Restoring A PDP-10 Console Panel

The PDP-10 was one of the first computers [Jörg] had gotten his hands on, and there are very, very few people that can deny the beauty of a panel full of buttons, LEDs, dials, and analog meters. When one of the front panels for a PDP-10 showed up on eBay, [Jörg] couldn’t resist; a purchase that would lead him towards repairing this classic console and making it functional again with a BeagleBone.

The console [Jörg] picked up is old enough to have voted for more than one Bush administration, and over the years a lot of grime has covered the beautiful acrylic panels. After washing the panel in a bathtub, [Jörg] found the dried panel actually looked worse, like an old, damaged oil painting. This was fixed by carefully scraping off the clear coat over two weeks; an important lesson in preserving these old machines. They’re literally falling apart, even the ones in museums.

With the front panel cleaned, [Jörg] turned his attention to the guts of this panel. The panel was wired up for LEDs, and each of the tiny flashlight bulbs in the pushbuttons were replaced. The panel was then connected to a BlinkenBone with a ton of wiring, and the SIMH simulator installed. That turns this console into a complete, working PDP-10, without sucking down kilowatts of power and heating up the room

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen [Jörg] with a BeagleBone and some old DEC equipment; earlier he connected the front panel of a PDP-11 variant to one of these adapters running the same software.

27 thoughts on “Restoring A PDP-10 Console Panel

  1. “old enough to have voted for more than one Bush administration”? crApple’s ‘1984’ Mac commercial predates Bush 1 by five years. The PDP-10 line was *cancelled* in ’83, six years before Bush 1. The console is old enough to have seen G.H.W. Bush as Ambassador to the UN and voted in the 1972 Nixon/Agnew-McGovern/EagletonDebacle/Shriver race.

  2. I’ve had the front panel of a PDP 11/34 sitting in the back of my junk closet for years, with the intention that I’d do something similar. Unfortunately it’s not nearly as interesting as this one.

  3. Very nice work. Does it run PDP-10 code?

    I have a Data General NOVA 3 panel, in all its orange and brown glory, awaiting the same tratment. I also have the schematics for it! I think, if you restore the panel, you have to put something “behind it”, and so I would run a NOVA 3 emulator on a RasPi or something like that.

      1. This Java app is insanely great, I just can’t stop watching it (run it on my second monitor all day long). Not just the visual appearance of individual leds and buttons is unique for each one (you’re in a maze of red blinkenlights, all different), it also properly simulates varying brightness when they blink. My only worry is that its top resolution seems to be 1900xXXX, and seeing how 300+ ppi displays are coming it may become insufficient pretty soon. Are there higher resolution bitmaps available?

  4. Does anybody know if the original KI10 panel used LEDs or incandescent lights for the register indicators? I know the PDP-11/45 (introduced around the same time) used incandescent lights; the PDP-11/70 switched to LEDs a couple years later.

  5. Folks who restore vintage pinball machines have similar problems with dirty yellowed clearcoats on playfields. And washing them, or attempting to strip the clearcoat without damaging the thin paint underneath, is similarly risky.

    But they’ve found a solution. The dirt and yellowing typically don’t extend all the way through the clearcoat. So if you can remove a few microns of the surface in a controlled manner, it looks good as new. Believe it or not, the best tool for doing this is a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. Use the plain Original variety, not the heavy-duty, soap-impregnated, or other derivates they may come up with. The melamine fibers it’s made of act like polishing compound, estimated at 2000-3000 grit, allowing very controlled surface removal. But unlike polishing compound, it’s a dry process, so no worries about the clearcoat being damaged by absorbing water/oil/solvent.

    I read about this many years ago, and it seemed worth remembering. Maybe it will help [Jörg] or someone attempting a similar restoration.

    While I haven’t yet had to use it specifically for clearcoats, realizing that a Magic Eraser acts as a solid, dry, solvent- and toxin-free polishing compound led to other uses. For example, acrylic aquariums are easily scratched, and commercial acrylic-safe scrubbers work poorly to remove hard spot algae from the inside. I discovered a Magic Eraser works much better, without scratching the acrylic. After championing the technique on aquarium forums for a few years, it’s now become fairly common practice.

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