The Descendants Of Ancient Computers

Building computers from discrete components is a fairly common hobby project, but it used to be the only way to build a computer until integrated circuits came on the scene. If you’re living in the modern times, however, you can get a computer like this running easily enough, but if you want to dive deep into high performance you’ll need to understand how those components work on a fundamental level.

[Tim] and [Yann] have been working on replicating circuitry found in the CDC6600, the first Cray supercomputer built in the 1960s. Part of what made this computer remarkable was its insane (for the time) clock speed of 10 MHz. This was achieved by using bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) that were capable of switching much more quickly than typical transistors, and by making sure that the support circuitry of resistors and capacitors were tuned to get everything working as efficiently as possible.

The duo found that not only are the BJTs used in the original Cray supercomputer long out of production, but the successors to those transistors are also out of production. Luckily they were able to find one that meets their needs, but it doesn’t seem like there is much demand for a BJT with these characteristics anymore.

[Tim] also posted an interesting discussion about some other methods of speeding up circuitry like this, namely by using reach-through capacitors and Baker clamps. It’s worth a read in its own right, but if you want to see some highlights be sure to check out this 16-bit computer built from individual transistors.

Turning A Bad Bench Supply Into A Better Bench Supply

‘Tis the season for dropping hints on what new doodads would make a hacker happy, and we have to admit to doing a little virtual window shopping ourselves. And as a decent bench power supply is on our list, it was no surprise to see videos reviews that the hive mind thinks will help us make a choice pop up in our feed. It’s a magical time to be alive.

What did surprise us was this video on a mashup of two power supplies, both of which we’ve been eyeing, with the result being one nicely hacked programmable bench PSU. It comes to us courtesy of [jeffescortlx], who suffered with one of those no-name, low-end 30V-5A bench supplies that has significant lag when changing the settings, to the point that it’s difficult to use, not to mention dangerous for sensitive components.

So he got a hold of a Riden RD6006 programmable buck converter, which is something like those ubiquitous DPS power supply modules we’ve seen so much of, only on steroids. The Riden takes up to 70V input and turns it into a 0-60V output at up to 6 amps, at constant current or constant voltage. It also just happens to (almost) fit as a replacement for the faceplate of the dodgy old supply. A few SMD resistors simulate the original front panel pots being pegged so that the supply outputs maximum voltage and current, and a little finagling with the case and fan was needed to fit everything up, but the finished product actually looks really good, and fixes all the problems of the original.

We love this hack, and may well cobble this together for our bench.

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Fun With A Hydrogen Thyratron

There’s something oddly menacing about some vacuum tubes. The glass, the glowing filaments, the strange metal grids and wires suspended within – all those lead to a mysterious sci-fi look and the feeling that strange things are happening in there.

Add in a little high voltage and a tube that makes its own hydrogen, and you’ve got something extra scary. This hydrogen thyratron ended up being just the thing for [Kerry Wong]’s high-voltage, high-current experiments. One would normally turn to the solid-state version of the thyratron, the silicon controlled rectifier (SCR), to switch such voltages. But the devices needed to handle the 30 amps [Kerry] had in mind were exorbitant, and when the IGBTs he used as a substitute proved a little too fragile he turned to the Russian surplus market for help. There he found a TGI1-50/5 hydrogen thyratron, a tube that has a small hydrogen gas generator inside – thyratrons are actually gas-filled rather than vacuum tubes and switch heavy currents through plasma conduction. [Kerry] set up a demo circuit with a small RC network to provide the fast switching pulse preferred by the thyratron, and proceeded to run 3500 volts through a couple of 1/4-W resistors with predictable results. The video below shows the fireworks.

Can’t get enough of the thyratron’s lovely purple glow? We’ve seen it before on this beautiful old switch-mode power supply. The versatile tubes also helped rebuild the first vocal encryption system.

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Tiny Amplifier With ATtiny

Small microcontrollers can pack quite a punch. With the right code optimizations and proper use of the available limited memory, even small microcontrollers can do things they were never intended to. Even within the realm of intended use, however, there are still lots of impressive uses for these tiny cheap processors like [Lukasz]’s audio amplifier which uses one of the smallest ATtiny packages around in the video embedded below.

Since the ATtiny is small, the amplifier is only capable of 8-bit resolution but thanks to internal clock settings and the fast PWM mode he can get a sampling rate of 37.5 kHz. Most commercial amplifiers shoot for 42 kHz or higher, so this is actually quite close for the limited hardware. The fact that it is a class D amplifier also helps, since it relies on switching and filtering to achieve amplification. This allows the amplifier to have a greater efficiency than an analog amplifier, with less need for heat sinks or oversized components.

All of the code that [Lukasz] used is available on the project site if you’ve ever been curious about switching amplifiers. He built this more as a curiosity in order to see what kind of quality he could get out of such a small microcontroller. It sounds pretty good to us too! If you’re more into analog amplifiers, though, we have you covered there as well.

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Scott Swaaley On High Voltage

If you were to invent a time machine and transport a typical hardware hacker of the 1970s into 2018 and sit them at a bench alongside their modern counterpart, you’d expect them to be faced with a pile of new things, novel experiences, and exciting possibilities. The Internet for all, desktop computing fulfilling its potential, cheap single-board computers, even ubiquitous surface-mount components.

What you might not expect though is that the 2018 hacker might discover a whole field of equivalent unfamiliarity while being very relevant from their grizzled guest. It’s something Scott Swaaley touches upon in his Superconference talk:  “Lessons Learned in Designing High Power Line Voltage Circuits” in which he describes his quest for an electronic motor brake, and how his experiences had left him with a gap in his knowledge when it came to working with AC mains voltage.

When Did You Last Handle AC Line voltages?

If you think about it, the AC supply has become something we rarely encounter for several reasons. Our 1970s hacker would have been used to wiring in mains transformers, to repairing tube-driven equipment or CRT televisions with live chassis’,  and to working with lighting that was almost exclusively provided by mains-driven incandescent bulbs. A common project of the day would have been a lighting dimmer with a triac, by contrast we work in a world of microcontroller-PWM-driven LEDs and off-the-shelf switch-mode power supplies in which we have no need to see the high voltages. It may be no bad thing that we are rarely exposed to high-voltage risk, but along the way we may have lost a part of our collective skillset.

Scott’s path to gaining his mains voltage experience started in a school workshop, with a bandsaw. Inertia in the saw kept the blade moving after the power had been withdrawn, and while that might be something many of us are used to it was inappropriate in that setting as kids are better remaining attached to their fingers. He looked at brakes and electrical loads as the solution to stopping the motor, but finally settled on something far simpler. An induction motor can be stopped very quickly indeed by applying a DC voltage to it, and his quest to achieve this led along the path of working with the AC supply. Eventually he had a working prototype, which he further developed to become the MakeSafe power tool brake.

Get Your AC Switching Right First Time

The full talk is embedded below the break, and gives a very good introduction to the topic of switching AC power. If you’ve never encountered a thryristor, a triac, or even a diac, these once-ubiquitous components make an entrance. We learn about relays and contactors, and how back EMF can destroy them, and about the different strategies to protect them. Our 1970s hacker would recognise some of these, but even here there are components that have reached the market since their time that they would probably give anything to have. We see the genesis of the MakeSafe brake as a panel with a bunch of relays and an electronic fan controller with a rectifier to produce the DC, and we hear about adequate safety precautions. This is music to our ears, as it’s a subject we’ve touched on before both in terms of handling mains on your bench and inside live equipment.

So if you’ve never dealt with AC line voltages, give this talk a look. The days of wiring up transformers to power projects might be largely behind us, but the skills and principles contained within it are still valid.

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Sidney Darlington

In a field where components and systems are often known by sterile strings of characters that manufacturers assign or by cutesy names that are clearly products of the marketing department and their focus groups, having your name attached to an innovation is rare. Rarer still is the case where the mere mention of an otherwise obscure inventor’s name brings up a complete schematic in the listener’s mind.

Given how rarely such an honor is bestowed, we’d be forgiven to think that Sidney Darlington’s only contribution to electronics is the paired transistor he invented in the 1950s that bears his name to this day. His long career yielded so much more, from network synthesis theory to rocket guidance systems that would eventually take us to the Moon. The irony is that the Darlington pair that made his name known to generations of engineers and hobbyists was almost an afterthought, developed after a weekend of tinkering.

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Hybrid Lab Power Supply From Broken Audio Amp

The lab power supply is an essential part of any respectable electronics workbench. However, the cost of buying a unit that has all the features required can be eye-wateringly high for such a seemingly simple device. [The Post Apocalyptic Inventor] has showed us how to build a quality bench power supply from the guts of an old audio amplifier.

We’ve covered our fair share of DIY power supplies here at Hackaday, and despite this one being a year old, it goes the extra mile for a number of reasons. Firstly, many of the expensive and key components are salvaged from a faulty audio amp: the transformer, large heatsink and chassis, as well as miscellaneous capacitors, pots, power resistors and relays. Secondly, this power supply is a hybrid. As well as two outputs from off-the-shelf buck and boost converters, there is also a linear supply. The efficiency of the switching supplies is great for general purpose work, but having a low-ripple linear output on tap for testing RF and audio projects is really handy.

The addition of the linear regulator is covered in a second video, and it’s impressively technically comprehensive. [TPAI] does a great job of explaining the function of all the parts which comprise his linear supply, and builds it up manually from discrete components. To monitor the voltage and current on the front panel, two vintage dial voltmeters are used, after one is converted to an ammeter. It’s these small auxiliary hacks which make this project stand out – another example is the rewiring of the transformer secondary and bridge rectifier to obtain a 38V rail rated for twice the original current.

The Chinese DC-DC switching converters at the heart of this build are pretty popular these days, in fact we’re even seeing open source firmware being developed for them. If you want to find out more about how they operate on a basic level, here’s how a buck converter works, and also the science behind boost converters.

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