Addition on the Strangest Vacuum Tube

[Uniservo] made a video of a tube he’s been trying to acquire for a long time: a Rogers 6047 additron. Never heard of an additron? We hadn’t either. But it was a full binary adder in a single vacuum tube made in Canada around 1950. You can see the video below.

The unique tubes were made for the University of Toronto Electronic Computer (UTEC). A normal tube-based computer would require several tubes to perform an addition, but the additron was a single tube that used beam switching to perform the addition in a single package. [Uniservo] points out how the tube could have revolutionized tube computing, but before it could really appear in real designs, transistors — and later, integrated circuits — would take over.

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Slimline Nixie Clocks

Everyone needs to build a Nixie clock at some point. It’s a fantastic learning opportunity; not only do you get to play around with high voltages and tooobs, but there’s also the joy of sourcing obsolete components and figuring out the mechanical side of electronic design as well. [wouterdevinck] recently took up the challenge of building a Nixie clock. Instead of building a clock with a huge base, garish RGB LEDs, and other unnecessary accouterments, [wouter] is building a minimalist clock. It’s slimline, and a work of art.

The circuit for this Nixie clock is more or less what you would expect for a neon display project designed in the last few years. The microcontroller is an ATMega328, with a Maxim DS3231 real time clock providing the time. The tubes are standard Russian IN-14 Nixies with two IN-3 neon bulbs for the colons. The drivers are two HV5622 high voltage shift registers, and the power supply is a standard, off-the-shelf DC to DC module that converts 5 V from a USB connector into the 170 V DC the tubes require.

The trick here is the design. The electronics for this clock were designed to fit in a thin base crafted out of sheets of bamboo plywood. The base is a stackup of three 3.2mm thick sheets of plywood and a single 1.6 mm piece that is machined on a small desktop CNC.

Discounting the wristwatch, this is one of the thinnest Nixie clocks we’ve ever seen and looks absolutely fantastic. You can check out the video of the clock in action below, or peruse the circuit design and code for the clock here.

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Classic IBM TR-2 Flip-Flop Reproduction

As useful as computers are, most of them have all the design charm of a rubber doorstop. Oh, for the heady early days of computing, when vacuum tubes ruled, hardware was assembled by hand, and engineers always wore a tie.

Looking to recreate an elegant bit of computing hardware from that more civilized age, [updatebjarni] built a reproduction of a 1948 IBM TR-2 flip-flop module — 1,250 of which once formed the memory of the IBM Model 604 Calculating Punch. Admittedly more of a high-speed adding machine than a computer, the 604 is still an important piece of computing history, and [updatebjarni]’s scrap-bin reproduction of the field-replaceable module served as part of a computer history exhibit.

With a single 6J6 double triode tube nestled inside a bent aluminum frame, the goal was to reproduce the appearance of the original TR-2 module, and so the passive components wired up point-to-point style below the tube socket were chosen for their vintage look. That’s not to say the flip-flop won’t function. Although [updatebjarni] hasn’t tested it, he’s built other functional flip-flops from vintage components before, so this one should work too. Only 1,249 left to build and he’ll have enough for a working 604.

If you like this kind of build, you should probably check out some of our Vintage Computer Festival coverage. VCF East in April was a huge success, and VCF West is coming up in August in Mountain View. Hackaday will be well represented there, so stop by.

[via r/geekporn]

Restoring a Japanese Oscilloscope

Oscilloscopes have come a long way. Today’s scope is more likely to look like a tablet than an old tube-based instrument. Still, there’s something about looking into a glowing green tube, especially if you’ve done the work to resurrect that old hollow state device. [NFM] picked up a Kikusui OP-31C–a vintage Japanese scope at a second-hand store. He made a video of his restoration efforts that you can see below.

The scope actually powered up and worked the first time. Of course, unlike a modern scope, the OP-31C has to warm up before it will show up. However, the pots needed cleaning and as a precaution, he replaced the old oil and electrolytic capacitors.

The big transformer and the coarse-looking single sided circuit board certainly will bring back memories if you are old enough. [NFM] had a schematic of the scope and takes you on a tour of the innards, although his schematic had some subtle differences from the actual unit, possibly due to some repair work.

He was going to rebuild one of the large electrolytic “can” capacitors to keep the outer shell with newer (and smaller) modern capacitors. However, he found a very similar modern capacitor and used that, instead.

We think it would have been more fun if the scope didn’t work. However, it was still a great tear down of the old tube-based device. This is a bigger device than the last old scope tear down we looked at. Not that we haven’t seen smaller ones (although, the link in the post has moved).

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High Vacuum with Mercury and Glassware

If you want to build your own vacuum tubes, whether amplifying, Nixie or cathode-ray, you’re going to need a vacuum. It’s in the name, after all. For a few thousand bucks, you can probably pick up a used turbo-molecular pump. But how did they make high vacuums back in the day? How did Edison evacuate his light bulbs?

Strangely enough, you could do worse than turn to YouTube for the answer: [Cody] demonstrates building a Sprengel vacuum pump (video embedded below). As tipster [BrightBlueJim] wrote us, this project has everything: high vacuum, home-made torch glassware, and large quantities of toxic heavy metals. (Somehow [Jim] missed out on the high-voltage from the static electricity generated by sliding mercury down glass tubes for days on end.)

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A Walk-In Broadcast Transmitter

[Mr. Carlson] likes electronics gear. Mostly old gear. The grayer the case, the greener the phosphors, and the more hammertone, the better. That’s why we’re not surprised to see him with a mammoth AM radio station transmitter in his shop. That it’s a transmitter that you can walk into while it’s energized was a bit of a surprise, though.

As radio station transmitters go, [Mr. Carlson]’s Gates BC-250-GY broadcast transmitter is actually pretty small, especially for 1940s-vintage gear. It has a 250 watt output and was used as a nighttime transmitter; AM stations are typically required to operate at reduced power when the ionosphere is favorable for skip on the medium frequency bands. Stations often use separate day and night transmitters rather than just dialing back the daytime flamethrower; this allows plenty of time for maintenance with no interruptions to programming.

If you enjoy old broadcast gear, the tour of this transmitter, which has been rebuilt for use in the ham bands, will be a real treat. Feast your eyes on those lovely old bakelite knobs and the Simpson and Westinghouse meters, and picture a broadcast engineer in white short sleeves and skinny tie making notations on a clipboard. The transmitter is just as lovely on the inside — once the plate power supply is shut down, of course, lest [Mr. Carlson] quickly become [the former late Mr. Carlson] upon stepping inside. Honestly, there aren’t that many components inside, but what’s there is big – huge transformer, giant potato slicer variable caps, wirewound resistors the size of paper towel tubes, and five enormous, glowing vacuum tubes.

It’s a pretty neat bit of broadcasting history, and it’s a treat to see it so lovingly restored. [Mr. Carlson] teases us with other, yet larger daytime transmitters he has yet to restore, and we can’t wait for that tour. Until then, perhaps we can just review [Mr. Crosley]’s giant Cincinnati transmitter from the 1920s and wait patiently.

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ENIAC: The Way We Were

When I first got interested in computers, it was all but impossible for an individual to own a computer outright. Even a “small” machine cost a fortune not to mention requiring specialized power, cooling, and maintenance. Then there started to be some rumblings of home computers (like the Mark 8 we recently saw a replica of) and the Altair 8800 burst on the scene. By today’s standards, these are hardly computers. Even an 8-bit Arduino can outperform these old machines.

As much disparity as there is between an Altair 8800 and a modern personal computer, looking even further back is fascinating. The differences between the original computers from the 1940s and anything even remotely “modern” like an Altair or a PC are astounding. If you are interested in that kind of history, you should read a paper entitled “Electronic Computing Circuits of the ENIAC” by [Arthur W. Burks].

These mid-century designers used tubes and were blazing new ground. Part of what makes the ENIAC so different is that it had a different design principle than a modern computer. It was less a general purpose stored-program computer and more of a collection of logic circuits that could be configured to solve problems — sort of a giant vacuum tube FPGA, if you will. It used some internal representations that proved to be suboptimal which also makes it seem strange. The EDSAC — a later device — was closer to what we think of as a computer. Yet the ENIAC was a major step in the direction of a practical digital computer.

Cost and Size

eniac
Programming the ENIAC in 1951 (±4 years)
[Image Source: Public Domain]
The size of ENIAC is hard to imagine. The device had about 18,000 tubes, 7,000 diodes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 6,000 switches. There were 5 million hand-soldered joints! ([Thomas Haigh] tells us that while this is widely reported, the real number was about 500,000.) Physically, it stood 10 feet tall, 3 feet deep, and 100 feet long. The tube filaments alone required 80 kW of power. Even the cooling system consumed 20 kW. In total, it took 150 kW to run the beast.

The cost of the machine was about $487,000. Almost a half-million dollars in 1946 is plenty. But that’s nearly seven million dollars in today’s money. What was worth that kind of expenditure? The military built firing tables for shell trajectories. From the [Burks] paper:

“A skilled computer with a desk machine can compute a 60-second trajectory in about twenty hours…”

Keep in mind that in 1946, a computer was a person. [Burks] goes on to say that a differential analyzer can do the same job in 15 minutes. ENIAC, on the other hand, could do it in 30 seconds and with a greater precision than the differential analyzer.

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