Retrotechtacular: Remembering Radio Shack P-Box Kits

If you are under a certain age, you probably associate Radio Shack with cellphones. While Radio Shack never gave us access to the variety and economy of parts we have today, they did have one thing that I wish we could get again: P-Box kits. The obvious questions are: What’s a P-Box and why do I want one? But the kit wasn’t to make a P-Box. P-Box was the kind of box the kit came in. It was like a piece of perfboard, but made of plastic, built into a plastic box. So you bought the kit — which might be a radio or a metal detector — opened the box and then built the kit using the box as the chassis.

The perfboard was pretty coarse, too, because the components were all big discrete components. There was at least one that had an IC, but that came premounted on a PC board that you treated like a big component. One of my favorites was a three-transistor regenerative shortwave receiver. In those days, you could pick up a lot of stations on shortwave and it was one of the best ways at the time to learn more about the world.

On the left, you can see a picture of the radio from the 1975 catalog. You might think $7.95 is crazy cheap, but that was at least a tank full of gas or four movie tickets in those days, and most of us didn’t have a lot of money as kids, so you probably saved your allowance for a few weeks, did chores, or delivered papers to make $8.

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Let’s Look At Some Cool Old LEDs

LEDs are now a mature technology, with all manner of colors and flavors available. However, back in the 1970s, it was early days for this fledgling display tech, and things looked very different. [IMSAI Guy] happened to work at the optoelectronics division of Hewlett-Packard during their development of LED displays, and has a handful of prototypes from those heady days.

The video is a great look at not only vintage display hardware, but also rarely seen prototypes that seldom left the HP offices. Matrix, 7-segment and even 16-segment devices are all in attendance here. There’s great macro photography of the packages, including the now-forgotten bubble displays as well as hermetically sealed glass packages. The parts all have a uniquely 1970s look, drenched in gold plating and otherwise just looking very expensive.

The followup video breaks out the microscope and powers up the displays. [IMSAI Guy] shares some useful tips on how to best tinker with unknown LED parts, as well as knowledge about the chemical compounds and manufacturing processes involved in LED production. If you don’t know your III-V compounds from your II-VI compounds, prepare to learn.

It’s always interesting to take a look back, and even better to get a peek at the experiments of engineers of the past.

If you’re wondering about applications of this hardware, we’ve seen messageboards and watches before. Video after the break.

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Charge Your EV The Portable Way

[Andrew Rossignol] has a slightly unusual plug-in hybrid vehicle, a Cadillac ELR, and his latest project for the car sees him building a battery-powered portable mains charging pack for it in an attempt to increase its range. If this seems to be a rather cumbersome exercise, his write-up details the work he put in trying to hook up directly to the car’s internal battery, and how a 4 kW mains inverter and an off-the-shelf mains charging station were the most practical alternative.

His first impulse was to hook a second supply to the car’s high voltage bus from a supplementary battery pack and inverter, but in this aim he was thwarted by a protection diode and his not wanting to modify the car to bypass it. So the unlikely solution was to take his battery pack from a second-hand Toyota Prius upgrade kit and build it into a frame along with the inverter and charger. The result is something akin to a portable generator without the small gasoline engine, and while it is hardly the most efficient way to transfer energy from a wall socket into a car it does offer the ELR a significant range upgrade.

The cost involved has probably kept away many readers who would like to hack their hybrid cars, so we’ve seen surprisingly few. This home made Geo Metro¬†supplements its forklift motor with a small gasoline generator. Meanwhile [Andrew] is no stranger to these pages, among the several times his work has appeared here are his rundown on OBD sniffing the ELR, and from a while back, displaying graphics on an oscilloscope including a Wrencher.