06-Feb-09 – More Busicom 161

The Busicom 161 calculator chassis donated to the Old Calculator Museum arrived Tuesday (2/3) morning. The box it was packed in looked a slight bit worse for the wear due to handling during shipping, but structurally, the box looked OK.

The machine was double boxed, which is one of the best ways to ship old calculators (the best way being custom-made conformal foam packing). The machine was cushioned by styrofoam packing “peanuts”, another good thing, however, it’s usually a good idea to first seal the machine in some kind of bag (preferably an anti-static bag) to keep the packing material from working its way into every nook and cranny — especially in a machine like this that is a bare chassis, without the cabinet. It took about 1/2 hour with long handled tweezers to pick all of the packing material out from between circuit boards, under the keyboard, and in various other cavities in the machine.

The first order of business, after harvesting the peanurs, was to give the machine a complete visual inspection once all of the packing material was removed. It was noted that one of the discrete neon lamps that are positioned between the Nixie tubes as decimal point indicators was missing. The wires for the lamp were sticking out of the circuit board, but the lamp itself was missing. Referring to the photograph of the machine placed in the eBay auction showed that the lamp wasn’t there in the auction posting, so it wasn’t missing as a result of shipping damage. This isn’t a big deal, as it likely can be replaced. The chassis was turned upside-down, and the glass neon tube fell out from inside the machine. Apparently somewhere along the line, the indicator was broken, probably as a result of improper handling without the cabinet in place, and it fell down inside the machine.

The next step was to very carefully pull out each of the 41 logic circuit boards. There are 42 logic circuit boards in the machine, but one of them isn’t removable. It contains the Mitsubishi-made 16×16 magnetic core array, and it is hard-wired into the backplane. Why this board is hard-wired is beyond me, – many machines of similar design use plug-in core arrays. It is interesting to note that the IME 84, upon which it appears the Busicon 161 was patterned, also has a fixed circuit board for the core memory array. Anyway, all of the logic boards were individually carefully withdrawn from their backplane connectors.

As discussed in the original posting about the Busicom 161, the museum’s existing machine has severe problems with the edge connector sockets losing their structural integrity. It was strongly hoped that this chassis didn’t share the same problem. Unfortunately, as the circuit boards were removed, it was found that of the 41 sockets, six of them suffer the same kind of problem.

The problem manifests itself by cracks developing in the plastic-like material that the socket contacts are encased in. The socket contacts are gold-plated, and look somewhat like a “Y”, with the open part of the “Y” being where the card edge connector is inserted. Each connector has 22 of these contacts. Once the plastic material cracks sufficiently, the tension that holds the contacts in place is released causing the contacts to become mis-positioned, and also to lose the spring tension that keeps them in contact with the gold-plated fingers on the wire side of the logic circuit board.

Given the problems wtih the backplane, it was not safe to try to power up the machine with the circuit boards in place. But, it was possible to check out the power supply. The damaged backplane connectors were carefully inspected to make sure that none of the contacts were shorted, so that when the machine is powered up without the circuit boards, there’s no chance of short circuits. The Nixie tube display subassembly, and the keyboard subassembly were removed. Both subassemblies connect into the backplane wiring with high-quality connectors, allowing these units to be easily removed and serviced. Unfortunately, the power supply is hard-wired into the backplane, meaning that some disassembly is required in order to look at the power supply circuit board. Once things were taken apart enough, the power supply board was found to conveniently have nomenclature on it identifying the various voltages. The power supply makes +5, -12, and -5 volts for logic supplies, and +85 and -85 Volts for powering the Nixie tube displays. The power switch for the machine is located in the keyboard assembly, and thus the wiring for the power switch had to be traced and a jumper fashioned to plug into the socket that the keyboard plugs into, in order to simulate the power switch being “on”. Three digital voltmeters were connected up to the power supply, and the power cord was plugged into a Variac, and the voltage slowly ramped up. There were no signs of any trauma as the mains voltage was ramped up to 50%, then slowly up to 75%. The digital voltmeters started to register voltages. Once the mains voltage was at 100%, the +5V supply read +5.31V, the -12V supply was at -13.21V, and the -5V supply was at -5.89V. The voltages were all a little higher than expected, but this is liekly because there was no load on any of the power supply voltages. The Variac was turned off, and two of the DVM’s connected up to the +85 and -85V Nixie tube power supplies, and the machine powered back up again. The +85V supply was running at almost 89V, and the -85V supply was running at just over -90V. These voltages aren’t as critical as the logic supplies, and aren’t actively regulated. Transformer windings are simply rectified and filtered, so some variance in the output voltages is to be expected. Lastly, the machine was again powered off, and the oscilloscope connected up to the logic supplies to measure ripple, to make sure the power supply filter capacitors were OK. All of the logic supply voltages had only slight (1-2 millivolts) of ripple, all within safe boundaries. With all of these measurements performed, the power supply of the machine seems to be in good health after all these years.

Speaking of years, this 161 appears to have been made at very close to the same time as the original 161 in the museum. Transistors are all coded with dates in the range of the 2nd week in 1969 to the 5th week in 1969, while the original 161 has date codes that are just a few weeks later, with the latest date codes listed being in the 6th week in 1969. In a rather silly move, Busicom put the serial number tag on the back surface of the upper part of the cabinet. The upper part of the cabinet on the recently donated machine was missing, thus, there’s no way to identify the serial number on this machine. While disassembling the machine, I looked high and low for any hints of a serial number stamped or written in other locations within the chassis, but none was found. This is rather unusual given the price of machines of this vintage (frequently $1000 or more, which was a lot of money in 1969), many manufacturers put the serial number on a fixed part of the machine that was not easily removable, and also had markings inside the chassis that provided secondary identification of the serial number to aid in identifying a machine if it was lost/stolen.

It is going to take some time to figure out a stragegy to replace the edge connector sockets that are bad. Experience trying this with the other Busicom 161 proved to be futile. That time, the connectors were replaced with the backplane in place. This involved very carefully separating the dense wiring to clear it away from around a failed edge connector socket (horribly difficult because the backplane wiring is very tightly laced into a big bundle of wire), carefully desoldering the wires to the bad connector, putting in a new connector, and then soldering the wires back to the new connector. This proved to be nearly impossible due to the density of the backplane wiring. A different approach is going to be needed to replace the faulty connectors on this machine. Fortunately, the connectors used are standard 0.156-spacing 22-pin sockets, easily available through any electronics supply outlet. The edge connector sockets in the 161 are held in position by rectangular holes in the bottom of the circuit card guides that are screwed into the chassis. There are bosses on each end of the edge connector sockets with a hole through them that would allow the connectors to be screwed into a circuit board or chassis to hold them in place. The screw holes are not used in the 161, but these bosses fit into the rectangular holes on the circut board edge guides on each end of the connectors to hold each connector in place. If the card guides are removed from the chassis, this would free up the edge connectors to “float”, allowing the backplane to be worked on in a much easier fashion. The only support for the edge connector sockets at this point would be the backplane wiring itself. This is likely that strategy that will be used to try to safely replace the damaged sockets. The real difficulty with any means to try to replace the connectors is that the backplane wiring uses only minimally color-coded wire, and due to age, heat cycling, and other factors, the coloring on the wire insulation is sometimes very difficult to make out. There’s no schematic or service documentation that I’ve run across for the 161 (if anyone knows of any such documentation, I’d love to hear from you), so it means that very careful observation and documentation of the wiring will have to be done. This will rquire a lot of digital photography at close-quarters, a lot of time with bright lighting and a magnifying glass, and meticulous note-taking. Keeping all of the wiring sorted out to assure that it all goes back together again with the correct connections is going to be absolutely critical. No room for any errors here.

I need to get hands on replacement connectors, which is something I hope to do sometime soon. Once I have them in hand, and have been able to take things apart enough that I can test my method for repair, I’ll make a new post here letting everyone know how its going. In the meantime, I plan on taking the original machine and taking photos of it (though it’s certainly not operational), and begin the process of creating a museum exhibit for the Busicom 161. The goal of the Old Calculator Museum is to have fully operational machines, but for the time being, the Busicom 161 exhibit, when I put it online, will be one of the few exhibits where the machine shown isn’t operational. But, over time, I hope to be able to get a fully-operational machine. Betweent he two machines, there are plenty of spare parts that an operational machine can be made, assuming I can get through the backplane repairs without causing more problems or, worse yet, irreparable damage.

Thanks for reading.

One Response to “06-Feb-09 – More Busicom 161”

  1. Nicholas Bodley Says:

    One thought that immediately comes to mind is to remove all the lacing that ties the wires together. As well, minimal flexing (even though the wires must be stranded) would be wise; solder easily wick into the strands, seriously reducing flex life.

    You’re fortunate that the connectors are standard; 22 contacts sounds familiar. Back then, diallyl phthalate was one of the best plastics for connector bodies, and it might still be. It was a bright green, although I never learned whether that was simply a good dye, or the inherent color of the polymer. Gold is not a luxury in such connectors! Except in unusual situations (iirc it catalyzes airborne chemical compounds, but those aren’t commonplace), it remains clean and essentially ensures good contact. The plating is very thin, on the order of microinches.

    By now, there must be more to say, or else the task was almost forbidding…I’ll re-read your message.

    I do hope you’ll have a working machine!

    This sort of design approach was, it seems safe to say, what Bob Ragen had much in mind when he conceived of the “utterly-serial” EC-130 calculator. By storing internal numbers in the delay line, he saved oodles of discrete components.
    True, cores economize to some degree (one flip-flop per bit is just about hopeless), but core memory requires a fair amount of circuitry, a great deal more than required by the delay line.

    This is not meant to disparage the Busicom machine; it seems to have been typical of a ‘textbook” approach to design.

    Off-topic, mostly — I well remember the almost-tiny Sony Sobax calculators that were displayed at the ’64-’65 World’s Fair in NYC (Queens). They used Nixies.

    Best regards,

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