Ken Gracey, the CEO of Parallax, has been my friend for 20 years, and like me, he loves to teach people how to create with Parallax microcontrollers. Over
the past year, I have seen a huge renewal in Ken’s love of
the Propeller — not that it has ever waned, mind you. With
the implementation of a new programming tool, Ken
seems to be on a non-stop tear around the country
teaching students and their teachers the joys of Propeller
programming. His joy is infectious, and that — I believe —
is the key to inspiring others.
The tool I speak of is called BlocklyProp: a visual
programming environment based on Google’s Blockly
which, in turn, is loosely based on MIT’s Scratch
There are several implementations of Blockly for a
variety of platforms. For example, MIT App Inventor 2 is
used to create Android applications. This was my first
exposure to Blockly programming, and I have used it to
create several small mobile apps that communicate via
Bluetooth with various Propeller boards.
Some will logically wonder why an experienced
programmer would embrace a system clearly intended for
beginners. I can give you a couple reasons. First, it’s a
proven programming tool, and as I love to help others get
started in microcontrollers, this may be the nudge that
pushes a newcomer over the edge into writing their own
programs. Most newcomers find Blockly inviting, and the
colorful drag-and-drop blocks help them succeed with
simple projects very quickly as they work through to more
Here’s another reason: Being a visual programming
environment, Blockly engages different areas of the brain.
I frequently step away from my computer to draw
flowcharts on a whiteboard. While not quite the same
thing, now I can drag and drop programming blocks that
generate standard code (Propeller compatible C).
BlocklyProp differs from more traditional programming
tools in that it is web-based and runs through a browser.
On our end, we run a small client app which allows the
BlocklyProp server to provide compiled code that is
downloaded into a Propeller board. This does, of course,
require a live connection to the Internet to run
Being web-based, there is a bit of a process to get up
and running, but don’t worry! It’s quite painless. First,
point your browser to:
Click on the Register Now! link and provide the
necessary details: screen name, email, and password. A
confirmation email will be sent to you. You’ll click on a
link in that email to confirm your registration.
At this point, you can go to the BlocklyProp home
page and log in with your email address and password.
Once logged in, you’ll need to download and install the
BlocklyProp client. There is a link at the bottom of the
page for this. Download the installer that is appropriate for
your computer: Mac, Windows 32-bit, or Windows 64-bit.
After running the client installer, it’s a good idea to restart
your computer to ensure the latest FTDI drivers are
I allowed the installer to create a desktop shortcut for
the client. Double-clicking brings up the client window as
shown in Figure 1. Click Connect to start the client, then
click Open Browser; this second step will open your
A Block On the Old Chip
One of my greatest joys is teaching others how to program microcontrollers so they can
do what they want to do — not just what others have done before. We should, of course,
learn from others when we can, but the real fun is in original program creation. About a
week before the Transworld trade show, my friend Kip at Pale Night Productions asked for
a very difficult BASIC Stamp 1 program. I fixed a cup of coffee, sat down at my desk, and
started coding. Two hours later, the program worked as Kip wanted, and he now deploys
it in one of his escape room props (I saw it in action at the show). What's interesting
about this is that I caught myself being extremely happy with the results of my work. I
want more people to experience this joy.
■ BY JON MCPHALEN THE SPIN ZONE
ADVENTURES IN PROPELLER PROGRAMMING
12 July 2017