The Cardboard Computer - IO is my name

My goal is a 4-bit CPU using recycled cardboard substrate and Diode Transistor Logic. This is an educational platform for me.

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My goal is to build a four bit computer using recycled, re-purposed and just plain junk as the main construction material. Why? Well, the cardboard is free as my workplace puts it in the dumpster and I do not have the funds to buy better material. A very green build indeed. The first electronic parts to start this were given to me by a friend who passed away and what better tribute than to build a computer. Except for the ALU all gates are either NAND or Nor using DTL. The transistors used are NPN 2N2222 type or PNP 2N3906. Thanks to Yann Guidon and Jezz - Morning Star for additional parts. Very large construction is employed as to aid in my learning about logic circuits and also to make it easier to make changes as I find out what does not work. Each gate measures about 0.75 X 1.75 inches on cardboard cutouts. RISC will used and the clock speed will be very slow at about 3Hz to start. The main bus is 8-bits ( 4 for data and 4 for address ).

Having a little fun with IO

IO has printed its first word after some issues were cleared up.

Added a clock speed control to IO

Replaced the 555 IC with a astable circuit.

2's complement works well for counting down.

October 19, 2017 - Power usage for IO at about 1.5 watts / 5 volts

October 12, 2017 - IO's theme song. Pink Floyd - Wearing the Inside Out

September 24, 2017 - IO has a new 7 segment display.

August 27, 2017 - Update, All the current sections of IO are working together.

HACKADAY Wheels, Wings and Walkers 2017 contest entry.

Cardboard computer video update 1

Cardboard computer video update 2

Cardboard computer video update 3

IO - The Cardboard Computer update 4

  • 130 × 2n2222 npn transistor
  • 95 × 2n3906 pnp transistor
  • 230 × 1n914 Switching diode
  • 462 × Resistors Assorted common values
  • 1012 × Paper fastener Paper fastener found in any big box store

View all 7 components

  • Light Logic is coming

    Dr. Cockroach10/18/2018 at 08:31 0 comments

    I have decided that the upcoming IO2 project will use #Light Logic gates entirely. This means a CPU/MCU with out transistors, relays or vacuum tubes for ALL of the logic circuits.

  • A fairwell to IO but looking forward to IO2

    Dr. Cockroach08/28/2018 at 19:52 8 comments

    Here it is August 28, 2018 and I have decided that IO has reached its limit. I have learned a lot from this project but IO has has grown to the extent that I no longer have enough room to work on any other projects and I might be moving away from the coast in the next year.

    I will be saving IOs boards either for future use in IO2 or will use the parts on other projects. I wish to thank everyone here on Hackaday for their support and look forward to the same support in future projects.

    There are no set plans for IO2 except that it will be much more modular in design.

  • Still on hold but not for long

    Dr. Cockroach07/19/2018 at 23:45 0 comments

    Here it is July 19, 2018 and IO is still on hold as I continue to work with other projects for this years HaD contest. I have decided that I wired myself into several corners on IO and once work resumes, I will revise some of the sections and make other improvements as I come across problem areas.

    Thanks for all those who are followers and there will be more of IO and later, IO2

  • IO is on hold - May 30,2018

    Dr. Cockroach05/30/2018 at 10:24 0 comments

    Dont panic everyone, I am giving IO a vacation while I work on #ColorChord  for the 2018 contest. I had to borrow a couple of parts from IO but it is still in fine health :-)

  • K.I.T.T. meets Carr..dboard

    Dr. Cockroach05/06/2018 at 22:42 12 comments

    Well it's time for a little fun for a change and @davedarko  this for you :-D

    Thank you @danjovic  for the new title :-D

    Was wondering what to do next with IOs construction and @Morning.Star  gave me an idea that tickled my funny bone :-)

    So watch the video and enjoy...

  • First printed word for IO - April 11, 2018

    Dr. Cockroach04/11/2018 at 19:30 13 comments

    Finally have been able to get IO to print out its first word. The home made opto-couplers had a little light leakage issue near the leds but sealed that end off with black silicone and now all of the circuit is working as desired :-)

  • Opto-Couplers for IO

    Dr. Cockroach04/09/2018 at 23:25 3 comments

    I have decided that even though the relay will work as isolation for the printer signals, I see that it would take a lot of time to perfect and build the number that I need. Sooooo, I am rolling my own opto-couplers. @Morning.Star provided the seed to go this way and it is so simple. The CdS cells are from old style night lights found in area thrift stores and the Leds I already have so take a look at the construction images and smile a little. BTW I have seen this method else where on the internet and it works quite well. With no light the cell has a resistance of 15k ohms and full led light it goes down to 400 ohms. IO and the printer work well with it.

    The night lights are being sold cheap as they have old style incandescent bulbs and folks these days want the Led type. Better for me in finding cheap parts to hack with :-)

    The SCR? and 1meg resistor might find a use later on.

    Good swing in resistance.

    Here is a very short video of two couplers connected between IO and the printer. No timing or signal level issues :-)

  • A cardboard relay for IO - March 21, 2018

    Dr. Cockroach03/21/2018 at 10:58 2 comments

    Here is the second version of the Uglytech relay. I will try this for signal isolation to the typewriter/printer. Still needs work but getting better at this...

    This video shows that the relay does work with both IO and the printer Note the screw and nut added to adjust gap.

  • A possible output device for IO

    Dr. Cockroach03/02/2018 at 17:11 7 comments

    Found this Smith Corona Typewriter for $8 and it works fine. No, the Hello World is not from IO... I might be able to patch IO into the keyboard electronics so please pray for me on this one :-)

    The keys press a small rubber? coated finger across the meshed contacts so I think that the contact is acting like a capacitor. Going to begin mapping out the matrix...

    So far so good. The contacts are simple make and break. Makes the use with IO a little easier :-

    So here it is March 4, 2018 and I have cobbled up a plug in adapter to where the keyboard ribbon cable connects to the main board. Take a look at the progression and either shake your head or chuckle a little but the connection is rock solid.

    At least this way I can restore the typewriter back to the way it used to be later :-)

    Here is how the connector has mapped out.

    All wired up and ready for input from IO :-)

    Just at the point where IO is able to send a signal to the typewriter with each sequencer cycle. This is just the beginning.

  • ROM card read logic board - March 2, 2018

    Dr. Cockroach03/02/2018 at 13:03 12 comments

    Update May 5, 2018 -  IO's failed audition as K.I.T.T from Knight Rider :-) But not bad for just four leds.

    Just having some fun with the instruction cards

    The ROM instruction board all finished and tested. Now need to wire up more cards.

    Update May 1, 2018 - All of the logic is wired and the board tests OK after finding one shorted wire.

    Update April 30, 2018 - Here is the progress today. The first image shows the power wiring.

    This next image shows how the first two 4 input nand gates are wired to the address buss.

    This shows the unit being tested. the simulated address switches are set for address 0001 and a rom instruction card with the value of 0111 is inserted into the second slot. The output leds indicate 0111. So far, so good :-)

    Update April 29, 2018 - I have set up the logic gates and ready to do some serious wiring. The four gates on the lower left is the address input from the PC. The 16 Nands at the top decodes the address and selects the required instruction to be read. The four gates on the right side is the instruction output to be sent to the CU.

    Update April 17, 2018 - After the usual delays I am getting back to wiring up the logic gates  and get back on track with the Brain Warp instructions.

    Starting to layout the construction and wiring for the logic board that will read the program ROM cards. Just like all other wiring on IO, this will be a large board...

    The ROM back plane will mount above the logic circuits...

View all 69 project logs

  • 1
    Step 1

    My basic nand gate

    I guess that this could be called a single 2 input nand gate IC . Just very large scale.

    Start with cardboard and brass fasteners

  • 2
    Step 2

    Layout the parts needed.

  • 3
    Step 3

    Solder the parts to the cardboard base

View all 5 instructions

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danjovic wrote 05/09/2018 at 01:09 point

How can I never seen this project of yours before? IO is absolutely amazing! From the concept of its parts , its assembly, and the hypnotic blinking of its leds! I bow in respect!

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 05/09/2018 at 07:35 point

Thank you for the kind words my friend. IO has been here on HaD for a while but I tend to stand back. I have learned a lot and the basic circuit and construction is so simple that anyone of any age can build and learn this way. Yes I do like blinking leds but they all do act as indicators of various sections of this project :-D

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 04/21/2017 at 19:58 point

Want to welcome @Dylan C.

To the Cardboard Computer team :-)

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David H Haffner Sr wrote 03/21/2017 at 11:29 point

Hey Mark, I see you entered your project for the 2017 prize! I'm really glad you did and the best of luck my friend :)

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 03/23/2017 at 23:45 point

Hey thanks David, If nothing comes of the contest then at least I am having fun. It's interesting to see just how low tech I can be and still do this. Like in the T.V. ad,"  Even a caveman can do it " :-)

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Eric Hertz wrote 02/21/2017 at 07:57 point

Interesting quote, there in the details regarding public-labs. And you already know I think this is a cool project.

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 02/21/2017 at 08:12 point

Hey there :-) The quote just struck me the right way and I really hate to conform so David let me use it :-) I like working and thinking out of the box ( Ohhh I just had to say that ) :-D

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David H Haffner Sr wrote 02/20/2017 at 23:56 point

Hey Mark, your "baby" is looking very cool, actually I think I'm going to find some old pics of the CP901 (similar to the CPU in the P-3 Orion back in my day) man this thing is really looking the best way!

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 02/21/2017 at 00:47 point

Hey thanks David. There is a lot more to go before even the first instruction flows through but it is coming along and I am learning a lot :-)

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Morning.Star wrote 02/17/2017 at 11:02 point

Hi Mark!

Thank you for the invitation of contributor to your awesome project... Its a cardboard revolution! :-)

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 02/17/2017 at 22:23 point


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Dr. Cockroach wrote 02/21/2017 at 00:49 point

Hey Jez, That's a revolution on two fronts ;-)

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J. Peterson wrote 01/18/2017 at 22:12 point

This is incredible work. My one caution is the choice of cardboard as a circuit substrate. If anything shorts or overheats, it’ll go off like a bomb. Corrugated cardboard is particularly bad, because the spacing within it ensures there’s plenty of oxygen to fuel the fire.

Please think about this. If nothing else, keep an extinguisher handy, and don’t leave it running unattended.

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 01/18/2017 at 22:19 point

I am making sure that all stages are running cool and very low current, but perhaps placing milliamp fuses in various places would be wise :-) I had not thought about the fire hazzard till now :-O

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K.C. Lee wrote 01/18/2017 at 22:47 point

Don't know how reliable this is.  With the good old Borax...

>This technique will only work for natural materials such as wood, cotton, jute, and paper or the like.

Read the comment part.

BTW stand alone vertical arrangement of paper burns the fastest, but there aren't much fuel.

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 01/18/2017 at 23:18 point

The Borax is something to look into, will have to test first as to how conductive the Borax would be as well as how the solution would affect the glues in the cardboard. Thanks for the link :-)

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Ted Yapo wrote 01/18/2017 at 14:45 point

Congrats on the blog writeup!

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 01/18/2017 at 15:11 point

Thanks Ted, I still have a long way to go and lots and lots to learn :-) I am currently redoing the PC from ideas and nudges from you all. ( getting rid of the pulser boards...)

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Ted Yapo wrote 01/18/2017 at 16:08 point

Nice.  I saw you mention you don't currently have a scope - that's probably where one would help most.  How fast do you think your clock will be?  If you can test it at less than 20 kHz or so, you can use a sound card as a low-frequency scope - a quick search should turn up some software solutions.  Some soundcards (like those used for some software-defined-radio projects) go even higher than 20 kHz.  I used a soundcard-based spectrum analyzer to test some audio noise generators, and it was surprisingly good.  I haven't played with a soundcard scope for a long time, but I'd be willing to bet there's something decent out there.

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 01/18/2017 at 19:23 point

Hi Ted, I do have some sound card scope software here that works well, however right now my clock is around 3hz and that is below what the scope can see. Not a major problem yet and I will speed things up once various sections start talking to each other :-) And you knew about the blog before I did :-)

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 02/21/2017 at 01:38 point

I am going to keep one pulser  for the sequencer circuit as that might be the only stage that will require edge triggering.

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Yann Guidon / YGDES wrote 01/08/2017 at 08:46 point

Wait... Why would you even need a 555 ? :-D

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 01/08/2017 at 09:04 point

Well, I was having my doubts about the transistor osc signal being clean enough ( Was still in the dark about level triggering ) and used the 555. I will change back to transistor later, just not a priority at the moment :-)

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Yann Guidon / YGDES wrote 01/08/2017 at 09:35 point

Another cool circuit to try...
You know, you could use a basic classic astable oscillator with 2 transistors to generate a square-ish signal :-)

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Yann Guidon / YGDES wrote 01/08/2017 at 09:40 point

however the astable oscillator is more delicate/fragile/picky than a relaxation oscillator or an inverter-based, hysteretic oscillator... Just add an amplifying stage (or two) to create proper edges :-)

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 01/08/2017 at 10:05 point

The astable was what I started with but again, I was/am new to this and was not sure at the time :-) Well, time to get breakfast ready for the residents at work. Yumm

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Morning.Star wrote 01/02/2017 at 13:33 point

When an artist's work grows too big to move, he calls it an Installation...


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Morning.Star wrote 01/01/2017 at 13:18 point

Awesome project! Seeing this took me back to my early teens reading about Babbage and Turing in the village library, playing with electronics kits and discovering the school had a BBC Micro in a cupboard in the Maths Room that nobody knew how to use.

I'd like to draw your attention to Nyles Steiner's ( experiments with Memristors. These are simply-constructed doped crystal junctions that exhibit programmable resistance. The device then is a passive 2-pin solid state memory cell that could be used to provide EEPROM type memory for your processor, perhaps to store commands in?

In operation, a single gate is programmed with a high forward voltage (9v) which makes the junction thereafter conductive to a low forward voltage (3v) and highly resistive to a low reverse voltage. A high reverse voltage makes the junction thereafter conductive to a low reverse voltage and highly resistive to a low forward voltage. The device is behaving like a Tunnel Diode that can be made to change polarity by over-driving it. The gate can then be tested with a smaller voltage to determine polarity and thus state... Which is stored physically in the crystal lattice, requiring power only to read or change its state.

I have successfully followed Nyles' experiment and built a 6 bit 'flash' memory cell using an Atmel, a handful of 3904s, LEDS and some scrap copper and aluminium, but it appears you have more ambition and patience than I ;)

Hacky New Year...

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 01/02/2017 at 01:42 point

Thank you for the awesome :-) I have looked at the idea of memristors a little bit but for this project I will stay with what parts I have on hand. Back in the late 70's A group of friends and I built a Imsai 8080 and had a ball learning to catch the rabbit on the led display. No keyboard or video then for us :-) I would at least like to repeat that program on this machine.

Hacky New Year to you as well..

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Morning.Star wrote 01/02/2017 at 09:04 point

I just have to admire the look of Cray super, with a hint of Practical Electronics that has about it besides what it actually does. Literally old school... You sir, are an artist.

It was just those brass studs begging for a little sulphur and a tinfoil hat that appealed to my artistic nature as well as my sense of humour. There is a delicious irony in constructing things from ingredients, its a sort of alchemy... I have a thing for copper myself, it is beautiful, structural and its oxides sensitive to heat, light and pressure as well as having electrical memory. I've built many experimental devices and sensors using copper, household chemicals, heat and water just to learn from. 

One must however respect cardboard. ;-)

Hmmm. Around then I remember being ushered into Careers, a room with a large table littered with cards; farmer, postman, lawyer... In the corner was a box with a keyboard and a screen, a CBM Pet. It wasnt even switched on.

"Oh, thats a computer," the Careers Officer said. "Pay no mind to that boy, it will never catch on." I'd love to go back and show him the waterproof battery powered touchscreen computer I wear on my wrist today, a direct descendent of the BBC that inspired me to wait all these years for it to become small enough.

I wish you luck with your endeavour.

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 01/02/2017 at 11:44 point

Good morning, Well, I guess that every thing we do or construct is alchemy in one form or another. Just keep that cup of coffee away from my cardboard ;-D  I do wonder if my studs will work that way, might have to remove any protective coating first. That melts away when I solder. I sure would like to get my hands on a Pet. My first comp of my own was a trs-80 and a few zx-81's. As the years move on, I find I no longer can keep up with the internal workings these days. I am 60 and want to go back to more basic times so this project might scratch that itch :-)

I might have to change the shape as I can see that I will run out of room. Might have to put the panels on a wall but I do like the cray type shape. It will be heavy to move around.

Take care

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David H Haffner Sr wrote 12/30/2016 at 11:58 point

Hey Mark, I think I understand a part of what you are doing now, you are utilizing a large part of your present inventory of components. I should have read further in the details section, you did mention the '2222's, I am trying to think of something simpler that can be used that is just as effective. 

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Yann Guidon / YGDES wrote 12/30/2016 at 03:38 point

If your wife complains, tell her you got 1.6k views already. Amazing !

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David H Haffner Sr wrote 12/30/2016 at 00:34 point

Well Mark, you are certainly thinking outside the box...and I luv it!

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/30/2016 at 00:41 point

I hate say to say this but instead of thinking out of the box.... I'm using it :-D

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David H Haffner Sr wrote 12/30/2016 at 00:50 point

Ha ha, yes, you are right, a hint...using a 2n2222a (NPN)  can be used for small signal switching, if that helps.

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/30/2016 at 01:52 point

Currently I have used up all of my 2222's . That is why I switched to the 3906 pnp's I still have. I still have about 180 of them left. I still have around 130 1N914 diodes.

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Yann Guidon / YGDES wrote 12/30/2016 at 03:34 point

If you need a few hundreds of BC550 and 1N4148, just tell me where to send them ;-)

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/30/2016 at 09:50 point

You got Yann :-)

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David H Haffner Sr wrote 12/29/2016 at 21:56 point

This is very clever! 

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/29/2016 at 23:03 point

Thanks, I am thrifty by nature and am having fun and learning at the same time on the cheap.

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David H Haffner Sr wrote 12/29/2016 at 23:24 point

Man. this is a lot more than "thrifty," I almost think it boarders on ZEN-like! My present project is the first 1 of mine, that has the sophistication that it has, though most of the parts I design myself to save money.

I was thinking about those bimetallic blinkers for Xmas tree lights as make shift switches, but I think their response time would be way too slow to be even effective for this project. I don't know, I'm always thinking of the weirdest things!

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/29/2016 at 23:48 point

Weird is good ( sometimes ). I have made a lot of ham radio projects that were no more than 3 or 4 transistors so this computer is way over the top for me. My wife asks me how are we going to move this thing if we relocate in a few years. I have no idea. One of many good things about HaD is thinking out of the box. By building ourselves, we can flex our thinking as much as we want to and share with other weird folks :-)

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Yann Guidon / YGDES wrote 12/30/2016 at 03:39 point

You nailed it, Mark :-)

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/29/2016 at 19:27 point

I went shopping today at a Habitat restore ( thrift store ) and bought a string of holiday white LED's for 1 dollar. It's a rats nest of wires but seems to be over 200 LED's so not a bad deal. At a initial look each LED runs at 3 to 4 volts at 3.75 ma. I self destructed one at 5 volts. Now I have plenty for this cardboard project for my output display panel.

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Ted Yapo wrote 12/29/2016 at 20:26 point

Great idea - they have leads already attached, too :-)

I have often thought about cheap incandescent holiday bulbs for homemade PROMs inside a diode array - apply 12V to program (burn out the zero bits), and normal logic levels to read.  Just replace the burned bulbs to erase.  Incandescent strings  are becoming tougher to find, though...and you would have to avoid those burn-proof ones with the shorting links around the inner terminals.

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/29/2016 at 23:01 point

Not only the LED's but all of the wire will be used on the build as well. I went to Wally world also hoping to find the same but only the incandescent types were still on sale., the led strings were already gone for the season. Now back to soldering the dmux gates :-)

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/23/2016 at 08:53 point

Well.... The ALU and decoder boards are using thumb tacks on wood bases. The wood I had to buy, the cardboard is free, lighter and easier to cut to size. As far as leakage, just have to wait and see. I could apply a non-conductive coating first but then I would have to spend money and I am a cheap builder :-)

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SHAOS wrote 12/25/2016 at 06:23 point

So it was thumb tacks initially? :)
I chose the same approach, but with "Cork Tiles":

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Yann Guidon / YGDES wrote 12/25/2016 at 07:01 point

Apparently a new trend has been created ! :-D

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/25/2016 at 09:17 point

Yup. I had constructed some radio projects with thumb tacks years ago. I can't take credit for the idea as I found a project online back 15 years that used them.

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/25/2016 at 09:19 point

The thumb tack revolution has started. Yesssss !

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Ted Yapo wrote 12/23/2016 at 01:40 point

At first I thought they were thumbtacks, and couldn't figure out how they stayed put :-)

Those fasteners are a great idea!

If you end up with leakage issues in humid environments, you could also substitute corrugated plastic board:

Although I'm not sure how well it stands up to soldering...

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tomwsmf wrote 12/21/2016 at 15:21 point

Amazing project. Very hands on and very informative. This makes for a great deep look into how our tech shizzlewhizzle works under the epoxy blobs and TOS. Please keep adding notes and sketches here on Hackaday. 

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Dr. Cockroach wrote 12/22/2016 at 12:30 point

Thanks, there are quite a few out there that have done this but for me it is both a learning aid and perhaps a strange looking piece of art.

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Just4Fun wrote 12/21/2016 at 14:15 point

OMG!!!! :)

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