Hackaday Podcast 042: Capacitive Earthquakes, GRBL On ESP32, Solenoid Engines, And The TI-99 Space Program

Hackaday Editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys talk turkey on the latest hacks. Random numbers, art, and electronic geekery combine into an entropic masterpiece. We saw Bart Dring bring new life to a cool little multi-pen plotter from the Atari age. Researchers at UCSD built a very very very slow soft robot, and a broken retrocomputer got a good dose of the space age. A 555 is sensing earthquakes, there’s an electric motor that wants to drop into any vehicle, and did you know someone used to have to read the current time into the telephone ad nauseam?

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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Retrotechtacular: The Speaking Clock Goes Silent

It used to be that time was a lot more relative than it is today. With smartphones synced to GPS and network providers’ clocks, we all pretty much have access to an authoritative current time, giving few of us today the wiggle room to explain a tardy arrival at work to an impatient boss by saying our watch is running slow.

Even when that excuse was plausible, it was a bit weak, since almost every telephone system had some sort of time service. The correct time was but a phone call away, announced at first by live operators then later by machines called speaking clocks. Most of these services had been phased out long ago, but one, the speaking clock service in Australia, sounded for the last time at the end of September.

While the decommissioned machine was just another beige box living in a telco rack, the speaking clocks that preceded it were wonderfully complex electromechanical devices, and perfect fodder for a Retrotechtacular deep-dive. Here’s a look at the Australian speaking clock known as “George” and why speaking clocks were once the highest of technology.

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A Talking Clock For The 21st Century

The Talking Clock service is disappearing, and it’s quite possible that few of you will be aware of its passing. One of the staples of twentieth-century technology, the Talking Clock service was the only universally consumer-available source of accurate time information away from hourly radio time signals in the days before cheap radio-controlled clocks, or GPS. You’d dial (on a real dial, naturally!) a telephone number, to be greeted with a recorded voice telling you what the time would be at the following beep. Clocks were set, phone companies made a packet, and everybody was happy with their high-tech audio horology.

[Nick Sayer] used the USNO Master Clock telephone feed to see in the New Year, but had to make do with a voice from another time zone. It seems that there are no services remaining that provide one in Pacific time. His solution to the problem for a future year? Make his own Talking Clock, one that derives its time reference from GPS.

At its heart is a SkyTraq Venus838LPx miniature GPS module coupled to an ATMega32E5 microcontroller. The speech comes in the form of pre-recorded samples stored on an SD card. There is a small on-board amplifier to drive a single speaker. For extreme authenticity perhaps it could be attached to a GSM mobile phone module to provide a dial-up service, but he’s got everything he needs for a New Years Eve.

Want to hear what that that bit of nostalgia sounded like? Check out the quick clip below. As for modern replacements, we’ve had at least one talking clock here in the past, but not one using GPS.

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