Soviet Scientific Calculator Gives Up Its Cold War-Era Secrets

Say what you want about Soviet technology, but you’ve got to admit there was a certain style to Cold War-era electronics. Things were perhaps not as streamlined and sleek as their Western equivalents, but then again, just look at the Nixie tube craze to see where collectors and enthusiasts stand on that comparison.

One particularly interesting artifact from the later part of that era was the lovely Elektronika MK-52 “microcalculator”. [Paul Hoets] has done a careful but thorough teardown of a fine example of this late-80s machine. The programmable calculator was obviously geared toward scientific and engineering users, but [Paul] relates how later versions of it were also used by the financial community to root out banking fraud and even had built-in cryptographic functions, which made encrypting text easy.

[Paul] has put together a video of the teardown, detailing the mostly through-hole construction and the interesting use of a daughter-board, which appears to hold the high-voltage section needed to drive the 11-character VFD tube. The calculator appears to be very well cared for, and once reassembled looks like it would be up for another ride on a Soyuz, where once it served as a backup for landing calculations.

We love the look of this machine and appreciate [Paul]’s teardown and analysis. But you say that the Cyrillic keyboard has you stumped and you need a bilingual version of the MK-52? That’s not a problem.

An Open-source Scientific RPN Calculator

Why reach for a bland, commercially available calculator when you be using a model that employs RPN (Reverse Polish Notation) in its calculations and be a custom build all at the same time? The kids may have colour TFTs and graphing functions, but your keyboard has no equals sign, and that means something.

Unfortunately for RPN enthusiasts, the RPN calculator is a little on the rare side. Since classic models from the 1970s and ’80s are rather pricey, [Anton Poluektov]’s just build his own called the OpenCalc. This glorious specimen is an open hardware RPN calculator with more than a nod to the venerable Hewlett Packard HP42 in its design.

At its heart is an STM32L476 low-power ARM processor and a Sharp Memory LCD, all on a PCB clad in a 3D-printed case you’d have been proud to own in the 1980s. It runs from a CR2032 which is more than can be said for some modern styles of calculator, and it gives the user everything you could wish for in a scientific calculator. The key legends are a set of printable stickers, which when printed on self-adhesive laser film prove durable enough to last. All the resources can be found in a GitHub repository, so if RPN is your thing there’s nothing to stop you building one for yourself.

If RPN interests you, it’s a subject we’ve looked at in greater detail in the past.

Another Kind Of “Bare Metal”: 6502 Computer Powers RPN Calculator

[Mitsuru Yamada] states that one of the goals for this 6502 computer build was to make it strong enough to survive real-world usage. In that regard alone we’d call this a success; the die-cast aluminum enclosures used a little blast from the past and lend a nice retro industrial look to the project. The main chassis of the computer fairly bristles with LEDs and chunky toggle switches for setting the data and address busses. The interior is no less tidy, with the 6502 microprocessor — date code from 1995 — and associated support chips neatly arranged on perf board. The construction method is wire wrapping, in keeping with the old-school look and feel. Even the hand-drawn schematic is a work of art — shades of [Forrest Mims].

As for programming, this machine is as low-level as it gets. Nothing but 6502 machine language here, entered manually with the toggle switches, or via an externally programmed ROM. The machine can only address 1k of memory, a limit which the code to support the RPN calculator add-on [Yamada] also built brushes up against, at 992 bytes. The calculator keypad has a 20-key matrix pad and an eight-digit dot-matrix LED display, and can do the four basic operations on fixed-point binary-coded decimal inputs. The brief video below shows the calculator in action.

We love the look of this build and we’re eager to see more like it. We’ve seen a ton of 6502 builds from discrete chips lately, and while we love those too, it’s nice to see one of the big old DIPs put back in action for a change.

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Retrotechtacular: The $5,000 40 Pound HP Classroom Computer

See if you can talk your local school district into buying a computer that costs about $5,000 and weighs 40 pounds. That was HP’s proposition to schools back in 1968 so really it is more like $35,000 today. The calculator had a CRT display for the RPN stack that you could mirror on a big screen. You could also get a printer or plotter add-on. Pretty hot stuff for the ’60s.

The 1970 videos promoting the HP 9100, posted by the [Computer History Archive Project], shows something we’d think of as a clunky calculator, although by the standards of the day it was a pretty good one with trig functions and a crude programming capability.

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3D-Printer And CNC Make This Russian Calculator Bilingual

Let’s be clear right up front: there are probably more obvious solutions to the problem of using a Russian calculator when you don’t speak Russian than printing new keys and engraving translated markings on them. But easy solutions are boring and generally considered beyond the scope of Hackaday articles, so let’s dive in.

They say that mathematics is the universal language, but that’s only true to an extent. Still, even with our limited non-existent Cyrillic skills, the Russian keyboard on this RPN calculator isn’t that hard to figure out. But as [Amen] points out, in the midst of fevered calculations, one prefers not to mentally translate Χ→П to STO or remember that В↑ is the Enter key. So he printed a set of replacements for the confusing keys from PLA. While pondering how to safely fixture such small parts for the later engraving step, [Amen] hit on a genius solution: move the print bed to the CNC router and fixture everything in one go. The resulting characters are large enough to be legible and deep enough to be filled with air-drying polymer clay for contrast. After sanding and polishing, the calculator looks like it came from the Министерство электронной промышленности that way.

Honestly, we’d love to get a look inside this calculator. The insides of Russian electronics can be fascinating, and we’ve even seen entire forums dedicated to decapping Russian parts. But we understand the desire to keep it intact.

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Vintage Console Becomes The Calculator It Appears To Be

What’s sitting on [Bob Alexander]’s desk in the video below did not start out life as the desktop calculator it appears to be. Turning it into a standalone calculator with features the original designers couldn’t imagine turned out to be an interesting project, and a trip down the retrocomputing rabbit hole.

A little explanation is in order. Sure, with its Nixie display, calculator keypad, and chunky mid-century design, the Wang 360 desktop console looks like a retro calculator. But it’s actually only a dumb terminal for a much, MUCH bigger box, called the Electronic Package, that would fit under a desk. The foot-warming part that was once connected to [Bob]’s console by a thick cable that had been unceremoniously lopped off by a previous owner. [Bob] decided to remedy the situation with modern electronics. The console turned out to have enough room for a custom PCB carrying a PIC32, some level-shifting components, power supply modules that include the high-voltage supply for the Nixies, and a GPS module because Nixies and clocks just go together. The interesting bit is the programming; [Bob] chose to emulate the original Wang methods of doing math, which include multiplication by logarithmic addition. Doing so replicates the original look and feel of the calculator down to the rapid progression of numbers across the Nixies as the logarithms are calculated using the display registers.

We normally frown on vintage gear being given modern guts, but in this case [Bob] hit just the right balance of new and old, And given that the Electronic Packages these consoles were connected to go for $1500 or more on eBay, it was a better choice than letting the console go to scrap. A similarly respectful approach was taken with this TRS80 Model 100 revival.

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Hackaday Podcast Ep 007 – Everything Microcontrollers, Deadly Clock Accuracy, CT X-Rays, Mountains Of E-Waste

Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys look at all that’s happening in hackerdom. This week we dive deep into super-accurate clock chips, SPI and microcontroller trickery, a new (and cheap) part on the microcontroller block, touch-sensitive cloth, and taking a home X-ray to the third dimension. We’re saying our goodbyes to the magnificent A380, looking with skepticism on the V2V tech known as DSRC, and also trying to predict weather with automotive data. And finally, what’s the deal with that growing problem of electronic waste?

Links for all discussed on the show are found below. As always, join in the comments below as we’ll be watching those as we work on next week’s episode!

Direct download (88.7 MB)

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