Roll Your Own Microprocessor Project with Arduino


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Thinking back on my early days as a station engineer, I’m amused at the number of “boxes” that were built by previous engineering staff. Some of them had been in place for 20 years or more. When changes needed to be made, nobody wanted to disturb the mystery boxes and risk shutting down the entire station. Many of those boxes were taken out of service years ago, but anyone that knew about them was long gone.

I remember finding some very elaborate-looking boxes mounted in an old phasor cabinet. I was told never to touch them because they controlled all of the pattern switching. Upon closer inspection we found the wires cut, apparently long ago.

It was remarkable what we could create with a handful of parts, but things became a lot more fun and interesting when General Instruments released the PIC Microcontroller Board in 1985. Later, Microchip Technology released the first PIC (Programmable Intelligent Computer) in the early 1990s. The 16×84 was a single device that contained CPU, ROM and I/O functions. EEPROM technology allowed the chip to be reprogrammed electronically as opposed to the earlier EPROM, which could only be erased through exposure to UV light.

Like all things electronic, PIC microcontrollers have come a long way. They come in a wide selection of power requirements, memory capacity, I/O functions and have far lower power consumption than previous discrete components. They are used in a variety of “mission-critical” commercial and military applications, capable of functioning under a range of environmental conditions.

The biggest challenge was programming these devices. Each type of device required some variant of assembly language in order to program specific applications. There were versatile programmers that could handle the majority of these different chips, but you still needed to have some expertise with the programming command set for the chip you wanted to program.

Around the same time, Parallax introduced the “Basic Stamp.” This was a microcontroller, which could be easily programmed using a modified version of the “Basic” language. Basic stamps were relatively inexpensive and an ideal platform for prototyping small “DIY” projects.

Arduino, A Brief History

In 2005, looking for an alternative to the Basic Stamp, students at the Interactive Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy, produced the first Arduino board. Arduino is an open-source platform that is a combination of other open-source projects, including an electronics prototyping project called “Wiring” and a programming language called Processing.

Arduino Hardware - arduino.cc

The original Arduino hardware is based on the Atmel, 8-bit AVR microcontroller. There are a wide variety of boards and microcontroller options available to suit just about any application. Since Arduino is sold under a Creative Commons Share-Alike (CC-SA) license, you can make changes to the original Arduino hardware or the software code and release it to the public, providing you release it under the same CC-SA license.

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