Replicating 1970s LED Displays

In 1971, Texas Instruments released something no one else had ever seen before. The TIL305 was an alphanumeric display, powered by LEDs. Sure, the technology of the early 70s meant the LEDs weren’t very bright, and the displays were expensive, but if you want a display that’s simply classic, and relatively low-power, you won’t be able to do better than a vintage alphanumeric LED display.

As you would expect, new old stock TIL305s are still pricey, and now everybody has access to cheap PCB manufacturing capabilities and really small LEDs. The DIYTIL305 is an attempt to replicate the vintage stuff, and it looks great.

The vintage, TI-made TIL305 is a printed circuit board that clips into a DIP-14 socket. The LED array is 5×7 pixels, with an extra dot for a decimal point, set on a 0.05″ grid, and a translucent red diffuser. A PCB is easy, and with 0201 LEDs you can get the LED pitch you need. Turning a PCB into a DIP-14 only requires a few machine pin headers, and for the diffuser, this project is using laser cut cast acrylic. It’s simple if you have a pick and place machine or a steady hand, and assembly is a snap.

The final DIYTIL305 boards are being tested right now, but so far the results are great. With the right code on a microcontroller, these displays will blink through the digits 0 through 9, and the alphabet is just a little more code. Since this project is using 0201 LEDs, it also means green, white, blue, orange, and yellow displays are possible, something no one could have dreamed of in 1971.

TI-83 Gets CircuitPython Upgrade

Graphing calculators are an interesting niche market these days. They’re relatively underpowered, and usually come with cheap, low resolution screens to boot. They remain viable almost solely due to their use in education and the fact that their limited connectivity makes them suitable for use in exams. The market is starting to hot up, though – and TI have recently been doing some interesting work with Python on their TI-83.

Rumor has it that TI have been unable to get Python to run viably directly on the TI-83 Premium CE. This led to the development of the TI-Python peripheral, which plugs into the calculator’s expansion port. This allows users to program in Python, with the TI-Python doing the work and the calculator essentially acting as a thin client. The chip inside is an Atmel SAMD21E18A-U, and is apparently running Adafruit’s CircuitPython platform.

This discovery led to further digging, of course. With some hacking, the TI-Python can instead be replaced with other boards based on Atmel SAMD21 chips. For those of you that aren’t in Atmel’s sales team, that means it’s possible to use things like the Adafruit Trinket M0 and the Arduino Zero instead, when flashed with the appropriate CircuitPython firmware. It’s a tricky business, involving USB IDs and some other hacks, but it’s nothing that can’t be achieved in a few hours or so.

This is a hack in its early days, so it’s currently more about building a platform at this stage rather then building fully-fledged projects just yet. We’re fully expecting to see Twitter clients and multiplayer games hit the TI-83 platform before long, of course. When you’ve done it, chuck us a link on the tip line.

[Thanks to PT for the tip!]

TI(ny) Is A New Take On The TI-99/4A

Way back in the 1980s, in the heyday of the personal computer revolution, Texas Instruments were one of the major players. The TI-99/4A was one of their more popular machines, selling 2.8 million units after an epic price war with the Commodore VIC-20. However once it had been discontinued, fans were left wanting more from the platform. Years later, that led [Fabrice] to produce the TI(ny), his take on an upgraded, more integrated TI-99/4A (Google Translate link).

Having spent many years working on these machines, [Fabrice] was very familiar with the official TI schematics – regarding both their proper use and their errors, omissions and inaccuracies. With a strong underlying knowledge of what makes a TI-99/4A tick, he set out to pen his own take on an extended model. [Fabrice] rolls in such features as Atari-compatible joystick ports, slot connectors for PeBOX expansion cards, and an RGB video output. It’s then all wrapped up in a very tidy looking case of somewhat unclear construction; it appears to be modified from an existing small computer case, and then refinished to look almost stock.

The best detail, though? It’s all made with components available in 1983! We see a lot of retro builds that are the equivalent of throwing a modern fuel-injected V8 into a vintage muscle car, and they are fantastic – but this is a project that shows us what was possible way back when.

Overall it’s a tidy build that shows what the TI-99/4A could have been if it was given a special edition model at the end of its life. If you’re looking to relive the glory days of the machine yourself, what better way then firing up the best demo on the platform? As the saying goes – Don’t Mess With Texas.

[Thanks to g_alen_e for the tip!]

Profiles in Science: Jack Kilby and the Integrated Circuit

Sixty years ago this month, an unassuming but gifted engineer sitting in a lonely lab at Texas Instruments penned a few lines in his notebook about his ideas for building complete circuits on a single slab of semiconductor. He had no way of knowing if his idea would even work; the idea that it would become one of the key technologies of the 20th century that would rapidly change everything about the world would have seemed like a fantasy to him.

We’ve covered the story of how the integrated circuit came to be, and the ensuing patent battle that would eventually award priority to someone else. But we’ve never taken a close look at the quiet man in the quiet lab who actually thought it up: Jack Kilby.

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How The Integrated Circuit Came To Be

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It may surprise you that the microchip that we all know and love today was far from an obvious idea. Some of the paths that were being explored back then to cram more components into a smaller area seem odd now. But who hasn’t experienced hindsight of that sort, even on our own bench tops.

Let’s start the story of the microchip like any good engineering challenge should be started, by diving into the problem that existed at the time with the skyrocketing complexity of computing machines.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Tiva Shaped Like an Arduino

Texas Instruments’ Tiva C LaunchPad showcases TI’s ARM Cortex-M4F, a 32-bit, 80Mhz microcontroller based on the TM4C123GH6PM. The Tiva series of LaunchPads serve as TI’s equivalent of the Arduino Uno, and hovers at about the same price point, except with more processing power and a sane geometry for the GPIO pins.

The Tiva’s processor runs five times faster than standard ATMega328P, and it sports 40 multipurpose GPIO pins and multiple serial ports. Just like the Arduino has shields, the Tiva has Booster Packs, and TI offers a decent number of options—but nothing like the Arduino’s ecosystem.

[Jacob]’s Arduino-Tiva project, an entry in the Hackaday Prize, aims to reformat the Tiva by building a TM4C123GH6PM-based board using the same form 2″x 3″ factor as the Arduino, allowing the use of all those shields. Of course, an Arduino shield only uses two rows of pins, so [Jacob]’s board would position the spare pins at the end of the board and the shield would seat on the expected ones.

The finished project could be flashed by either the Arduino IDE or TI’s Energia platform, making it an easy next step for those who’ve already mastered Arduinos but are looking for more power.

Self Driving Potato Hits the Road

Potatoes deserve to roam the earth, so [Marek Baczynski] created the first self-driving potato, ushering in a new era of potato rights. Potato batteries have been around forever. Anyone who’s played Portal 2 knows that with a copper and zinc electrode, you can get a bit of current out of a potato. Tubers have been powering clocks for decades in science classrooms around the world. It’s time for something — revolutionary.

[Marek] knew that powering a timepiece wasn’t enough for his potato, so he picked up a Texas Instruments BQ25504 boost converter energy harvesting chip. A potato can output around 0.4 V at 0.6 mA. The 25504 uses this power to slowly charge a capacitor. Every fifteen minutes or so, enough energy is stored to power a motor for a short time. [Marek] built a car for his potato — or more fittingly, he built his potato into a car.

The starch-powered capacitor moves the potato car about 8 cm per cycle. Over the course of a day, the potato can travel around 7.5 meters. Not very far, but hey, that’s further than the average potato travels on its own power. Of course, any traveling potato needs a name, so [Marek] dubbed his new pet “Pontus”. Check out the video after the break to see the ultimate fate of poor Pontus.

Now that potatoes are mobile, we’re going to need a potato detection system. Humanity’s only hope is to fight fire with fire – break out the potato cannons!

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