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!]

High Voltage Measurement is Shockingly Safe

With the right equipment and training, it’s possible to safely work on energized power lines in the 500 kV range with bare hands. Most of us, though, don’t have the right equipment or training, and should take great care when working with any appreciable amount of voltage. If you want to safely measure even the voltages of the wiring in your house there’s still substantial danger, and you’ll want to take some precautions like using isolated amplifiers.

While there are other safe methods for measuring line voltage or protecting your oscilloscope, [Jason]’s isolated amplifier method uses high voltage capacitors to achieve isolation. The input is then digitized, sent across the capacitors, and then converted back to an analog signal on the other side. This project makes use of a chip from TI to provide the isolation, and [Jason] was able to build it on a perfboard while making many design considerations to ensure it’s as safe as possible, like encasing high voltage sections in epoxy and properly fusing the circuit.

[Jason] also discusses the limitations of this method of isolation on his site, and goes into a lot of technical details about the circuit as well. It probably wouldn’t get a UL certification, but the circuit performs well and even caught a local voltage sag while he was measuring the local power grid. If this method doesn’t meet all of your isolation needs, though, there are a lot of other ways to go about solving the problem.

Explore Low-Energy Bluetooth by Gaming

For several years now, a more energy-efficient version of Bluetooth has been available for use in certain wireless applications, although it hasn’t always been straightforward to use. Luckily now there’s a development platform for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) from Texas Instruments that makes using this protocol much easier, as [Markel] demonstrates with a homebrew video game controller.

The core of the project is of course the TI Launchpad with the BLE package, which uses a 32-bit ARM microcontroller running at 48 MHz. For this project, [Markel] also uses an Educational BoosterPack MKII, another TI device which resembles an NES controller. To get everything set up, though, he does have to do some hardware modifications to get everything to work properly but in the end he has a functioning wireless video game controller that can run for an incredibly long time on just four AA batteries.

If you’re building a retro gaming console, this isn’t too bad a product to get your system off the ground using modern technology disguised as an 8-bit-era controller. If you need some inspiration beyond the design of the controller, though, we have lots of examples to explore.

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Shmoocon: Advanced Low Power Techniques And A Watch

Real quick question: how do you increase productivity at work? The greatest (highest paid) minds would just say: do agile or scrum or something. What’s scrum? That’s where you gather ’round every morning for a waste of time meeting that kills your every desire to be productive. A while back, [Travis Goodspeed] was stuck in some lesser circle of hell like this and in an effort to be polite by not looking at his phone too much, looked at his watch too much. This led to the creation of the Goodwatch, a new bit of hardware that replaces the guts of a Casio calculator watch with a hex editor, ISM-band radio, MSP430 disassembler, and of course an RPN calculator.

[Travis] has already introduced the GoodWatch to the world. We took a look back in December but haven’t heard anything since. His talk at Shmoocon 2018 put a little more light on how this project came to be.

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The Flight That Made The Calculator And Changed The World

It was the fall of 1965 and Jack Kilby and Patrick Haggerty of Texas Instruments sat on a flight as Haggerty explained his idea for a calculator that could fit in the palm of a hand. This was a huge challenge since at that time calculators were the size of typewriters and plugged into wall sockets for their power. Kilby, who’d co-invented the integrated circuit just seven years earlier while at TI, lived to solve problems.

Fig. 2 from US 3,819,921 Miniature electronic calculator
Fig. 2 from US 3,819,921 Miniature electronic calculator

By the time they landed, Kilby had decided they should come up with a calculator that could fit in your pocket, cost less than $100, and could add, subtract, multiply, divide and maybe do square roots. He chose the code name, Project Cal Tech, for this endeavor, which seemed logical as TI had previously had a Project MIT.

Rather than study how existing calculators worked, they decided to start from scratch. The task was broken into five parts: the keyboard, the memory, the processor, the power supply, and some form of output. The processing portion came down to a four-chip design, one more than was initially hoped for. The output was also tricky for the time. CRTs were out of the question, neon lights required too high a voltage and LEDs were still not bright enough. In the end, they developed a thermal printer that burned images into heat-sensitive paper.

Just over twelve months later, with the parts all spread out on a table, it quietly spat out correct answers. A patent application was filed resulting in US patent 3,819,921, Miniature electronic calculator, which outlined the basic design for all the calculators to follow. This, idea borne of a discussion on an airplane, was a pivotal moment that changed the way we teach every student, and brought the power of solid-state computing technology into everyday life.

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TMS9900 Retro Build

[Robert Baruch] found a TMS9900 CPU from 1983 in a surplus store. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, the TMS9900 was an early 16-bit CPU from Texas Instruments. He found that, unlike modern CPUs, the chip took several voltages and a four-phase twelve-volt clock. He decided to fire it up and — of course — one thing led to another and he wound up with a system on a breadboard. You can see one of the videos he made about the machine below.

This CPU had some odd features, most notably that it stored its registers in off-chip memory and can switch contexts by changing where the registers reside. That was a novel idea when the memory and the CPU were similar in speed. In a modern computer, the memory is much slower than the CPU and this would be a major bottleneck for program execution. The only onboard registers were the program counter, the status register, and a pointer to the general-purpose registers in memory.

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