What looks like something famous, is much smaller, and is embroiled in a web of cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigue? It sounds like the answer could be Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies, but we were actually thinking of the D-21 supersonic spy drone. Never heard of it? It didn’t have a very long service life, but it was a tiny little unmanned SR-71 and is part of a spy story that would fit right in with James Bond, if not Austin Powers.
The little plane had a wingspan of only 19 feet — compared to the SR-71’s 56 foot span — and was 42 feet long. It could fly at about Mach 3.3 at 95,000 feet and had a range of around 3,500 miles. It shared many characteristics with its big brother including the use of titanium and a design to present a low RADAR cross-section.
The Spy Who Photographed Me
With today’s global economy and increased international cooperation, it is hard to remember just how tense the late 1960s were. Governments wanted to see what other governments were up to. Satellite technology would eventually fill that role, but even though spy satellites first appeared in 1959, they used film that had to be retrieved by an airplane as it fell from the sky and then processed. Not exactly real time. More effective satellites would have to wait for better imaging technology — see the video below for just how bad those old satellite images were. That left spy planes to do the bulk of the work.
We admire [Alex Studer’s] approach to schoolwork. His final assignment in his history class was to do an open-ended research project on any topic and — this is key — using any medium. He’d recently watched a video about how Tetris came from the former Soviet Union, and adding in a little eBay research set out to build a period-accurate Soviet computer replica. The post covers the technical details, but if you want to read the historical aspects the school paper is also online.
The first decision was what CPU to use and [Alex] picked the U880 which is a Soviet Z80. All the usual parts you would use with a Z80 have U880 equivalents, so that fleshed out the rest of the design. There were a few concessions made. Instead of a bulky analog monitor, the replica uses an LCD display. Instead of an audio cassette recorder, the new machine uses a CompactFlash socket. We don’t think those are bad decisions. He also replaced the Soviet EPROMs with modern parts. Although the original parts appeared to program correctly, they were unreliable in operation. [Alex] theorizes that his programmer did not generate enough programming voltage to fully program the cells, so they would pass at the low speeds used by the programmer, but not work in the actual circuit.
He’s developed a small board that sits behind the 3LS363A and allows you to control it over I2C for a much more modern experience when working with these vintage displays. Powered by the ATtiny406, his adapter board makes it easy to chain the modules together and even handles niceties like flipping the displayed image to account for different mounting positions. While most of us probably won’t have the chance to play around with these relatively rare displays, there’s still plenty of useful information here if you’re thinking of creating your own I2C gadgets.
In his write-up, [Dmitry] explains his rationale behind the design and some of the quirks of working with the display. For example he explains how he gave each column of the display its own FET, but to save space on the board ended up running the single decimal point (technically its own column) directly off of a spare GPIO pin. Relying on the low duty cycle, he even left current limiting resistors off the design. The end result is a tiny board that keeps the same footprint of the 3LS363A itself.
[Dmitry] went all out with developing the firmware for his new “smart” 3LS363A displays, and has written up documentation for the different commands he has implemented. From re-configuring the I2C address to updating the firmware, he’s made sure no stone was left unturned for this project. We’re not ones to shy away from a quick and dirty code, but it’s always nice to see when somebody has really put some thought into the software side of a project.
Technology has moved at such a furious pace that what would have been most secret military technology a few decades ago is now surplus on eBay. Case in point: [msylvain59] picked up a Soviet-era K-13 IR seeker used to guide air-to-air missiles to their targets. Inside is a mechanical gyroscope turning at over 4,000 RPM, a filter made of germanium to block visible light, and a photoresistor. It’s sobering to think you can get all of this in a few small packages these days, if not integrated into one IC.
Fitting on top of a missile, the device isn’t that large anyway, but it is nothing like what a modern device would look like. A complex set of electronics processes the signal and moves steering actuators that control fins and other controls to guide the missile’s flight. You can see a video of the device giving up its secrets, below.
In a way, all 7-segment displays are alike; at least from the outside looking in. On the inside it can be quite another story, and that’s certainly the case with the construction of this Soviet-era 7-segment numerical display. From the outside it may look a bit sturdier than usual, but it’s still instantly recognizable for what it is. On the inside is an unusual mixture of incandescent bulbs and plastic light guides.
The rear of the display is a PCB with a vaguely hexagonal pattern of low-voltage incandescent bulbs, and each bulb mates to one segment of the display. The display segments themselves are solid blocks of plastic, one for each bulb, and each a separate piece. These are painted black, with the only paint-free areas being a thin segment at the top for the display, and a hole in the back for the mating bulb.
The result is that each plastic piece acts as a light guide, ensuring that a lit bulb on the PCB results in one of the seven thin segments on the face being lit as well. An interesting thing is that the black paint is the only thing preventing unwanted light from showing out the front, or leaking from one segment to another; usually some kind of baffle is used for this purpose in displays from this era.
More curiously, each plastic segment is a unique shape apparently unrelated to its function. We think this was probably done to ensure foolproof assembly; it forms a puzzle that can only fit together one way. The result is a compact and remarkably sturdy unit that shows how older and rugged tech isn’t necessarily bulky. Another example of small display tech from the Soviet era is this tiny 7-segment display of a completely different manufacture, which was usually used with an integrated bubble lens to magnify the minuscule display.
There’s an Apollo module on display in Michigan and its cold-war backstory is even more interesting than its space program origins.
Everyone who visits the Van Andel Museum Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan is sure to see the Apollo Command Module flanking the front entrance. Right now it’s being used as a different kind of capsule: a time capsule they’ll open in 2076 (the American tricentennial). If you look close though, this isn’t an actual Command Module but what they call a “boilerplate.”
Technically, these were mass simulators made cheaply for certain tests and training purposes. A full spacecraft costs a lot of money but these — historically made out of boilerplate steel — could be made with just the pieces necessary and using less expensive materials. What you might not know is that the boilerplate at the Van Ardel — BP 1227 — has a cold war spy history unlike any other boilerplate in the fleet.
The early life of BP 1227 is a little sketchy. It appears the Navy was using it for recovery training somewhere between the Azores and the Bay of Biscay in early 1969. We don’t know for sure if the picture to the left is BP 1227 or not. Comparing it to the one at the museum, it probably isn’t, but then again the museum’s does have a fresh paint job and possibly a top cap. Regardless, the picture to the left was from 1966 in the Atlantic, giving us an idea of how boilerplate capsules were put into service.
In those days — the height of the cold war — Naval ships were often followed by Soviet “fishing trawlers.” These were universally understood to be spy ships — Auxiliary, General Intelligence or AGI vessels.
It’s easy to assume that older components will be less integrated and bulkier than we might otherwise expect. Then something seems ahead of its time, like the teeny-tiny 490IP1 LED which was produced in the former Soviet Union. [AnubisTTP] obtained and shared images of this tiny integrated single digit LED display in which the number measures a scant 2.5 mm tall; in production it was made easier to read with an external bubble lens magnifier clipped to the outside. The red brick the 490IP1 is pictured with is the Texas Instruments TIL306, a relatively normal sized DIP component with similar functionality.
The 490IP1 is called an intelligent LED display because the package contains a decade counter and driver circuitry for the integrated seven-segment LED digit, complete with a carry signal that meant multiple displays could be chained together. It is notable not just due to its size, but because the glass cover makes it easy to see the die inside, as well as the wire-bonded pads.
It’s always fascinating to see glimpses of the development path that display technologies took. It’s easy to take a lot of it for granted today, but back before technology was where it is now, all sorts of things were tried. Examples we’ve seen in the past include the fantastic (and enormous) Eidophor projector which worked by drawing images onto a rotating disk of oil with an electron gun. On the smaller end of things, the Sphericular display used optics and image masks to wring a compact 0-9 numerical display out of only a few lamps at the back of a box.