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Brain-Stem-Storming at ESC Minneapolis 2017

October 05, 2017

Max The Magnificent-October 05, 2017

One of the things I'm often asked is how one can justify the expense of traveling to an event like the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC), as opposed to simply looking things up on the Internet.

My answer is always the same -- it's the ability to rub shoulders with ones' peers and to bounce ideas back and forth in real time that makes all the difference. Sometimes it's beneficial to chat with someone who does much the same as you -- say FPGA design -- to talk about tools and techniques and to exchange tips and tricks. Alternatively, you might need to learn more about something that's outside your field of expertise, such as analog, mixed-signal, or wireless mesh networks.

In addition to these obvious cases, I really enjoy the opportunity to chat with folks who have knowledge about the esoteric technologies of yesteryear. Just today, for example, I was overcome with a burning desire to learn more about implementing digital logic using electromechanical relays.

This all came about when my chum, Rick Curl, posted a comment to my recent Heath Robinson Rube Goldberg Computer column saying: "There are some great YouTube videos of 'Zusie the Relay Computer.' VERY nicely done!"

I must admit that, over the years, I've toyed with the idea of building my own relay-based computer. Sad to relate, however, constructing an entire machine -- including the memory -- out of relays would be time, size, and cost-prohibitive (James Newman's Megaprocessor takes up an entire room, and that's made out of transistors!).

On the other hand, how about implementing only the CPU (or even just the ALU) out of relays, and then realizing everything else using more modern technologies. You could even use an Arduino as the main engine that controls everything, but let it off-load ALU-level calculations and decisions to the relays.

Take a look at the first video I ran across when I performed a Google search on "Zusie the Relay Computer" and discovered the little scamp running its first microprogram.

There are a lot of Zusie videos out there. For example, I really like this video showing Zusie mounted in a cabinet. I'm particularly partial to the way Zusie's creator has kept the "brain" (the relay panel and LEDs) exposed on the front of the cabinet.

Arrgghhh! I need a new project like I need a hole in my head, but -- having seen Zusie -- my desire to build my own relay-based computer has been reawakened. Now I'm imagining a wooden cabinet (say 6" deep) mounted on the wall with a Zusie-style switch panel accompanied by a LED-augmented relay panel merrily clicking away.

I do have a book on implementing relay-based logic sitting on the bookshelves here in my office (I've even got a book on implementing magnetic toroid-based logic) -- plus I could search the Internet. What I really want to do, however, is to sit down with some guys and gals who've been there, done that, bought the T-Shirt, and -- if we're lucky -- even got the tattoo.

And where best to meet such a sterling bunch of chaps and chappesses? Why, ESC, of course. The next such event will be ESC Minneapolis, which takes place November 8-9, 2017. In addition to attending copious talks, meeting up with numerous companies, and presenting a couple of sessions myself -- Advanced Technologies for 21st Century Embedded Systems and Building an Artificial Brain -- I'm going to start putting feelers out to connect with anyone who knows the ancient art of relay-based logic.

Are you such a person? If so, keep an eye open and say "Hi" if you see me wandering around. I'll be the one in the Hawaiian shirt. As always, all you have to do is shout "Max, Beer!" or "Max, Bacon!" to be assured of my undivided attention.

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