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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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”