Notes about hardware

July 5, 2010 permalink


The world’s only working (modern) Pallophotophone plays 80-year-old NBC radio broadcasts:

The pallophotophone was an early audio recorder created by GE researcher Charles Hoxie in 1922. Rather than using magnetic wire or lacquer disks, the device captured audio waveforms on sprocketless 35 mm film as a series of 12 parallel tracks reflected from a vibrating mirror. It was used to record some of the world’s oldest surviving radio broadcasts on Schenectady, New York radio station WGY between 1929 and 1931.

As a forgotten optical medium, I guess its more modern analog would be laserfilm discs. Sort of working along the right path, but just not practical compared to other media coming out at the time. There’s more about the rediscovered pallphotophone recordings on the GE Reports blog.

(Via Coudal)

June 30, 2010 permalink

Abner Mercury Memory

From a recently declassified history (PDF) detailing the NSA’s computing equipment up to 1964, comes a description of their house-sized computer ABNER’s mercury-powered memory banks:

A succession of pulses (signal or no-signal) travels through an acoustic medium, say mercury, from one end to the other of a “delay line.” […] At the input end of the line is a crystal that converts an electrical pulse to a mechanical wave which travels through the mercury to the other end, where another crystal reconverts it to an electrical signal. The series of electrical signals is recirculated back to input, after passing through detector, amplifier, and driver circuits to restore the shape and strength of the pulses. Also, in the part of the cycle external to the delay line are input and output circuits and “clock” pulses for synchronization. In mercury, the pulses travel at the speed of sound, which is much slower than the speed of electrical signals, and thus the delay in going from one end of the line to the other constitutes a form of storage. […] In ABNER, the mercury tank was a glass tube about two feet long; the delay time was 384 microseconds, or eight words of 48 bits at one-megacycle-per-second rate. Thus the 1,024 words were contained in two cabinets holding 64 mercury delay lines each.

ABNER was named after comic strip character Li’l Abner, reportedly because it was a big, hulking machine that “didn’t know anything”.

(Via Bruce Schneier)

December 8, 2009 permalink

Metallica Pinball

[Video no longer available]

Metallica singer James Hetfield commissioned playfield artist Wade Krause and game developer Tanio Klyce to create a custom Metallica pinball table, and they did just that. Excellent.

For the hardware they sanded down and repurposed an old Earthshaker table (it has a rumble effect gimmick built in, which sort of makes sense for a heavy metal themed game), and created custom music and sound programming using a Gumstix and Arduino Mega microcontroller to keep watch on the original Williams System 11 CPU’s signals. Double excellent.

(Via ArsTechnica)

November 27, 2009 permalink

From Endless Loop a Brief History of Chiptunes

From Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes:

Pressure Cooker was an ambitious exception among its contemporaries. In 1980, most home computer music remained limited to single-voice melodies and lacked dynamic range. Robert “Bob” Yannes, a self-described “electronic music hobbyist,” saw the sound hardware in first-generation microcomputers as “primitive” and suggested that they had been “designed by people who knew nothing about music” (Yannes 1996). In 1981, he began to design a new audio chip for MOS Technology called the SID (Sound Interface Device). In contrast to the kludgy Atari TIA, Yannes intended the SID to be as useful in professional synthesizers as it would be in microcomputers. Later that year, Commodore decided to include MOS Technology’s new SID alongside a dedicated graphics chip in its next microcomputer, the Commodore 64. Unlike the Atari architecture, in which a single piece of hardware controlled both audio and video output, the Commodore machine afforded programmers greater flexibility in their implementation of graphics and sound […]

When I saw this headline linked by Waxy I took it to be an overview of the recent (late 90’s to now) chiptune music craze, but it’s actually a nice little overview of the nearly 30 years old history of writing music on game hardware. Even includes sections on cracktros, the demoscene, and the early advent of trackers, along with some good videos of the relevant technology.

(Photo of the SID chip via Chris Hand)