Video blogger and display technology guru [Fran Blanche] has discovered a splendid retro-tech alphanumeric display from 1910. (Video, embedded below.)
We have always enjoyed her forays into old and unusual displays, including her project researching and reverse engineering an Apollo DSKY unit. This time [Fran] has dug up an amazing billboard from the early 20th century. It was built by the Rice Electric Display Company of Dayton Ohio, and operated in Herald Square for about two years. Requiring $400,000 in 1910-US-dollars to build, this was clearly an Herculean effort for its day and no doubt is the first example of selling advertising time on a computer-controller billboard. It boasts characters that are about 1.3 m tall and 1 m wide which can display letters, numbers, and various punctuation and symbols. These are arrayed into a 3-line 18-character matrix that is about 27 x 4 meters, and that’s up only a third of the total billboard, itself an illuminated and dynamic work of art.
There are quite a few tantalizing details in the video, but a few that jumped out at us are the 20,000 light bulbs, the 40 Hz display update rate, the 150 km of wire used and the three month long installation time. We would really like to learn more about these two 7.5 kW motorized switch controllers, how were they programmed, how were the character segments arranged, what were their shapes?
In the video, you can see triangles arranged in some pattern not unlike more modern sixteen segment displays, although as [Fran] points out, Mr Rice’s characters are more pleasing. We hope [Fran] can tease out more details for a future video. If you have any ideas or knowledge about this display, please put them in the comments section below. Spoiler alert after the video…
Last year, [Mangy_Dog] was asked by a few friends to consult on a project they were working on. The goal was to build an authentic replica of an F-18 cockpit, apparently for the purposes of creating a film. The project never materialized, but it did inspire him to take a hard look at the 1970s era alphanumeric displays utilized in the real aircraft. One thing lead to another, and he ended up using his own take on the idea to build his own “starburst” digit display.
As [Mangy_Dog] explains, while the faces of these original displays might have been quite small, there was a lot going on behind the scenes. Due to the technical limitations of the time, each alphanumeric character was made up of an array of incandescent light bulbs and fiber optic cables. This worked well enough, but was bulky and complex to manufacture.
Today, we can do better, even on the hobbyist level. As it turns out, 0402 LEDs are just about the right size to recreate the segments of the original starburst displays. So [Mangy_Dog] came up with a simple PCB design to not only align the LEDs properly, but drive them with a 74HC595 shift register and an array of MOSFETs. While assembly wasn’t without its challenges, he made good use of his custom built reflow oven to get all the diminutive components in place.
He went through a few different ideas for the diffuser, but eventually settled on black plastic with tiny holes drilled through courtesy of his laser cutter. Behind each set of three holes is a small pocket that got filled from both sides with transparent UV resin, which was then sanded down after curing. The end result isn’t perfect as you can still tell the center dot is brighter than its peers, but the overall effect is still very nice and definitely has a sort of faux-retro appeal.
The military naturally has access to some incredible technology, though they have a tendency to hold onto it for decades. That an individual with a meager budget and homemade tools can improve upon a piece of hardware installed in a $60+ million airplane is a testament to just how fast things are moving.
Remember the WOPR from WarGames? The fictional supercomputer that went toe-to-toe with Matthew Broderick and his acoustic coupler was like a love letter to the blinkenlight mainframes of yesteryear, and every hacker of a certain age has secretly yearned for their own scaled down model of it. Well…that’s not what this project is.
The [Unexpected Maker] is as much a WarGames fan as any of us, but he was more interested in recreating the red alphanumeric displays that ticked along as the WOPR was trying to brute force missile launch codes. These displays, complete with their thoroughly 1980s “computer” sound effects, were used to ratchet up the tension by showing how close the supercomputer was to kicking off World War III.
Of course, most us don’t have a missile silo to install his recreated display in. So when it’s not running through one of the randomized launch code decoding sequences, the display doubles as an NTP synchronized clock. With the retro fourteen segment LEDs glowing behind the smoked acrylic front panel, we think the clock itself is pretty slick even without the movie references.
Beyond the aforementioned LEDs, [Unexpected Maker] is using a ESP32 development board of his own design called the TinyPICO. An associated audio “Shield” with an integrated buzzer provides the appropriate bleeps and bloops as the display goes through the motions. Everything is held inside of an understated 3D printed enclosure that would look great on the wall or a desk.
Once you’ve got your launch code busting LED clock going in the corner, and your illuimated DEFCON display mounted on the wall, you’ll be well on the way to completing the WarGames playset we’ve been dreaming of since 1983. The only way to lose is to not play the game! (Or something like that…)
But don’t worry, the WordClock-1 knows more than just the bad words. Rather than using an array of illuminated letters as we’ve seen in previous clocks, this one uses six alphanumeric LED displays. So not only can it display the time expressed with words and numbers, but it can show pretty much any other text you might have in mind.
[Mitch] is partial to having his clock toss a swear word on the display every few seconds, but perhaps you’d rather have it show some Klingon vocabulary to help you brush up. The lack of extended characters does limit its language capabilities somewhat, but it still manages to include Spanish, Italian, French, and Croatian libraries.
The ESP32 powered clock comes as a kit, and [Mitch] has provided some very thorough documentation that should make assembling it fairly straightforward as long as you don’t mind tackling a few SMD components. Additional word databases are stored on an SD card, and you can easily add your own or edit the existing ones with nothing more exotic than a text editor. The clock itself is configured via a web interface, and includes features like RGB LED effects and support for pulling the time down from an external GPS receiver.
We recently featured an entertaining project here, a digital clock with a variety of different retro display technologies forming its numerals. Among those was an extremely unusual device, a rear-projection display with an array of bulbs each able to shine through a different letter or numeral slide. There was such interest in this device that its owner [Suedbunker] subjected one to a teardown for all to see.
The displays came from an organ which he suggests may have been manufactured around 1900. We suspect that may be a rather early estimate due to its use of a printed circuit board, but it is no less a fascinating device for it. A rectangular enclosure secured by twist-tabs opens to reveal a matrix of small filament bulbs on a PCB and supported by a stack of resin boards, in front of which was placed a slide with a letter or number for each one. Before that lies a sheet of glass, and then a molded plastic lens assembly which provides an individual lens for each of the 12 bulbs. When a bulb is illuminated with these in place, the letter or number is projected on the screen at the front of the unit.
It has the advantage of simplicity, no need for a high voltage, and high-quality characters and flexibility in displaying alternatives through different slides, though at the expense of quite a bulky package. The bulbs are quite energy-sapping, so for his clock he replaced them with LEDs. We like it as one of the more practical retro numeric displays, but its size means we probably won’t see a comeback.