Retrotechtacular: Max Headroom Takes Chicago In Audacious TV Hack

Those of you with long memories and a compulsive TV viewing habit might remember [Max Headroom], a quirky piece of TV ephemera from the late 1980s and early 1990s. [Max] was a supposedly computer generated TV show host and VJ with a pseudomechanical stutter, a slightly blocky rendered head, and a moving background of rendered lines. He looks a little quaint for viewers with a few decades viewing experience of CGI, but in his day he was cutting-edge cypberpunk TV.

He also made unscheduled showings on two Chicago TV stations in an audacious hack that has never been explained and whose culprit has never been found.

The real [Max Headroom] (Fair use) Via Wikimedia commons.
The real [Max Headroom] (Fair use) Via Wikimedia Commons.
If you were a bored British teenager and future Hackaday writer vegging out in front of your parents’ TV on an April night in 1985, you’d have caught [Max]’s genesis. He strung upon us by rising out of a title screen full of static in the Channel 4 TV movie [Max Headroom]: 20 Minutes into the Future.

The plot is a trip in itself. An investigative journalist seeking to uncover the sinister owners of his network (they run speeded-up adverts with the unfortunate side-effect of causing overweight viewers to explode) is pursued, causing a road accident in which he is injured by a collision with a safety barrier. Hence the name: [Max Headroom]. The network try to cover it up by producing a computerized facsimilie of the reporter which turns out to be an embarassing failure. They scrap the computer and it falls into the hands of a pirate TV station operating from a decrepit campervan, the Alphabetti-eating proprietor of which turns the character it contains into a TV sensation. Meanwhile the reporter escapes, recovers, and prevails over the villains.

The [Max] character proved to be something of a hit, with a TV spin-off series, VJing, adverts, and more. But that wasn’t the whole story of his appearances, back to that unexplained hack of Chicagoland TV.

The Chicago fake [Max Headroom].
The Chicago fake [Max Headroom].
On the night of the 22nd of November 1987, viewers of WGN were watching a sports program when the screen went blank and they were treated to a few seconds of a slightly home-made [Max Headroom] dancing in front of  those trademark moving lines. A couple of hours later on WTTW a rerun of a [Doctor Who] episode was again interrupted with the same fake [Max], this time speaking for a while before, if his performance wasn’t already bizarre enough, being spanked by a woman whose face is off camera.

As a piece of television history it’s an intriguing mystery, though since so little is known about the mechanism through which it was achieved it hasn’t achieved the notoriety in the technical world that you might expect. The stations involved conducted full investigations at the time and failed to locate a culprit, perhaps they should have been looking for that old campervan with the antennae on its roof.

It is very unlikely that a similar stunt could be performed today, with entirely digital TV studios and easy access to encryption technologies for external links to transmitter sites. But in the 1980s a studio would still have been an analogue affair so there would have been more opportunities to insert an unauthorized feed. Next year sees the 30th anniversary of the event, it would be fascinating if the perpetrator would mark it by anonymously revealing how it was achieved. Of course, we’d love to hear how you would have done it in the comments below. Surely we have readers who are intimately familiar with the television broadcasting equipment of the time.

Below the break we’re showing you both fake [Max] intrusions into the Chicago airwaves. First is the short outing on EGN, below that the longer one on WTTV.

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A Real Turn Off

[Newbrain] had a small problem. He’d turn off the TV, but would leave the sound system turned on. Admittedly, not a big problem, but an annoyance, none the less. He realized the TV had a USB port that went off when it did, so he decided to build something that would sense when the USB port died and fake a button press into the amplifier.

He posted a few ideas online and, honestly, the discussion was at least as interesting as the final project. The common thread was to use an optoisolator to sense the 5 V from the USB port. After that, everyone considered a variety of ICs and discretes and even did some Spice modeling.

In the end, though, [Newbrain] took the easy way out. An ATtiny 84 is probably overkill, but it easy enough to press into service. With only three other components, he built the whole thing into a narrow 24-pin socket and taped it to the back of the audio unit’s wired remote control.

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Not Quite 101 Uses For An Analog UHF TV Tuner

Young electronics hackers today are very fortunate to grow up in an era with both a plethora of capable devices to stimulate their imagination, and cheap and ready access to them. Less than the price of a hamburger meal can secure you a Linux computing platform such as the Raspberry Pi Zero, and a huge choice of sensors and peripherals are only an overnight postage envelope away.

Casing back a few decades to the 1980s, things were a little different for electronically inclined youth. We had the first generation of 8-bit microcomputers but they were expensive, and unless you had well-heeled parents prepared to buy you a top-end model they could be challenging to interface to. Other electronic parts were far more expensive, and mail order could take weeks to deliver the goods.

For some of us, this was not a problem. We simply cast around for other sources of parts, and one of the most convenient was the scrap CRT TV you’d find in nearly every dumpster in those days before electronic recycling. If you could make it from 1970s-era consumer-grade discrete components, we probably did so having carefully pored over a heap of large PCBs to seek out the right component values. Good training, you certainly end up knowing resistor colour codes by sight that way.

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Retrotechtacular: How Solidarity Hacked Polish TV

In the 1980s, Poland was under the grip of martial law as the Communist government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski attempted to repress the independent Solidarity trade union. In Western Europe our TV screens featured as much coverage of the events as could be gleaned through the Iron Curtain, but Polish state TV remained oblivious and restricted itself to wholesome Communist fare.

In September 1985, TV viewers in the city of Toruń sat down to watch an action adventure film and were treated to an unexpected bonus: the screen had a brief overlay with the messages “Solidarity Toruń: Boycotting the election is our duty,” and “Solidarity Toruń: Enough price hikes, lies, repression”. Sadly for the perpetrators, they were caught by the authorities after their second transmission a few days later when they repeated the performance over the evening news bulletin, and they were jailed for four months.

The transmission had been made by a group of dissident radio astronomers and scientists who had successfully developed a video transmitter that could synchronise itself with the official broadcast to produce an overlay that would be visible on every set within its limited transmission radius. This was a significant achievement using 1980s technology in a state in which electronic components were hard to come by. Our description comes via [Maciej Cegłowski], who was able to track down one of the people involved in building the transmitter and received an in-depth description of it.

Transmission equipment seized by the Polish police.
Transmission equipment seized by the Polish police.

The synchronisation came courtesy of the international effort at the time on Very Long Baseline Interferometry, in which multiple radio telescopes across the world are combined to achieve the effect of a single much larger instrument. Before GPS made available a constant timing signal the different groups participating in the experiment had used the sync pulses of TV transmitters to stay in time, establishing a network that spanned the political divide of the Iron Curtain. This expertise allowed them to create their transmitter capable of overlaying the official broadcasts. The police file on the event shows some of their equipment, including a Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer from the West that was presumably used to generate the graphics.

There is no surviving recording of the overlay transmission, however a reconstruction has been put on YouTube that you can see below the break, complete with very period Communist TV footage.

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Retrotechtacular: An Unexpected Meeting With Philo T Farnsworth

It is not often that you look for one of your heroes on the Internet and by chance encounter another from a completely different field. But if you are a fan of the inimitable silent movie star [Buster Keaton] as well as being the kind of person who reads Hackaday then that could have happened to you just as it did here.

Our subject today is a 1957 episode of CBS’s TV game show I’ve Got a Secret! in which [Keaton] judges a pie-eating contest and is preceded first by a young man with a penchant for snakes and then rather unexpectedly by a true giant of twentieth century technology.

[Philo T Farnsworth] was a prolific engineer who is probably best known as the inventor of electronic television, but whose work touched numerous other fields. Surprisingly this short segment on an entertainment show was his only appearance on the medium to which his invention helped give birth. In it he baffles the panel who fail to guess his claim to fame, before discussing his inventions for a few minutes. He is very effacing about his achievement, making the point that the development of television had been a cumulative effort born of many contributors. He then goes on to discuss the future of television, and talks about 2000-line high-definition TV with a reduced transmission bandwidth, and TV sets like picture frames. All of which look very familiar to us nearly sixty years later in the early 21st century.

The full show is below the break, though [Farnsworth]’s segment is only from 13:24 to 21:24. It’s very much a show of its time with its cigarette product placement and United Airlines boasting about their piston-engined DC-7 fleet, but it’s entertaining enough.

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Retrotechtacular: Fog Over Portland

In the early days of broadcast television, national spectrum regulators struggled to reconcile the relatively huge bandwidth required by the new medium with the limited radio spectrum that could be allocated for it. In the USA during the years immediately following World War Two there was only a 12-channel VHF allocation, which due to the constraints of avoiding interference between adjacent stations led to an insufficient number of possible transmitter sites to cover the entire country. This led the FCC in 1949 to impose a freeze on issuing licences for new transmitters, and left a significant number of American cities unable to catch their I Love Lucy or The Roy Rogers Show episodes.

The solution sought by the FCC was found by releasing a large block of UHF frequencies between 470 and 890 MHz from their wartime military allocation, and thus creating the new channels 14 to 83. An experimental UHF pilot station was set up in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1949, and by 1952 the FCC was ready to release the freeze on new licence applications. The first American UHF station to go on air was thus KPTV in Portland, Oregon, on September 18th of that year.

UHF TV was a very new technology in 1952, and was close to the edge of what could be achieved through early 1950s consumer electronics. Though the 525-line TV standard and thus the main part of the sets were the same as their VHF counterparts, the tuner designs of the time could not deliver the performance you might expect from more recent sets. Their noise levels, sensitivity, and image rejection characteristics meant that UHF TV reception  did not live up to some of its promise, and thus a fierce battle erupted between manufacturers all keen to demonstrate the inferiority of their competitors’ products over the new medium.

The video below the break delivers a fascinating insight into this world of claim and counter-claim in 1950s consumer electronics, as Zenith, one of the major players, fires salvos into the fray to demonstrate the superiority of their products over competing models or UHF converters for VHF sets. It’s very much from the view of one manufacturer and don’t blame us if it engenders in the viewer a curious desire to run out and buy a 1950s Zenith TV set, but it’s nonetheless worth watching.

A key plank of the Zenith argument concerns their turret tuner. The turret tuner was a channel selection device that switched the set’s RF front end between banks of coils and other components each preset to a particular TV channel. Zenith’s design had a unique selling point that it could be fitted with banks of components for UHF as well as VHF channels thus removing the need for a separate UHF tuner, and furthermore this system was compatible with older Zenith sets so existing owners had no need to upgrade. Particularly of its time in the video in light of today’s electronics is the section demonstrating the clear advantages of Zenith’s germanium mixer diode over its silicon equivalent. Undeniably true in that narrow application using the components of the day, but not something you hear often.

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Custom Case Lends Retro Look to Smart TV

Refits of retro TVs and radios with the latest smart guts are a dime a dozen around Hackaday. And while a lot of these projects show a great deal of skill and respect for the original device, there’s something slightly sacrilegious about gutting an appliance that someone shelled out a huge portion of their paycheck to buy in the middle of the last century. That’s why this all-new retro-style case for a smart TV makes us smile.

GE 806 restored by Steve O'Bannon
1940s GE 806 restored by Steve O’Bannon

Another reason to smile is the attention to detail paid by [ThrowingChicken]. His inspiration came from a GE 806 TV from the 1940s, and while his build isn’t an exact replica, we think he captured the spirit of the original perfectly. From the curved top to the deep rectangular bezel, the details really make this a special build. One may quibble about not using brass for the grille like the original and going with oak rather than mahogany. In the end though, you need to work with the materials and tooling you have. Besides, we think the laser cut birch ply grille is pretty snazzy. Don’t forget the pressure-formed acrylic dome over the screen – here’s hoping that our recent piece on pressure-forming helped inspire that nice little touch.

This project was clearly a labor of love – witness the bloodshed after a tangle with a tablesaw while building the matching remote – and brought some life to an otherwise soulless chunk of mass-produced electronics.

[via r/DIY]