This Vintage Alphanumeric Display Was Huge, Hot, Heavy, And Expensive

It’s easy to take display technology for granted nowadays, but the ability to display data in a human-readable way was not always easy. This is demonstrated well by the Pinlite 30003 Alphanumeric Display Module, a four-character display that was pure luxury for its time.

Each display is a rectangular vacuum tube containing 17 incandescent light filaments.

Not only were the 17 segments that make up each display capable of showing any letter or number, but they were even daylight-readable! Each of those 17 segments is an incandescent lamp filament, which is how the required brightness was achieved. The sturdy module shown here holds four such displays, each of which is on its own pluggable board with a dedicated character decoder chip directly behind it.

As [AnubisTTL] points out, the resulting unit is bulky, has terrible character spacing, and was no doubt very costly. By today’s standards, it is almost unimaginably heavy, hot, and impractical. But before high-brightness LEDs were a thing, a daylight-readable alphanumeric character display was really something special. It would absolutely have been worth the money and effort to the right people.

Before small and efficient displays were commonplace, the solution to the problem of how to display data efficiently and in an easy-to-read format took a lot of really unusual (and clever) turns as engineers worked around the limitations of the time. This resulted in oddities like the SD-11 Sphericular Display, which is mostly empty space on the inside. Another great example is the Eidophor, a projector from before projectors were even a thing.

Movie-Style Hacking With A Wall Of Glowing Hex

Over the years, the media has managed to throw together some pretty ridiculous visual depictions of computer hacking. But perhaps none have gone as far down the road of obfuscation as The Matrix, where the most experienced hackers are able to extract information from a display of cascading green glyphs like a cyberpunk version of reading tea leaves. It’s absolutely ridiculous, with zero basis in reality.

Well, maybe not anymore. Taking a page from these outlandish visions of hacking, [Erik Bosman] has constructed a dedicated hex dump display out of fourteen segment alphanumeric LEDs that looks like it could be pulled from a movie set. But make no mistake, it’s more than just a pretty face. By cleverly varying the brightness of the individual characters, he’s managed to make his so-called “hexboard” completely usable despite the fact that everything’s the same color.

While he says the project is not quite at 100% yet, he’s already released the firmware, computer-side software, and even the PCB design files for anyone who might want to build their own version. Though as you might imagine, it’s quite a tall order.

The display is broken up into segments holding eight Houkem-5421 LED modules apiece, each with its own STM32F030F4 and two TC7258E LED controllers. The bill of materials on this one is a bit intimidating, but when the end result look this good it’s hard to complain.

To build a somewhat smaller version that also features a more retro vibe, you might consider doing something similar by chaining together vintage LED “bubble” displays.

Gas Plasma Pinball Display

[Whoopjohn] decided to build a driver board for a display he pulled from a pinball machine. You’ve probably seen these used to scroll both score and messages using a total of sixteen 15-segment digits. We’d love to get our hands on one, and you might too but where? [Whoopjohn] notes that these were usually installed two-per machine and the driver boards were run close to their maximum ratings. That means that somewhere there’s a collection of broken machines with working displays. If you do plan to make this happen, you should be able to figure out the circuit based on this commented board layout (pdf).