One Man’s Awesome Collection Of Projects Done Over A Lifetime

[Robert Glaser] kept all his projects, all of them, from the 1960s to now. What results is a collection so pure we feel an historian should stop by his house, if anything, to investigate the long-term effects of the knack.

He starts with an opaque projector he built in the third grade, which puts it at 1963. Next is an, “idiot box,” which looks suspiciously like “the Internet”, but is actually a few relaxation oscillators lighting up neon bulbs. After that, the condition really sets in, but luckily he’s gone as far as to catalog them all chronologically.

We especially enjoyed the computer projects. It starts with his experiences with punch cards in high school. He would hand-write his code and then give it to the punch card ladies who would punch them out. Once a week, a school-bus would take the class to the county’s computer, and they’d get to run their code. In university he got to experience the onset of UNIX, C, and even used an analog computer for actual work.

There’s so much to read, and it’s all good. There’s a section on Ham radio, and a very interesting section on the start-up and eventual demise of a telecom business. Thanks to reader, [Itay Ramot], for the tip!

21 thoughts on “One Man’s Awesome Collection Of Projects Done Over A Lifetime

  1. This is something for us all to reflect on. How many of your projects do you still have? How many of them still work? How many of them turned out to be actually useful?

    Of all the projects I’ve completed in my life, many were built to help someone else. I have next to zero of those in my possession, and most of them were used by the intended user and then discarded. That’s a pretty cool outcome, actually, even if sometimes I wish I had every one of those book scanners I built, or printers I repaired, or parts that were subsumed into someone else’s project. Just to see them all in once place; I might feel more accomplished that way.

    Some projects, I started as a “small part” of doing something bigger- for example, converting an X2 CNC mill to make camera parts. That mill ended up taking 2 years to produce a usable part, and mostly taught me about CNC and how wretched tiny machines can be. The camera parts that drove the project were never completed.

    Other projects, I started to push the boundaries of some technology I was interested in (like camera arrays), but I could not take them to a useful conclusion due to a lack of (usually) software skill. Instead a series of ugly hacks made them functional but not-fun to use, so slowly, they get not-used. Things decay over time and they can be tough to get working again.

    Another class of projects come about from just building workspaces – the weekends spent wiring, organizing, cleaning, maintaining, and otherwise bringing up a workshop and tools just to get to the point where work can be done. Some people get to this tool-making phase and never really get to their projects; it’s a constant struggle.

    Still other projects have a single component so precious that analysis paralysis sets in almost immediately; that incredible surplus gyro or gorgeous lens system are so perfect that I’m loathe to take the first cut from their housings… or I get so concerned with getting an optimal result the first time that a whole weekend goes by, and my attention shifts. Life distracts for a year or two; the moment, the need, and the excitement pass, but the attachment remains.

    There’s also the kind of project that’s fun because something is so cheap. You could turn these twenty toys into something fantastic because e.g. this is the first time you could get a low-rez camera at that price; these kinds of projects tend to evaporate over time because of the forward march of technology in general. Or you spend more time fighting shitty “optimizations” done to make something cost-effective and consumer-ready, and you never get to solving your actual problem.

    And then there were the type of projects that ended up being pipe dreams, or discarded early because they were too hard, too distant, or had some unforeseen fundamental flaw – or somebody ended up doing it better and selling a kit, taking all the fun out of doing it myself. Maybe I was even bummed that I wasn’t the one selling it.

    No matter the mountains of working hardware, the dozens of shipped products, the thousands of nights and weekends deep in the guts of some system, I’m quite certain that, at the end of my days, there will be more left to do than ever got done. Two lifetimes, please.

    1. At the age of 16, I was fortunate enough to befriend a rep (QXI) for NATIONAL SEMICONDUCTOR. He was impressed that I understood “this stuff” and that I wanted to design my own computer. Thus he sat me down in his office with a stack of data books and gave me carte blanche to order samples through him. He received in an INS8073 for a customer and did not know who, so he gave it to me. The INS8073 was the brother to the INS8060 SC/MP, only it had a 4KB Tiny BASIC interpreter in ROM. I recall the days of many, many hours of wire-wrapping (and re-wrapping from mistakes) that little “jewel” (at that time it was a jewel). Adding support peripherals of 4KB of static RAM, an on-board 2716 EEPROM reader/programmer and INS8255 I/O port expander. I recall typing in HEX codes from a printout for a 2KB monitor ROM to program into a 2716 EEPROM as a utility for saving and loading programs to cassette tape. It was a fun project and I spent many years working with it. As for documentation, I had several 2″ thick 3-ring binders with manuals, program printouts, hand-drawn schematics, etc. Thing is, I still have that board and the documentation, although it has all been scanned to electronic format now. The CPU board still works. :) Love and miss the “old days” of the infancy of the CPU age.

      Peace and blessings,
      Johnny Quest (and Bandit)

  2. Blink..Blink…
    What day is this?
    An enormous amount of information and experience. Most people wouldn’t take the time or have the insight to create a blog like that.
    Thank you.

  3. Although this is all very interesting, there’s no way I’m going to keep all my projects to document them decennia later, when I have forgotten how they work and can only write a blurb to make people go ‘Ahh, that’s interesting’ before I move on. I’d say: document your stuff now, so everyone can profit from it while the components are still available and the ideas are still fresh in your mind. After that, you can do with the specific build what you want: use it for its intended purpose, re-use the components, or throw it away because the fun was in the designing and building; the spirit of the project will live on in the documentation and reproducability.

    1. Total agreement.

      It’s actually quite a disciplined thing to document while you work – but it’s the best and most useful project notebook you can make.

      It’s something I learned trying to work from other people’s documentation – trying to reproduce their work, you find out where they skip steps or forget to share important parts of the process because they’ve already moved past that step. In many ways, if it isn’t documented, it doesn’t exist, or if it’s poorly documented, the best documented version will win out (see Sparkfun and Adafruit for commercial examples).

      Love your work, sprite_tm

      1. +1
        I found that as my work projects get larger and more complex, my home projects need better and better documentation, so that if I have to put a home project down for 6 months, I can continue sort of where I left it. Without documentation, putting a home project down for 6 months is certain death for it.

    2. Good idea.

      One interesting thing is this guy is like Dave the Australian, and surely many others – they were writing for the electronics magazines in their teens, already showing the same ethos as current hackers.

    3. Document as you go, for sure! Growing up in the sixties, our protagonist [Robert Glaser] didn’t have the internet to self-publish so easily, and he’s had to play catch-up. We have the luxury of being able to get our hacks out to the world the weekend after we finish them. Good times!

      But I’m also a bit of the save-some-of-the-old-hacks mentality. I have a shelf of old, mostly BEAM-style, robots that I made like 10-15 years ago. I probably fire them up once a year, if that often. Still, it’s nice to see them as a reminder of where you’ve been. (And my documentation isn’t always as good as Sprite’s…)

      So yeah. What Sprite and DIYGUY said. Do both. :)

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