Op Amp Contest: Magnetic Core Memory The Dr Cockroach Way

No matter how memory technology marches on, magnetic core memory is still cool. Radiation-hard, nonvolatile, and so pretty. What’s there not to love? [Mark Nesselhaus] is no stranger to fun in-your-face electronics builds — judging from his hackaday.io projects — and this entry to the Hackaday Op-Amp contest is no outlier. This is a sixteen-bit magnetic core RAM demonstrator built upon glass using copper tape and solder, which always looks great and is actually not all that hard to do yourself provided you grab a new scalpel blade from the pack before starting.

Transformer-coupled differential front-end amplifier driving an SR latch.

For the uninitiated, the crossed X and Y wires each host a hard magnetic toroid which can only be magnetised by a field beyond a certain threshold due to the shape of the B-H curve of ferrite materials. The idea is for a required threshold current, drive the selected X line and Y line each with a current half of this value, so that only the selected core bit ‘sees’ the full field value, and flips state. This means that only a single bit can be written for each core plane, so to form longer words these layers are stacked, producing some wonderful cubic structures. These magnetic circuits are responsible for putting a human on the moon.

Reading the bit state is basically the opposite. A third sense wire is passed sequentially through each bit in the array. By driving a current the opposite way through the selected core bit, if the core was previously magnetised then the sense wire will read a short pulse that can be amplified and registered. The eagle-eyed will realise that reading is a destructive process, so this needs to be followed up by a write-back process to refresh the bit, although the core state will persist without power, giving the memory nonvolatile behaviour.

[Mark] utilises a simple discrete transistor differential transformed-coupled front end which senses the tiny current pulse and passes it along to a Set-Reset latch for visualisation. This simple concept could easily be extended to make this a practical memory, but for now, addressing is courtesy of a pair of crocodile clips and a discrete write/read pulse switch. We will watch with interest how far this goes.

DIY core memory builds are not a regular occurrence around these parts, but we see them from time to time, like this polished 64-bit setup. Core arrays are not the only magnetic memory in town, we’ve also seen DIY core rope memories as well.

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