Retro Breadboard Gives Up Its 1960s Secrets

retro breadboard

When we see [Ken Shirriff] reverse engineering something, it tends to be on the microscopic level. His usual forte is looking at die photos of strange and obsolete chips and figuring out how they work. And while we love those efforts, it’s nice to see him in the macro world this time with a teardown and repair of a 1960s-era solderless breadboard system.

If you’d swear the “Elite 2 Circuit Design Test System” featured in [Ken]’s post looks familiar, it’s probably because you caught his partner-in-crime [CuriousMarc]’s video on the very same unit, an eBay score that arrived in non-working condition. The breadboard, which retailed for $1,300 in 1969 — an eye-watering $10,000 today — was clearly not aimed at the hobbyist market. Truth be told, we didn’t even know that solderless breadboards were a thing until the mid-70s, but live and learn. This unit has all the bells and whistles, including three variable power supplies, an array of switches, buttons, indicator lamps, and jacks for external connections, and a pulse generator as well as a legit function generator.

Legit, that would be, if it actually worked. [Ken]’s contribution to the repair was a thorough teardown of the device followed by reverse-engineering the design. Seeing how this thing was designed around the constraints of 1969 technology is a real treat; the metal can transistor and ICs and the neat and tidy PCB layout are worth the price of admission alone. And the fact that neon lamps and their drivers were cheaper and easier to use than LEDs says a lot about the state of the art at the time.

As for the necessary repairs, [Marc]’s video leaves off before getting there. That’s fine, we’re sure he’ll put [Ken]’s analysis to good use, and we always enjoy [Marc]’s video series anyway. The Apollo flight comms series was a great one, too.

18 thoughts on “Retro Breadboard Gives Up Its 1960s Secrets

  1. Just wondering if it is really from the 60’s? Did they even have good breadboards like those back then? Those breadboards just look too good to be that old. Maybe they were replaced at some point in time?

    1. In the video they have a printed advert for it from 1971 showing the breadboards, so yes they had them then. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been replaced since of course, they do relatively modern.

  2. We had these at university (well, minus the left hand side) in 1972. Same company, but ours had the socket strips all the way across. Power supply and lights on the top switches on the bottom, and connectors on either side. Those are 22 pin IIRC, and were used quite often in industry. The company was in Connecticut.

    We had one guy who got an 8008 “educational pack” from Intel, and used four of these breadboards to build himself a working micro, with a display interface, memory and serial I/O. The lab manager wasn’t too happy, because he was using up about 50% of the available breadboards, but he was offered a job at Intel when he graduated, so I guess it paid off for him.

        1. It was a big fish in a small pound.

          Big innovation in solid state memory, which was needed to start the rest. The 4004 in 1971, yes most of us didn’t know about it that early, but it too isafou dation for what followed.

          Everything was insignificant compared to what came later. But that doesn’t mean they were “small”. Microsoft was a giant, their BASIC in so many computers. Just because they got huge later doesn’t negate their start. And those small beginnings gave the companies money to get bigger.

    1. Fantastic, thanks! I didn’t know they still made these things in the smt era.

      Tempted to buy one, but price aside, shipping rates and taxes from the US to the EU would make it cost an eye.

        1. I already have and use some of those cheap breadboards, but the most reliable one is still a Radio Shack branded one a friend gave me almost two decades ago. Chinese ones once were ok-ish, then they killed the contacts reliability by using all sorts of crappy non elastic metal alloys.

  3. E & L Instruments is the name I think of for the actual breadboards. A search says they werethe ones to patent it.

    It’s hard to judge these things, since hobbyists lag behind industry. Something available in the late sixties likelytook some time before hobbyists got ahold of them.

    I’m blank about when I got mine. Obviously more useful for ICs, I would have gotten mine before a computer in 1979, but but I can’t remember if it was 1973 or 75.

    The Bugbooks came out in 1974, and they definitely made use of breadboards, and I recall some connection to E&L. But I see they were a collection of previously printed columns and articles. I think the bugbooks were originally published by E&L.

  4. I worked at Burstein-Applebee back in the mid 70s in their electronics supply area and I remember that GC Electronics brought out their Calectro experimenter series of parts and even had several Handbooks (google it). Back then, my EE college courses used Bugbooks and we had Jon Titus, one of the Bugbook authors, give a lecture. He also published the Mark 8 series in Radio Electronics (I built a custom one while in school). We actually got a discount on the book. I think that Bugbooks itself was also a visual way of building circuits that used cutouts. I ran across this old history of some of that here:

    1. This is of course inaccurate (as many things Wikipedia). The patent in 1971 is not the breadboard invention patent. It is a two page design patent, for the ornamental work on the breadboard. The invention of the solderless breadboard predates this. Not sure if it was patented.

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