One of the challenges of keeping a vintage computer up and running is the limited availability of spare parts. While not everything has hit dire levels of availability (not yet, anyway), it goes without saying that getting a replacement part for a 30+ year old computer is a bit harder than hitting up the local electronics store. So the ability to rebuild original hardware with modern components is an excellent skill to cultivate for anyone looking to keep these pieces of computing history alive in the 21st century.
This is in ample evidence over at [Inkoo Vintage Computing], where repairs and upgrades to vintage computers are performed with a nearly religious veneration. Case in point: this detailed blog post about rebuilding a dead Amiga 500 power supply. After receiving the machine as a donation, it was decided to attempt to diagnose and repair the PSU rather than replace it with a newly manufactured one; as much for the challenge as keeping the contemporary hardware in working order.
What was found upon opening the PSU probably won’t come as a huge surprise to the average Hackaday reader: bad electrolytic capacitors. But these things weren’t just bulged, a few had blown and splattered electrolyte all over the PCB. After removing the bad caps, the board was thoroughly inspected and cleaned with isopropyl alcohol.
[Inkoo Vintage Computing] explains that there’s some variations in capacitor values between different revisions of the Amiga PSU, so it’s best to match what your own hardware had rather than just trying to look it up online. These capacitors in particular were so old and badly damaged that even reading the values off of them was tricky, but in the end, matching parts were ordered and installed. A new fuse was put in, and upon powering up the recapped PSU, the voltages at the connector were checked to be within spec before being plugged into the Amiga itself.
As a test, the Amiga 500 was loaded up with some demos to really get the system load up. After an hour, the PSU’s transformer was up to 78°C and the capacitors topped out at 60°C. As these parts are rated for 100°C (up from 85°C for the original parts), everything seemed to be within tolerances and the PSU was deemed safe for extended use.
Over the years, computers have become faster, but at the same time, more power hungry as well. Way back around the 386 era, most PCs were using the AT standard for power supplies. Since then, the world moved on to the now ubiquitous ATX standard. Hobbyists working on older machines will typically use these readily available supplies with basic adapters to run old machines, but [Samuel] built a better one.
Most AT to ATX adapters are basic passive units, routing the various power lines where they need to go and tying the right pin high to switch the ATX supply on. However, using these with older machines can be fraught with danger. Modern supplies are designed to deliver huge currents, over 20 A in some cases, to run modern hardware. Conversely, a motherboard from the early 90s might only need 2 or 3A. In the case of a short circuit, caused by damage or a failed component, the modern supply will deliver huge current, often damaging the board, due to the overcurrent limit being set so high.
[Samuel]’s solution is to lean on modern electronics to build an ATX to AT adapter with programmable current protection. This allows the current limit to be set far lower in order to protect delicate boards. The board can be set up in both a “fast blow” and a “slow blow” mode to suit various working conditions, and [Samuel] reports that with alternative cabling, it can also be used to power up other old hardware such as Macintosh or Amiga boards. The board is even packed with extra useful features like circuitry to generate the sometimes-needed -5V rail. It’s all programmed through DIP switches and even has an OLED display for feedback.
It’s an adapter that could save some rare old hardware that’s simply irreplaceable, and for that reason alone, we think it’s a highly important build. We’ve talked about appropriate fusing and current limiting before, too – namely, with LED strips.
Everyone needs a bench power supply, and rolling your own has almost become a rite of passage for hackers. For a long time, the platform of choice for such builds seemed to be the ATX power supply from a computer. While we certainly still see those builds, a lot of the action has switched to those cheap eBay programmable DC-DC converters, with their particolored digital displays.
This hybrid bench and portable power supply is a good example of what can be accomplished with these modules, and looks like it might turn out to be a handy tool. [Luke] centered his build around the DPS3003, a constant current and constant voltage buck converter that can take up to 40-VDC input and outputs up to 32 volts at 3 amps. In bench mode, the programmable module is fed from a mains-powered 24-volt switching supply. For portable work, an 18-volt battery from a Makita drill slips into a 3D-printed adapter on the top of the case. The printed part contains a commercial terminal [Luke] scored on eBay, but we’d bet the entire thing could be 3D printed. And no problem if you change power tool brands — just print another adapter.
Like many of the more common bench supply builds we’ve seen, [Pat K]’s more portable project relies on the ubiquitous DPS5005 power supply module, obtained from the usual sources. [Pat K] doesn’t get into specifics on performance, but supplied with 18 volts from a Ryobi One+ battery, the DC-DC programmable module should be able to do up to about 16 volts. Mating the battery to the supply is easy with the 3D-printed case, which has a socket for the battery that mimics the sockets on tools from the Ryobi line. It’s simple and effective, as well as neatly executed. The files for the case are on Thingiverse; sadly, only an STL file is included, so if you want to support another brand’s batteries, you’ll have to roll your own.
Just because something is “never used” doesn’t mean it’s good. [Inkoo Vintage Computing] learned that lesson while trying to repair an Amiga 500 and finding parts online that were claimed to be “new” in that they were old stock that had never been used. The problem was that in the last 30 years the capacitors had dried out, rendering these parts essentially worthless. The solution, though, was to adapt a modern PSU for use on the old equipment.
The first hurdle to getting this machine running again was finding the connector for the power supply. The parts seemed to have vanished, with some people making their own from scratch. But after considering the problem for a minute longer they realized that another Commodore machine used the same parts, and were able to source a proper cable.
Many more parts had to be sourced to get the power supply operational, but these were not as hard to come across. After some dedicated work with the soldering iron, the power supply was put to use running the old Amiga. Asture readers will know that [Inkoo Vintage Computing] aren’t strangers to the Amiga. They recently were featured with a nondestructive memory module hack that suffered from the same parts sourcing issues that this modification had, but also came out wonderfully in the end.
The problem is the combination of hardware typically used to run these LED strings. They’re quite bright and draw significant amounts of power, each pixel drawing up to 60 mA at full-white. In a string of just 10 pixels, the strip is already drawing 600 mA. For this reason, it’s common for people to choose quite hefty power supplies that can readily deliver several amps to run these installations.
It’s here that the problem starts. Typically, wires used to hook up the LED strips are quite thin and the flex strips themselves have a significant resistance, too. This means it’s possible to short circuit an LED strip without actually tripping the overcurrent protection on something like an ATX power supply, which may be fused at well over 10 amps. With the resistance of the wires and strip acting as a current limiter, the strip can overheat to the point of catching fire while the power supply happily continues to pump in the juice. In a home workshop under careful supervision, this may be a manageable risk. In an unattended installation, things could be far worse.
Thankfully, the solution is simple. By installing an appropriately rated fuse for the number of LEDs in the circuit, the installation becomes safer, as the fuse will burn out under a short circuit condition even if the power supply is happy to supply the current. With the example of 10 LEDs drawing 600 mA, a 1 amp fuse would do just fine to protect the circuit in the event of an accidental short.
It’s a great explanation of a common yet dangerous problem, and [Thomas] backs it up by using a thermal camera to illustrate just how hot things can get in mere seconds. Armed with this knowledge, you can now safely play with LEDs instead of fire. But now that you’re feeling confident, why not check out these eyeball-searing 3 watt addressable LEDs?
Lately, [Ken Shirriff] has been on some of the most incredible hardware adventures. In his most recent undertaking we find [Ken] elbow-deep in the core memory of a 50-year-old machine, the IBM 1401. The computer wasn’t shut down before mains power was cut, and it has refused to boot ever since. The culprit is in the core memory support circuitry, and thanks to [Ken’s] wonderful storytelling we can travel along with him to repair an IBM 1401.
From a hardware standpoint core memory makes us giddy. It’s a grid of wires with ferrite toroids at every intersection. Bits can be set or cleared based on how electricity is applied to the intersecting wires. [Al Williams] walked through some of the core memory history last year and we enjoyed hearing [Pamela Liou] recount the story of how textile workers consulted on the fabrication of core memory for the Apollo missions during her OHWS Talk in October. But giddiness aside, core memory has pretty much gone the way of the dodo having been displaced by technologies that take up exponentially less space.
We chuckle at [Ken’s] mention of the core memory capacity for the IBM 1401. It has 4000 characters of memory built-in (with another 12,000 in an expansion box) and he goes on to detail that these are 6-bit characters on a machine that operates in decimal and not binary (hence 4k instead of the base-2 friendly 4096).
You may remember his work a few years back to repair core memory on the same model. The Museum has two 1401’s, which turned out to be a huge help in trouble-shooting this. After tracing out the control lines, the repair team began swapping cards between the working and non-working machines. They were able to bring it back online — establishing one of the green inductors was bad — only to be struck with a second fault in the power supply.
Get this, [Ken] comments that “the whole computer is pre-silicon”. When working through the PSU, some suspect transistors were replaced with germanium power transistors. Those may have been a red-herring, as a penciled-in fuse on the original schematics turned out to be the linchpin of the PSU repair. Buried deep in the assembly, replacing the designed-to-fail part let the ancient beast awake once more.
Machines of this quality were heavily documented, and the schematics make this type of trouble-shooting a lot more manageable. But it’s still as much an art as it is skill. Make sure to give [Ken’s] article a read, and look around at the other repair jobs he’s documented — keeping these machines in service is becoming wizard-level work and we love being able to follow along.