A vintage watch with a new PCB inside, next to a 3D rendered image of the PCB

Modern, Frugal PCB Breathes New Life Into Soviet-Made LED Watch

The first electronic digital watches were admired for their pioneering technology, if not their everyday practicality, when they were introduced in the 1970s. Their power-hungry LED displays lit up only when you pressed a button, and even then the numbers shown were tiny. Their cases were large and heavy, and they drained their batteries rather quickly even when not displaying the time. Still, the deep red glow of their displays gave them a certain aesthetic that’s hard to replicate with today’s technology.

A vintage LED watch displaying "16.42"
Pressing the top-right button enables those beautiful LED modules

When [Benjamin Sølberg] got his hands on an Elektronika-1, a first-generation digital watch designed in the Soviet Union, he set about designing a modern replacement for its internals. Where the original had several custom chips wire-bonded directly onto a substrate, the new board contains an MSP430 series microcontroller as well as an AS1115 display driver. The PCB makes contact with the watch’s pushbuttons through clever use of castellated holes.

For the display [Benjamin] went with period-correct LED modules made by HP, which keep the display’s appearance as close to the original as possible. While these draw quite a bit of current, the rest of the watch has become an order of magnitude more frugal: the stand-by time is now estimated to be about ten years, where the old design often needed new batteries within a year. [Benjamin] uses his renovated watch on a daily basis, apparently without trouble.

If you’ve got an old Soviet digital watch that you’d like to upgrade, you’ll be pleased to hear that the entire design is open source. Just like this retro watch, in fact, that uses a similar LED display. If you’re into original vintage watches, we’ve covered them in depth, too.

LED Bubbles From The 1970s Tell The Time

[CuriousMarc] is nothing if not curious. Finding some old TI timekeeping chips to reverse engineer, he set out to make a clock using old-fashioned “bubble LEDs.” You can see the result of his tinkering in the video below. For the uninitiated, bubble LEDs are 7-segment LEDs with magnifying bubbles over each digit. These were popular in calculators, watches, and other places that used LEDs before LCDs largely displaced them.

The history of these has to do with the power required to light an LED. You don’t technically need a magnifying lens, but larger LEDs take more power. These displays were relatively low power and used tiny LEDs with light pipes to make each dot a full segment. The lens made the segments larger and easier to see.

Beyond the TI chip and HP displays, there isn’t too much else needed. [Marc] just wired the whole thing using the IC as a substrate. Sort of dead bug construction using enameled wire. At first, it didn’t work but it turned out to be a battery issue. The device really wanted 2.5 V and not the 3 V provided by the battery. The solution required a little detective work.

We know this isn’t a very practical project, but we love seeing this old tech again and while the dead bug construction isn’t beautiful, there is something appealing about the look of it. Maybe one day people will build steampunk things and discopunk will be for the 1970s?

We’ve seen bubble LED projects before. If you want something more in a watch form factor, that exists, too.

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Tiny Bubbles In The Clock

When [DonHo] sang about tiny bubbles, he probably wasn’t thinking of them embedded in glycerine. But that’s where the bubbles in [ShinodaY]’s clock reside. The viscous fluid holds the bubbles better allowing the time to be read more easily. You can watch the relaxing display in the video below.

The theory of operation is simple and reminds us somehow of a reverse Tetris game. Solenoid valves at the base release air bubbles to form a row of the display. The bubbles rising makes room for the next row. The display has as many columns as there are air outlets at the bottom. Spacing the bubble pixels is as simple as adjusting the timing between air bubbles.

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Chaining Together A 16×2 Bubble LED Display

We’ve recently noticed an uptick of interest in so-called “bubble displays”: vintage alphanumeric LEDs which are probably best remembered as being used in watches and calculators before the LCD took over. Today they’re available as surplus or even salvage for literally pennies, but unfortunately they only provide four or five characters to work with. Or rather they did, until [sjm4306] built a board that chains them into a 16×2 array.

For the princely sum of 71 cents each, [sjm4306] picked up ten HPDL-1414 displays, each capable of showing four characters. He then designed a PCB that would accept eight of the displays at once, and even thought ahead to use headers so they could be pulled out and swapped as needed. Of course mounting them is only half the battle, you still need to drive the things.

Each display has its own dedicated driver chip on board, but trying to address each one individually would take far too many pins. So [sjm4306] opted to use a trio of 74HC595 shift registers, allowing him to toggle the three dozen pins necessary over SPI from a microcontroller. He’s even written up a little library and some example code that you can grab on the project’s Hackaday.io page.

Unfortunately, after all his hard work, tragedy struck. As these displays were a couple decades old given their date code, [sjm4306] thought he would clean them up with a bit of alcohol before their big video debut. But whatever plastic the clear panels are made of didn’t take kindly to the IPA, and they all shattered. They still work, but it’s definitely a quirk to keep in mind if you pick up some of these vintage displays to play with yourself.

In the past we’ve seen a much smaller PCB that allowed similar displays to more easily be interfaced with modern microcontrollers; perfect if you just want to bang out a few retro LED characters with a minimum of fuss.

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New PCB Revives Ancient Bubble LED Displays

For those of us who remember LED calculators, the HP 5082-7400 series red “bubble” displays hold a special charm. Available in 3, 4, or 5-digit varieties, these multiplexed 7-segment displays provided countless hours of entertainment to those who would spell upside-down words on their pocket calculators. In case you happen to be lucky enough to have access to a few of these beautiful vintage display sticks, [Gigawipf] has designed a small driver PCB that lets you easily interface them to a modern microcontroller.

At the heart of the board, aimed at either the 5082-7405 or 5082-7415 5-digit modules, are a pair of 74HC595 shift registers in tiny QFN packages. Five lines from one register drive one of the common cathodes for the selected digit, while the other register drives the eight anode lines through 330-Ohm resistors. The boards are slightly smaller than the width of the displays allowing you to stack them seamlessly for more digits, and eight header pins on each allow you to plug them into solderless breadboards for prototyping. The result is easy to drive with some simple code, and [Gigawipf] provides an example for Arduino as part of the project. The Eagle design files are supplied, as well as Gerbers for those who just want to have some boards made. This sounds like a great way to get some of these vintage displays going again.

If you can’t find any of these displays to play, with, you can try making some larger digits from individual surface-mount LEDs.

A Stylish Low Part Count Non-Contact Thermometer

A non-contact thermometer is a pretty common tool these days, and one that most of us probably have kicking around the lab. You can grab them online for as little as $10 USD, and while they’re nowhere near as capable as a thermal camera, they certainly have their uses. But even with their increased availability, there are at least two safe assumptions we can make about owners of said gadgets: they didn’t make it themselves, and they are probably pretty ambivalent about its aesthetics.

Which makes this project by [Ijon Tichy] particularly interesting. Not only is this a non-contact infrared thermometer that’s extremely easy to build should you be so inclined, but it’s actually quite attractive. In fact, if it wasn’t for the video of it in operation after the break, we would have assumed it was some kind of faux-retro cosplay prop. Even if you don’t have any use for an IR thermometer, you might just want to add one of these to your toolbox on principle.

The main components of the thermometer are a MLX90614 sensor, a gorgeous HP QDSP-6040 bubble display, and a ATtiny2313 microcontroller to tie it all together. The rest are passive components, with the exception of the TP4056 charging module that got tacked on to handle the 200 mAh lithium-ion battery. All of the components are arranged neatly in a line down the length of the thermometer, which is assembled on a piece of perfboard. Rather than go with a 3D printed enclosure that would cover it all up, [Ijon] decided to encapsulate everything in a clear epoxy resin. It looks fantastic, though you’re going to want to triple check all those solder joints before pouring on your “enclosure”.

[Ijon] has provided the diagrams and source code you need to build your own version of this artisanal thermometer, but we think with a custom PCB and perhaps a less liquid enclosure that still shows off the goods, this could be a very popular gadget for the discerning hacker. As we’ve seen, even the most basic of tools can benefit from a stylish makeover.

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Easy Bubble Watch Oozes Retro Charm

[Rafael] made a sweet little retro watch that’s a fantastic introduction to hardware DIY. If you’ve programmed an Arduino before, but you’ve never had a board made, and you are up for some SMD soldering, this might be for you. It’s got some small components, so ease off the coffee before soldering, but it’s nothing that you won’t be able to do. In the end, you’ll have something awesome.

Aesthetically, the centerpiece is the bubble display, which reminds us of the old HP calculator that our parents kept in the junk drawer, long after it had ceased to be relevant. It would return 3.9999999 for the square-root of 16, but we loved to play with it anyway. This watch will let you vicariously reclaim our childhood.

But that’s not all! It’s also an Arduino and RTC clock. Functions that are already implemented include clock, calendar, stopwatch, and “temperature”. (Temperature is from the AVR’s internal thermometer, which isn’t super-accurate and is probably just going to tell you how hot your wrist is anyway…) It’s got buttons, and tons of free flash space left over. It’s begging to be customized. You know what to do.

It’s not a smart watch, but it’s a great project. “The nostalgic retro bubble display is certain to flatter any hacker’s outfit.” Or something. OK, but we want one.

[via OSHpark’s Hackaday.io feed]