Electromagnetic Field: Speczilla!

It is a golden rule of the journalist’s art, that we report the news, we don’t make it. But just occasionally we find ourselves in the odd position of being in the right place such that one of our throwaway comments or actions has the unintended consequence of seeding a story. This is one of those moments, so it’s a rare case of use of the first person in a daily piece as your scribe instead of Hackaday’s usual second person.

At the SHA2017 hacker camp in the Netherlands, [Matt “Gasman” Westcott] gave his presentation on composing a chiptune from an audience suggestion. Afterwards my Tweet about never having seen a Sinclair Spectrum as large as the one on the presentation screen grew a life of its own and became the idea for a project, which in turn at Electromagnetic Field 2018 was exhibited as a giant-sized fully working Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Since much of the work was performed in Oxford Hackspace I saw Matt’s progression, his first experiments with foam rubber keys, then as he refined his two-wire switch mechanism. Early experiments hooking a row of them up to a real Spectrum motherboard weren’t the success he’d hoped for, so he moved to the FUSE emulator on a Raspberry Pi. A huge effort and needlework learning curve plus a lot of help from OxHack’s textile specialists and buying his local furniture store’s entire stock of foam allowed him to perfect a facsimile of the classic Spectrum’s case and blue rubber keys, while its lettering and iconic BASIC keywords were vinyl-cut at rLab in Reading. A Milton Keynes Makerspace member provided transport to the camp where it was united with a huge TV in a gazebo, completing the trio of local spaces.

At the camp, though it suffered a few technical hitches along the way it was rather a success. There were two techniques, kneeling down and pressing keys with the palm of your hand, or dancing on them in socked feet for complex manoeuvres. The trademark single-key-press BASIC keywords took a little while to re-learn though, there was a time when those were instinctive.

We’d normally wrap a piece like this one up with a link or two. To other projects perhaps, or other hacks from the same person. But in this case we have neither another home computer on this scale, nor any hacks from [Matt], as he’s well known in the European arm of our community for something completely different. As [Gasman] he’s a chiptune artist par excellence, as you can see if you watch his set from the 2014 Electromagnetic Field.

TI(ny) Is A New Take On The TI-99/4A

Way back in the 1980s, in the heyday of the personal computer revolution, Texas Instruments were one of the major players. The TI-99/4A was one of their more popular machines, selling 2.8 million units after an epic price war with the Commodore VIC-20. However once it had been discontinued, fans were left wanting more from the platform. Years later, that led [Fabrice] to produce the TI(ny), his take on an upgraded, more integrated TI-99/4A (Google Translate link).

Having spent many years working on these machines, [Fabrice] was very familiar with the official TI schematics – regarding both their proper use and their errors, omissions and inaccuracies. With a strong underlying knowledge of what makes a TI-99/4A tick, he set out to pen his own take on an extended model. [Fabrice] rolls in such features as Atari-compatible joystick ports, slot connectors for PeBOX expansion cards, and an RGB video output. It’s then all wrapped up in a very tidy looking case of somewhat unclear construction; it appears to be modified from an existing small computer case, and then refinished to look almost stock.

The best detail, though? It’s all made with components available in 1983! We see a lot of retro builds that are the equivalent of throwing a modern fuel-injected V8 into a vintage muscle car, and they are fantastic – but this is a project that shows us what was possible way back when.

Overall it’s a tidy build that shows what the TI-99/4A could have been if it was given a special edition model at the end of its life. If you’re looking to relive the glory days of the machine yourself, what better way then firing up the best demo on the platform? As the saying goes – Don’t Mess With Texas.

[Thanks to g_alen_e for the tip!]

A Switching Power Supply, 1940s-Style

“They don’t build ’em like they used to.” There’s plenty of truth to that old saw, especially when a switch-mode power supply from the 1940s still works with its original parts. But when said power supply is about the size of a smallish toddler and twice as heavy, building them like the old days isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

The power supply that [Ken Shirriff] dives into comes from an ongoing restoration of a vintage teletype we covered recently. In that post we noted the “mysterious blue glow” of the tubes in the power supply, which [Ken] decided to look into further. The tubes are Thyratrons, which can’t really be classified as vacuum tubes since they’re filled with various gasses. Thyratrons are tubes that use ionized gas – mercury vapor in this case – to conduct large currents. In this circuit, the Thyratrons are used as half-wave rectifiers that can be rapidly switched on and off by a feedback circuit. That keeps the output voltage fixed at the nominal 140V DC required by the teletype, with a surprisingly small amount of ripple. The video below is from a series on the entire restoration; this one is cued to where the power supply is powered up for the first time. It’s interesting to see the Thyratrons being switched at about 120 Hz when the supply is under load.

Cheers to [Ken] and his retrocomputing colleagues for keeping the old iron running. Whether the target of his ministrations is a 1974 scientific calculator or core memory from an IBM 1401, we always enjoy watching him work.

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Detective Work Recovers Atari ST ASIC Designs

[Christian Zietz] wanted to know more about the Atari ST. He found information online from newer Atari machines like the Falcon030 and the Jaguar, but couldn’t find much else. While looking through some archives of old disk images from the Atari headquarters, he found a folder marked “Drawings\4118.” With some detective work and emulation of an old operating system, he was able to recover the schematics for the ST-4118 video shifter ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit).

Unfortunately, this appeared to be a chip for the unreleased Atari Panther video game console. However, it did show the way to how these older schematics were readable. [Christian] continued searching and found some floppy disk images that were a bit unusual. They didn’t have a proper file system but had been created by a backup program called FastBack for MS-DOS.

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NASA Shows Off Its Big Computer In 1986

Sometimes it is hard to remember just how far computers have come in the last three or four decades. An old NASA video (see below) has been restored with better sound and video recently that shows what passed for a giant computer in 1986. The Cray 2 runs at 250 MHz and had two gigabytes of memory (256 megabytes of million 64-bit words).

Despite the breathless praise, history hasn’t been kind to the Cray 2. Based on ECL, it had 4 processors and –in theory — could reach 1,900 megaFLOPs/second (a FLOP is a floating point operation). However, practical problems made it difficult to get to that theoretical maximum.

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Ancient Teletype Revived in Labor of Retrocomputing Love

Readers with not too many years under their belts may recall a time when the classic background sound effect for radio and television news programs included a staccato mechanical beat, presumably made by the bank of teletype machines somewhere in the studio, clattering out breaking stories onto rolls of yellow paper. It was certainly true that teletypes were an important part of the many communications networks that were strung together over the 20th century, but these noisy, greasy beasts had their day and are now largely museum pieces.

Which is exactly where the ancient Model 19 Teletype machine that [CuriousMarc] and company are restoring is destined. Their ongoing video series, six parts long as of this writing, documents in painstaking detail how this unit worked and how they are bringing it back to its 1930s glory. Teletypes were made to work over telephone lines with very limited bandwidth, and the hacks that went into transmitting text messages with a simple 5-bit encoding scheme are fascinating. The series covers the physical restoration of the machine, obviously well-loved during its long service with the US Navy. Of particular interest is the massive power supply with its Thyratron tubes and their mysterious blue glow.

The whole series is worth a watch if you’re even slightly interested in retrocomputing. We’re particularly taken with the mechanical aspects of these machines, though, which have a lot in common with mechanical calculators. [Al Williams] recently covered the non-replacement of the power supply caps for this unit, which is an interesting detour to this restoration.

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It’s 1984, And You Can’t Afford A Computer. Never Mind, Have This Pop-Up Paper One Instead!

It’s an oft-derided sentiment from a Certain Type of Older Person, that the Youth of Today don’t know how lucky they are with their technology. Back when they were young they were happy with paper and string! Part of the hilarity comes from their often getting the technology itself wrong, for example chastising the youngsters for their iPods and Game Boys when in reality those long-ago-retired devices are edging into the realm of retrotechnology.

But maybe they have a point after all, because paper and string could be pretty good fun to play with. Take the example presented  in a Twitter thread by [Marcin Wichary]. A pop-up book from 1984 that presents the inner workings of a computer in an astounding level of detail, perhaps it stretches the pop-up card designer’s art to the limit, but along the way it makes a fascinating read for any retrocomputing enthusiast. Aside from the pop-up model of the computer with an insertable floppy disk that brings text onto the screen we see at  first, there is a pop-up keyboard with a working key, a peer inside the workings of a floppy disc, a circuit board complete with a paper chip that the reader can insert into a socket, and a simulation of a CRT electron bean using a piece of string. A Twitter thread on a book is not our normal fare, but this one is something special!

Did any of you have this book when you were younger? Perhaps you still have it? We’d love to hear from you in the comments. It’s probably not the type of book we normally review, but we’ve been known to venture slightly outside tech on that front.