Edge magazine issue 122. The article detailed a fan’s memory of seeing a Vectrex shaped “like a shoebox” on the president’s desk.

Seven years after the publication of that story, photos of the Vectrex design revision were posted by one of the Vectrex designer’s sons on Flickr. These photos served as the only concrete evidence as to the existence of the machine that were widely available for some time. That was until the [National Videogame Museum] managed to acquire the actual prototype as part of the museum’s collection in Frisco, TX. So for those without plans to swing through the DFW area in the near future, there is the video of the mini Vectrex in action below.

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With Grinning Keyboard and Sleek Design, This Synth Shows It All

Stylish! is a wearable music synthesizer that combines slick design with stylus based operation to yield a giant trucker-style belt buckle that can pump out electronic tunes. With a PCB keyboard and LED-surrounded inset speaker that resembles an eyeball over a wide grin, Stylish! certainly has a unique look to it. Other synthesizer designs may have more functions, but certainly not more style.

The unit’s stylus and PCB key interface resemble a Stylophone, but [Tim Trzepacz] has added many sound synthesis features as well as a smooth design and LED feedback, all tied together with battery power and integrated speaker and headphone outputs. It may have been originally conceived as a belt buckle, but Stylish! certainly could give conference badge designs a run for their money.

The photo shown is a render, but a prototype is underway using a milled PCB and 3D printed case. [Tim]’s Google photo gallery has some good in-progress pictures showing the prototyping process along with some testing, and his GitHub repository holds all the design files, should anyone want a closer look under the hood. Stylish! was one of the twenty finalists selected for the Musical Instrument Challenge portion of the 2018 Hackaday Prize and is therefore one of the many projects in the running for the grand prize!

These Capacitors are a Cheap Gimmick

If you search through an electrical engineering textbook, you probably aren’t going to find the phrase “gimmick capacitor” but every old ham radio operator knows about them. They come in handy when you need a very small capacitor of unknown value. For example, if you are trying to balance the stray capacitance in a circuit, you might not know exactly what value you need, but you know it won’t be very much. That’s when you want a gimmick capacitor.

A gimmick capacitor is made by taking two strands of insulated wire and twisting them together; the length and the tightness of the twist determine the capacitance. Tightening or loosening the twist, or trimming some of the wire off, makes it tunable.

These are most commonly found in RF equipment or high-speed logic because of the small capacitance involved — usually about 1 to 2 pF per inch of twist or so. The thicker the insulation, the less capacitance you’ll get, so it is common to use magnet wire or something else with a thin insulating layer. You can take this one step further and decrease the spacing by stripping down one wire as long as it isn’t going to touch anything else.

Obviously, the insulation needs to be good enough for the voltage on them, an important consideration in tube circuits, for instance. But other than that, a gimmick capacitor is a straightforward tool to have in your box of design tricks. Can we take this further? Continue reading “These Capacitors are a Cheap Gimmick”

xLIDAR Is A Merry-Go-Round Of Time-Of-Flight Sensors

[JRodrigo]’s xLIDAR project is one of those ideas that seemed so attractively workable that it went directly to a PCB prototype without doing much stopping along the way. The concept was to mount a trio of outward-facing VL53L0X distance sensors to a small PCB disk, and then turn that disk with a motor and belt while taking readings. As the sensors turn, their distance readings can be used to paint a picture of the immediate surroundings (at least within about 1 meter, which is the maximum range of the VL53L0X.)

The hardware is made to be accessible and has a strong element of “what you see is what you get.” The distance sensors are on small breakout boards, and the board turns the sensor disk via a DC motor and 3D printed belt drive. Even the method of encoding the disk’s movement and zero position has the same WYSIWYG straightforwardness: a spring contact and an interrupted bare copper trace on the bottom of the sensor disk acts as a physical switch. In fact, exposed copper traces in concentric circular patterns and spring pins taken from an SD card socket are what provide power and communications as the disk turns.

The prototype looks good and sounds like it should work, but how well does it hold up? We’ll find out once [JRodrigo] does some testing. Until then, the board designs are available on the project’s GitHub repository if anyone wants to take a shot at their own approach without starting from scratch.

How to Put the ‘Pro’ in Prototype

It’s easy to get professional-quality finishes on your prints and prototypes if you take the right steps. In the final installment of his series about building with Bondo, product designer [Eric Strebel] shows us how it’s done no matter what the substrate.

How does he get such a smooth surface? A few key steps make all the difference. First, he always uses a sanding block of some kind, even if he’s just wrapping sandpaper around a tongue depressor. For instance, his phone holder has a round indent on each side. We love that [Eric] made a custom sanding block by making a negative of the indent with—you guessed it—more Bondo and a piece of PVC. The other key is spraying light coats of both primer and paint in focused, sweeping motions to allow the layers to build up.

If you need to get the kind of surface that rivals a baby’s behind, don’t expect to prime once, paint once, and be done with it. You must seek and destroy all imperfections. [Eric] likes to smooth them over with spot putty and then wet sand the piece back to smooth before applying more primer. Then it’s just rinse and repeat with higher grits until satisfied.

There’s more than one way to smooth a print, of course. Just a few weeks ago, our own [Donald Papp] went in-depth on the use of UV resin.

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