Texas Instruments is a world-class semiconductors company, but unfortunately what they are best known for among the general public is dated consumer-grade calculators thanks to entrenched standardized testing. These testing standards are so entrenched, in fact, that TI has not had to update the hardware in these calculators since the early 90s. They still run their code on a Z80 microcontroller, but [Ben Heck] found himself in possession of one which has a modern ARM coprocessor in it and thus can run Python.
While he’s not sure exactly what implementation of Python the calculator is running, he did tear it apart to try and figure out as much as he could about what this machine is doing. The immediately noticeable difference is the ARM coprocessor that is not present in other graphing calculators. After some investigation of test points, [Ben] found that the Z80 and ARM chips are communicating with each other over twin serial lines using a very “janky” interface. Jankiness aside, eventually [Ben] was able to wire up a port to the side of the calculator which lets him use his computer to send Python commands to the device when it is in its Python programming mode.
While there are probably limited use cases for 1980s calculators to run Python programs, we can at least commend TI for attempting to modernize within its self-built standardized testing prison. Perhaps this is the starting point for someone else to figure out something more useful to put these machines to work with beyond the classroom too. We’ve already seen some TI-84s that have been modified to connect to the Internet, for example.
Even before the creation of these graphing calculators, the z80 processor behind them was first produced over four decades ago and was ubiquitous in the computer scene at the time, which also lends to its hackability. There’s plenty to catch up on here, too, from custom TI games that trick the two-tone display into grayscale to Game Boy emulators that can play Zelda since the TI and Game Boy share the same processors. There are also several methods of running native code or otherwise “jailbreaking” these devices to run arbitrary code.
It looks like the world of TI hacking is alive and well now, and with several decades of projects to browse there’s always something new to find. As it stands, there may be more decades of these types of projects to come, since neither TI nor the various testing standardization companies and government agencies show any signs of changing any time soon.
The majority of non-SLA resin 3D printers, certainly at the hacker end of the market, are most certainly LCD based. The SLA kind, where a ultraviolet laser is scanner via galvanometers over the build surface, we shall consider no further in this article.
What we’re talking about are the machines that shine a bright ultraviolet light source directly through a (hopefully monochrome) LCD panel with a 2, 4 or even 8k pixel count. The LCD pixels mask off the areas of the resin that do not need to be polymerised, thus forming the layer being processed. This technique is cheap and repeatable, hence its proliferance at this end of the market.
They do suffer from a few drawbacks however. Firstly, optical convergence in the panel causes a degree of smearing at the resin interface, which reduces effective resolution somewhat. The second issue is one of thermal control – the LCD will transmit less than 5% of the incident light, so for a given exposure at the resin, the input light intensity needs to be quite high, and this loss in the LCD results in significant internal heating and a need for active cooling. Finally, the heating in the LCD combined with intense UV radiation degrades the LCD over time, making the LCD itself a consumable item.
Back in the 1970s, there were a huge variety of esoteric LED displays on the market. One of those was the DIP-packaged TIL311 from Texas Instruments, capable of displaying hexadecimal, from 0-9 and A-F. While these aren’t readily available anymore, the deep red plastic packages had some beauty to them, so [Alex] set about making a modern recreation.
The build consists of a small PCB fitted with 20 LEDs, and a STM8S microcontroller to run the show. This can be used to emulate the original decoder logic on the TIL311, or programmed with other firmware in order to test the display or enable other display functions. Where the project really shines however is in the visual presentation. [Alex] has been experimenting with potting the hardware in translucent red resin to properly emulate the look of the original parts, which goes a long way to getting that cool 70s aesthetic. Attention to detail is top notch, with [Alex] going so far as to carefully select pins that most closely match the square-cut design on the original TIL311 part.
We like simulation software. Texas Instruments long offered TINA, but recently they’ve joined with Cadence to make OrCAD PSpice available for free with some restrictions. You’ve probably heard of PSpice — it’s widely used in academia and industry, but is usually quite costly. You can see a promotional overview video below.
The program requires registration and an approval step to get a license key. The downloaded program has TI models along with other standard models. There seem to be few limits as long as you stick to the supplied library. According to the datasheet, there are no size or simulation complexity limitations in that case. If you want to use other models, you can, but that’s where the limitations hit you:
There is no limitation of how many 3rd party models can be imported into the design. However, if 3rd party models are imported, a user will be able to plot a maximum of 3 signals at a time of their choice when any 3rd party model is imported from web.
We aren’t completely sure what “from web” means there, but presumably they just mean from other sources. In any event, you still get AC, DC, and transient analysis with plenty of options like worst-case timing analysis. Mixed signal designs are supported and there is a wealth of data plotting options, as you would expect.
This is a great opportunity to drive some serious software that is widely used in the industry. The only thing that bummed us out? It runs under Windows. We couldn’t get it to work under Wine, but a Windows 10 VM handled it fine, although we really hate running a VM if we don’t have to.
Still, the price is right and it is a great piece of software. We also liked the recent Micro-Cap 12 release, but we don’t expect any updates for that. Of course, LTSpice is quite capable, too.
While repairing a real-time clock module for a 1970s HP computer that had been damaged by its leaky internal battery, [CuriousMarc] began to suspect that maybe the replacement clock chips which he had sourced from a seller in China were the reason why the module still wasn’t working after the repairs. This led him down the only obvious path: to decap and inspect both the failed original Ti chip and the replacement chip.
The IC in question is the Texas Instruments AC5948N (along with the AC5954N on other boards), which originally saw use in LED watches in the 1970s. HP used this IC in its RTC module, despite it never having been sold publicly. This makes it even more remarkable that a Chinese seller had the parts in stock. As some comments on the YouTube video mention, back then there wasn’t as much secrecy around designs, and it’s possible someone walked out of the factory with one of the masks for this chip.
Whether true or not, as the video (also included after the break) shows, both the original 1970s chip and the China-sourced one look identical. Are they original stock, or later produced from masks that made their way to Asia? We’ll probably never know for sure, but it does provide an exciting opportunity for folk who try to repair vintage equipment.
We use a microcontroller without a second thought, in applications where once we might have resorted to a brace of 74 logic chips. But how many of us have spared a thought for how the microcontroller evolved? It’s time to go back a few decades to look at the first commercially available microcontroller, the Texas Instruments TMS1000.
Imagine A World Without Microcontrollers
It’s fair to say that without microcontrollers, many of the projects we feature on Hackaday would never be made. Those of us who remember the days before widely available and easy-to-program microcontrollers will tell you that computer control of a small hardware project was certainly possible, but instead of dropping in a single chip it would have involved constructing an entire computer system. I remember Z80 systems on stripboard, with the Z80 itself alongside an EPROM, RAM chips, 74-series decoder logic, and peripheral chips such as the 6402 UART or the 8255 I/O port. Flashing an LED or keeping an eye on a microswitch or two became a major undertaking in both construction and cost, so we’d only go to those lengths if the application really demanded it. This changed for me in the early 1990s when the first affordable microcontrollers with on-board EEPROM came to market, but by then these chips had already been with us for a couple of decades.
It seems strange to modern ears, but for an engineer around 1970 a desktop calculator was a more exciting prospect than a desktop computer. Yet many of the first microcomputers were designed with calculators in mind, as was for example the Intel 4004. Calculator manufacturers each drove advances in processor silicon, and at Texas Instruments this led to the first all-in-one single-chip microcontrollers being developed in 1971 as pre-programmed CPUs designed to provide a calculator on a chip. It would take a few more years until 1974 before they produced the TMS1000, a single-chip microcontroller intended for general purpose use, and the first such part to go on sale. Continue reading “The TMS1000: The First Commercially Available Microcontroller”→