The Computer That Controlled Chernobyl

When you think of Chernobyl (or Chornobyl, now), you think of the nuclear accident, of course. But have you ever considered that where there is a nuclear reactor, there is a computer control system? What computers were in control of the infamous reactor? [Chornobyl Family] has the answer in a fascinating video documentary you can see below.

The video shows a bit of the history of Soviet-era control computers. The reactor’s V-30M computer descended from some of these earlier computers. With 20K of core memory, we won’t be impressed today, but that was respectable for the day. The SKALA system will look familiar if you are used to looking at 1970s-era computers.

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Turning Soviet Electronics Into A Nixie Tube Clock

Sometimes you find something that looks really cool but doesn’t work, but that’s an opportunity to give it a new life. That was the case when [Davis DeWitt] got his hands on a weird Soviet-era box with four original Nixie tubes inside. He tears the unit down, shows off the engineering that went into it and explains what it took to give the unit a new life as a clock.

Each digit is housed inside a pluggable unit. If a digit failed, a technician could simply swap it out.

A lot can happen over decades of neglect. That was clear when [Davis] discovered every single bolt had seized in place and had to be carefully drilled out. But Nixie tubes don’t really go bad, so he was hopeful that the process would pay off.

The unit is a modular display of some kind, clearly meant to plug into a larger assembly. Inside the unit, each digit is housed in its own modular plug with a single Nixie tube at the front, a small neon bulb for a decimal point, and a bunch of internal electronics. Bringing up the rear is a card edge connector.

Continues after the break…

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Examining Test Gear From Behind The Iron Curtain

Back in 1978, an oscilloscope was an exotic piece of gear for most homebrewers. We expect they were even more rare in private hands behind the iron curtain, and [Thomas Scherrer] shows us a Soviet X1-7B combination oscilloscope and spectrum analyzer (he thinks, at least, it is a spectrum analyzer) that he got working.

The Soviet scope is clearly different with its Cyrillic front panel. Luckily, Google Translate was up to the task of decoding a picture of the device. However, the differences aren’t just cosmetic. The scope also has a very interesting rotating bezel around the round CRT. You can see a video of the 8.2 kg scope below.

A quick look inside looks pretty conventional for a scope of that era that used all transistors in the circuitry. The rotating bezel, though, also controls something that looks like a big mechanical switch and cavity or, perhaps, a big mechanical variable component of some kind.

Satisfied that the insides were in reasonable shape, [Thomas] was ready to try turning it on. We want to say it went well, but… there was censored audio, along with a loud noise, right after it was plugged in. Troubleshooting centered on what was producing a burned smell, but a quick examination didn’t turn up anything obvious, despite being localized to the power circuitry. The fuse didn’t blow, oddly, and — even more puzzling — the unit was off when plugged in!

It turns out the input power filter leaked to the chassis. Since he had a ground on the chassis, that explained the failure, and while it was annoying, it was better than getting a shock with a hot chassis. The second plug in went better.

It finally did work, at least somewhat, although he never explored some of the odd features the scope appears to have. We love the old boat anchor scopes but don’t see many Soviet instruments, at least not those of us on this side of the Atlantic.

We do see a few Soviet-era computers now and again. As for the fuse not blowing, it was shorted before the fuse, but apparently, fuses don’t always blow when you expect them to, anyway.

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GLASNOST Is A Computer That Makes Transparency A Priority

We live in a world where most of us take the transistor for granted. Within arm’s length of most people reading this, there are likely over ten billion of them sending electrons in every direction. But the transistor was not the first technology to come around to make the computer a possibility, but if you go to the lengths of building something with an alternative, like this vacuum tube computer, you may appreciate them just a tiny bit more.

This vacuum tube computer is called GLASNOST, which according to its creator [Paul] means “glass, no semiconductors” with the idea that the working parts of the computer (besides the passive components) are transparent glass tubes, unlike their opaque silicon-based alternatives. It boasts a graphical display on an oscilloscope, 4096 words of memory, and a custom four-bit architecture based only on NOT, NOR, and OR gates which are simpler to create with the bulky tubes.

The project is still a work in progress but already [Paul] has the core memory figured out and the computer modeled in a logic simulator. The next steps are currently being worked through which includes getting the logic gates to function in the real world. We eagerly await the next steps of this novel computer and, if you want to see one that was built recently and not in the distant past of the 1950s, take a look at the Electron Tube New Automatic Computer that was completed just a few years ago.

Soviet-Era Computer Is Both A Mystery And A Disaster

There are plenty of bizarre computers around from the 70s through the 90s before the world somewhat standardized around various duopolies of hardware vendors and operating systems. Commodore, Atari, and even Apple had some bizarre machines from this era but for our money, the most unusual systems come out of the Eastern Bloc. We’ve featured plenty of these before, and the latest is a Robotron CM1910 which comes to us from [Chernobyl Family] via YouTube.

Built in East Germany behind the wall, the Robotron factories had easier access to Soviet than western parts, but the latter were also available when necessary. Hence it’s built on an Intel 8086 processor, which seems common enough for the era, but after opening the case some non-standard construction becomes apparent.

The first is a densely-packed array of circuit boards and wiring, far beyond what a western PC might have included in this time. This also partially explains its massive 25 kg weight. It does include a hard drive, two floppy disk drives, a large dedicated graphics card, and a modem which all contribute as well. The overall design philosophy of the machine was a headscratcher too, which would have involved near-complete dismantling of the machine to access or repair some of the parts, as well as some hidden peripheral and drive controllers in questionable locations.

From the looks of it, we doubt this computer will see any uptime anytime soon, although they did at least restore the keyboard. With all of the chips accessible on PCBs, it might be possible to get this machine up and running again although it would take a massive effort thanks to its non-standard design and construction, and might also require help from builds like this to replace or emulate some of the hardware.

Thanks to [Stephen] for the tip!

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Soviet-Era Test Gear Defects To YouTube

If you want to work on communication gear — especially in the 1960s — you probably wanted a VTVM (a vacuum tube voltmeter), a way to generate frequencies, and a way to measure frequencies and power. The Soviet military had a piece of portable gear that could do all of this, the IK-2, and [msylvain59] shows up how one looked on the outside and the inside in the video below. Be warned, though. The video is hard to stop watching and it runs for over an hour, so plan accordingly.

We don’t read Russian, but based on the video, it looks like the lefthand piece of gear is a frequency generator that runs from 20 to 52 MHz and a power meter. The right-hand instrument is a VTVM that has some way to measure frequency and the center section is a quartz crystal frequency standard.

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Hackaday Links: July 31, 2022

Don’t look up! As of the time of this writing, there’s a decent chance that a Chinese Long March 5B booster has already completed its uncontrolled return to Earth, hopefully safely. The reentry prediction was continually tweaked over the last week or so, until the consensus closed in on 30 Jul 2022 at 17:08 UTC, give or take an hour either way. That two-hour window makes for a LOT of uncertainty about where the 25-ton piece of space debris will end up. Given the last prediction by The Aerospace Corporation, the likely surface paths cover a lot of open ocean, with only parts of Mexico and South America potentially in the crosshairs, along with parts of Indonesia. It’s expected that most of the material in the massive booster will burn up in the atmosphere, but with the size of the thing, even 20% making it to the ground could be catastrophic, as it nearly was in 2020.

[Update: US Space Command confirms that the booster splashed down in the Indian Ocean region at 16:45 UTC. No word yet on how much debris survived, or if any populated areas were impacted.]

Good news, everyone — thanks to 3D printing, we now know the maximum height of a dive into water that the average human can perform without injury. And it’s surprisingly small — 8 meters for head first, 12 meters if you break the water with your hands first, and 15 meters feet first. Bear in mind this is for the average person; the record for surviving a foot-first dive is almost 60 meters, but that was by a trained diver. Researchers from Cornell came up with these numbers by printing models of human divers in various poses, fitting them with accelerometers, and comparing the readings they got with known figures for deceleration injuries. There was no mention of the maximum survivable belly flop, but based on first-hand anecdotal experience, we’d say it’s not much more than a meter.

Humans have done a lot of spacefaring in the last sixty years or so, but almost all of it has been either in low Earth orbit or as flybys of our neighbors in the Sol system. Sure we’ve landed plenty of probes, but mostly on the Moon, Mars, and a few lucky asteroids. And Venus, which is sometimes easy to forget. We were reminded of that fact by this cool video of the 1982 Soviet landing of Venera 14, one of only a few attempts to land on our so-called sister planet. The video shows the few photographs Venera 14 managed to take before being destroyed by the heat and pressure on Venus, but the real treat is the sound recording the probe managed to make. Venera 14 captured the sounds of its own operations on the Venusian surface, including what sounds like a pneumatic drill being used to sample the regolith. It also captured, as the narrator put it, “the gentle blow of the Venusian wind” — as gentle as ultra-dense carbon dioxide hot enough to melt lead can be, anyway.

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