A couple of years ago, I needed an oscilloscope for a fun electronics project I was working on: a 500W Tesla coil. I'd already spent quite a bit of money importing a kit of parts for the project from the United States, so the budget for the scope was pretty tight.
I also had a demanding requirements list: the scope needed to have at least two channels, support better than 1MS/sec resolution, and ideally sport some sort of spectrum analyzer and function generator (for determining the frequency characteristics of the coil without having to measure waveforms on the screen). A new scope with the features I wanted was completely out of budget, and searching around the usual auction sites turned up lots of broken and "needs a little attention" units with the kind of spec I was after, but nothing I could pick up and use right away.
I'd just spent ten days working until the early hours on my project, so the last thing I wanted to do was start another "fix-er-up" job just to complete the testing! After giving up on another round of searching for a secondhand scope, my eyes settled on the OLPC XO laptop sitting on the back of my workbench. This is a dinky little ARM-based laptop running a Fedora-based distro that was produced by the One Laptop Per Child project. The screen is about the same size as a high-end digital storage scope and that got me thinking. More searching around, and I eventually came across the Syscomp Circuitgear CGR-101, a USB AD/DA and IO box and software package claiming to offer a 20MS/sec oscilloscope, function generator, network analyzer, noise generator, programmable digital IO, PWM outputs, and more, for a retail price of under $200. Wow. The real killer though? The software that drives it is licensed under the GPL.
It was a little more than I'd planned to spend, but I'd be kidding myself if I claimed I could resist an offer like that! After patiently waiting out the delivery (it took all of a week to arrive!), I ripped the box open like a kid at Christmas and dived straight in. Within minutes I had the TCL/TK GUI installed on the XO but for some reason it wasn't recognising the CGR-101 attached to the USB port. No problem: it's open source. A few minutes browsing the source in vim, and I'd hacked up a fix to get me running. In less than 20 minutes, I was attaching probes to the Tesla coil primary circuit and grinning like a mad professor. The OLPC-o-Scope was born.
Everyone who's used open source for a while has come across occasions where they had to choose between features and a desirable license, and even though I've been involved in open source since the late '90s and lucky enough to work at Red Hat for the last 10 years, I was amazed at how functional the funky looking pile of cables and boxes I'd assembled was. Even ignoring the ability to hack on the scope's software, I had something more capable than the hardware solutions on sale for 3-4 times the price. Getting on with the testing, I soon ran into some niggles with the spectrum analyzer module. It didn't give me quite the options I wanted in order to measure the behaviour of the coil's secondary circuit. Another trip to vim, and I soon had something that while not pretty let me use the hardware the way that I wanted. With my electronics skills there would have been no way that I could achieve the same flexibility with a hardware unit. Not only that but I had an awesome new toy in my collection that as well as helping me hack other things was itself a great platform for creative experimentation.
Syscomp has since released a 'mini' version of the CGR-101 for around half the cost of its big brother, making it an even more appealing instrument for people interested in projects where the digital and analog worlds meet. I eventually measured the coil's resonant frequency at around 226kHZ—right around the predicted value for its design parameters.