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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Don’t Mess With Texas – The TI-99/4A Megademo

The demoscene is a hotbed of masterful assembly programming, particularly when it comes to platforms long forgotten by the passage of technology and time. There’s a certain thrill to be had in wringing every last drop of performance out of old silicon, particularly if it’s in a less popular machine. It’s that mindset that created Don’t Mess With Texas – a glorious megademo running on the TI-99/4A.

Entered in the oldskool demo contest at Syncrony 2017, the demo took out the win for [DESiRE], a group primarily known for demos on the Amiga – a far more popular platform in the scene. The demo even includes a Boing Ball effect as a cheeky nod to their roots. Like any good megademo, the different personalities and tastes brings a huge variety of effects to the show – there’s a great take on vintage shooters a la Wolfenstein in there too. [jmph] shared a few more details on the development process over on pouet.net.

The TI-99/4A wasn’t the easiest machine to develop for. It’s got a 16-bit CPU hamstrung by an 8-bit bus, and only 256 bytes of general purpose RAM. Despite the group’s best attempts, the common 32K RAM expansion present in the floppy drive controller is a requirement to run the demo. Just to make things harder, the in-built BASIC is too slow for any real use and there’s no function to allow the use of in-line assembly instructions. The group had to resort to a cartridge-based assembler to get the job done.

In the machine’s favour, it has a great sound chip put to brilliant use – the demo’s soundtrack will take you right back to the glory days of chiptune. It’s also got strong graphics capabilities for the era on par with, if not better than, the Commodore 64. The video subsystem in the TI works so hard that it’s the only DIP in the machine that gets a heatsink! The demo does a great job of pushing the machine to its limits in this regard.

If you’re suddenly feeling a strong attraction to the TI-99/4A, don’t worry – it’s got a cult following all its own. You can even find USB adapters & IDE controllers if you want to build a fully loaded rig, or play a stunning port of Flappy Bird if that tickles your fancy.

[Thanks to Gregg for the tip!]

The Surprising Story Of The First Microprocessors

If you maintain an interest in vintage computers, you may well know something of the early history of the microprocessor, how Intel’s 4-bit 4004, intended for a desktop calculator, was the first to be developed, and the follow-up 8008 was the first 8-bit device. We tend to like simple stories when it comes to history, and inventions like this are always conveniently packaged for posterity as one-off events.

In fact the story of the development of the first microprocessors is a much more convoluted one than it might appear, with several different companies concurrently at the forefront of developments. A fascinating recent IEEE Spectrum piece from [Ken Shirriff] investigates this period in microprocessor design, and presents the surprising conclusion that Texas Instruments may deserve the crown of having created the first 8-bit device, dislodging the 8008 from its pedestal. Continue reading “The Surprising Story Of The First Microprocessors”

Technically A Hack. Still Questionable. Remote Control Food.

We thought we were going to read an article about, perhaps, a quadcopter that could fetch beer, or donuts. What we got was more along the lines of a donut dragging itself across the floor, rendering it pitiful and advisibly indigestible.

Sometimes people joke about not wanting to get in mind of a crazy person. We understand. While we could certainly follow [Michael Kohn]’s logic, the motivation was alien. Either way, in a rare turn of events there was not a single Arduino to be seen; just reverse engineering, unique solutions, and even a custom board. This is what some of you have been asking for… we think.

The brain of the questionable contraption is a TI MSP430G2231 and a tiny forward only motor driver circuit. The MSP waits for a signal from a hacked IR remote control from a cheap RC car. It then turns those into the appropriate motor control signals which go to some of those nice tiny metal gearboxes.

There were, naturally, a lot of technical issues in mounting the electronics to the food that, well… they didn’t need to be solved, but they were solved. For example, masking tape apparently does not stick well to green peppers, so toothpicks must be employed to pin the tape in place. Hopefully knowledge like this is scheduled for the nightly wipe while we sleep, but we’ll probably hold onto  it till we die, unlike expensive piano lessons.

In the end we had a good laugh, and the idea is so dumb it will probably be an educational Kickstarter next week. Video after the break.

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Pokemon Go Physical Pokeball Catches ‘Em All

There’s something irresistible about throwing Pokeballs at unexpectedly appearing creatures. But wait. When did you actually, physically throw a Pokeball? Swiping over colored pixels wasn’t enough for [Trey Keown], so he built a real, throwable, Pokemon-catching Pokeball for Pokemon Go.

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Who Needs the MSP430 When You Have TI’s Other Microcontroller, The TI-84?

We’re sure there are more expensive LED controllers out there, but the TI-84 has got to be up there. Unless you have one on hand, then it’s free. And then you’ll doubtless need an SPI library for the famously moddable graphing calculator.

[Ivoah] is using his library, written in assembly for the Z80 processor inside the TI, to control a small strip of DotStar LEDs from Adafruit. The top board in the photograph is an ESP8266 board that just happened to be on the breadboard. The lower Arduino is being used as a 5V power supply, relegated to such duties in the face of such a superior computing device.

Many of us entertained ourselves through boring classes by exploring the features of TI BASIC, but this is certainly a step above. You can see his code here on his GitHub.

After his proof-of-concept, [Ivoah] also made a video of it working and began to program a graphical interface for controlling the LEDs. Video after the break.

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