A Daylight-Readable Bar Graph Display In The 70s Wasn’t Cheap

The driver board with display attached; the row of lamps is visible on the right hand side.

LEDs weren’t always an easy solution to displays and indicators. The fine folks at [Industrial Alchemy] shared pictures of a device that shows what kind of effort and cost went into making a high brightness bar graph display in the 70s, back when LEDs were both expensive and not particularly bright. There are no strange materials or methods involved in making the display daylight-readable, but it’s a peek at how solving problems we take for granted today sometimes took a lot of expense and effort.

The display is a row of 28 small incandescent bulbs, mounted in a PCB and housed in a machined aluminum frame. Holes through which to view the bulbs are on both the top and front of the metal housing, which allows the unit to be mounted in different orientations. It was made as a swappable module, its 56 machined gold pins mate to sockets on the driver board. The driver board itself consists of 14 LM119 dual comparators, each of which controls two bulbs on the display.

An example of a Wamco minitron bar graph display. Each window contains an incandescent filament. [Source: industrialalchemy.org]
[Industrial Alchemy] believes that the display unit itself may have been a bit of a hack in its own way. Based on the pin spacing and dimensions of the driver board, they feel that it was probably designed to host a row of modular units known as the Wamco minitron bar graph display. An example is pictured here; they resembled DIP chips and could be stacked side-by-side to make a display of any length. Each window contained an incandescent filament in a reflective well, and each light could be individually controlled.

These minitron bar graph units could only be viewed from the top, and were apparently high in cost and low in availability. Getting around these limitations may have been worth creating this compatible unit despite the work involved.

Display technology has taken many different turns over the years, and you can see examples of many of them in one place in the Circus Clock, which tells the time with a different technology for each digit: a nixie, a numitron, a 7-segment thyratron tube, a VFD, an LED dot display, and a rear projection display.

LED “Candle” Gets The 555 Treatment

Regular readers may recall we recently covered a neat Arduino trick that allowed you to “blow out” an LED as if it was a candle. The idea was that the LED itself could be used as a rudimentary temperature sensor, and the Arduino code would turn the LED on and off when a change was detected in its forward voltage drop. You need to oversample the Arduino’s ADC to detect the few millivolt change reliably, but overall it’s pretty simple once you understand the principle.

But [Andrzej Laczewski], like many of our beloved readers, feels the Arduino and other microcontrollers can be a crutch if used exclusively. So he set out to replicate this hack with that most cherished of ICs, the 555 timer. In the video after the break, he demonstrates his “old-school” LED candle for anyone who thinks the only way to control an LED is with digitalWrite.

Not to say it’s easy to replicate the original Arduino project with a 555, or that it’s even practical. [Andrzej] simply wanted to show it was possible, which is something we always respect around these parts. He goes into great detail on how he developed and tested the circuit, even including oscilloscope screenshots showing how the different components work together in real-time. But the short version is that a MOSFET is used to turn the LED on and off, a comparator detects change in the LED’s voltage drop, and the 555 is used to control how long the LED stays off for.

Ever the traditionalist, [Andrzej] wrapped up this build by etching his own PCB using a variation of the classic laser toner transfer method. If this all looks a bit too much like Black Magic to you, there’s no shame in sticking with the Arduino version. At 1/20th of the parts count, and with no calibration required, who’s to say which version is “simpler”.

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Custom Circuit Makes For Better Battery Level Display

Isn’t it always the way? There’s a circuit right out of the textbooks, or even a chip designed to do exactly what you want — almost exactly. It’s 80% perfect for your application, and rather than accept that 20%, you decide to start from scratch and design your own solution.

That’s the position [Great Scott!] found himself in with this custom LED battery level indicator. As the video below unfolds we learn that he didn’t start exactly from scratch, though. His first pass was the entirely sensible use of the LM3914 10-LED bar graph driver chip, a device that’s been running VU meters and the like for the better part of four decades. With an internal ladder of comparators and 1-kilohm resistors, the chip lights up the 10 LEDs according to an input voltage relative to an upper and lower limit set by external resistors. Unfortunately, the fixed internal resistors make that a linear scale, which does not match the discharge curve of the battery pack he’s monitoring. So, taking design elements from the LM3914 datasheet, [Great Scott!] rolled his own six-LED display from LM324 quad-op amps. Rather than a fixed resistance for each stage, trimmers let him tweak the curve to match the battery, and now he knows the remaining battery life with greater confidence.

Perhaps the 18650 battery pack [Great Scott!] is building is for the e-bike he has been working on lately. If it is, we’re glad to see that he spot-welded the terminals, unlike a recent e-bike battery pack build that may have some problems down the road.

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The Pros And Cons Of Microcontrollers For Boost Converters

It never fails — we post a somewhat simple project using a microcontroller and someone points out that it could have been accomplished better with a 555 timer or discrete transistors or even a couple of vacuum tubes. We welcome the critiques, of course; after all, thoughtful feedback is the point of the comment section. Sometimes the anti-Arduino crowd has a point, but as [Great Scott!] demonstrates with this microcontroller-less boost converter, other times it just makes sense to code your way out of a problem.

Built mainly as a comeback to naysayers on his original boost-converter circuit, which relied on an ATtiny85, [Great Scott!] had to go to considerable lengths to recreate what he did with ease using a microcontroller. He started with a quick demo using a MOSFET driver and a PWM signal from a function generator, which does the job of boosting the voltage, but lacks the feedback needed to control for varying loads.

Ironically relying on a block diagram for a commercial boost controller chip, which is probably the “right” tool for the job he put together the final circuit from a largish handful of components. Two op amps form the oscillator, another is used as a differential amp to monitor the output voltage, and the last one is a used as a comparator to create the PWM signal to control the MOSFET. It works, to be sure, but at the cost of a lot of effort, expense, and perf board real estate. What’s worse, there’s no simple path to adding functionality, like there would be for a microcontroller-based design.

Of course there are circuits where microcontrollers make no sense, but [Great Scott!] makes a good case for boost converters not being one of them if you insist on DIYing. If you’re behind on the basics of DC-DC converters, fear not — we’ve covered that before.

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Learning The 555 From The Inside

One way to understand how the 555 timer works and how to use it is by learning what the pins mean and what to connect to them. A far more enjoyable, and arguably a more useful way to learn is by looking at what’s going on inside during each of its modes of operation. [Dejan Nedelkovski] has put together just such a video where he walks through how the 555 timer IC works from the inside.

We especially like how he immediately removes the fear factor by first showing a schematic with all the individual components but then grouping them into what they make up: two comparators, a voltage divider, a flip-flop, a discharge transistor, and an output stage. Having lifted the internals to a higher level, he then walks through examples, with external components attached, for each of the three operating modes: bistable, monostable and astable. If you’re already familiar with the 555 then you’ll enjoy the trip down memory lane. If you’re not familiar with it, then you soon will be. Check out his video below.

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Scrap A Hard Drive, Build A Rotary Encoder

There’s something to be said for the feel of controls. Whether it’s the satisfying snap of a high-quality switch or the buttery touch of the pots on an expensive amplifier, the tactile experience of the controls you interact with says a lot about a device.

[GreatScott!] knows this, and rather than put up with the bump and grind of a cheap rotary encoder, he decided to find an alternative. He ended up exploring hard drive motors as encoders, and while the results aren’t exactly high resolution, he may be onto something. Starting with a teardown of some old HDDs — save those magnets! — [Scott!] found that the motors fell into either the four-lead or three-lead categories. Knowing that HDD motors are brushless DC motors, he reasoned that the four-lead motors had their three windings in Wye configuration with the neutral point brought out to an external connection. A little oscilloscope work showed the expected three-phase output when the motor hub was turned, with the leading and lagging phases changing as the direction of rotation was switched. Hooked to an Arduino, the motor made a workable encoder, later improved by sending each phase through a comparator and using digital inputs rather than using the Nano’s ADCs.

It looks like [GreatScott!]’s current setup only responds to a full rotation of the makeshift encoder, but we’d bet resolution could be improved. Perhaps this previous post on turning BLDC motors into encoders will help.

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Junkbox Freezer Alarm Keeps Steaks Safe

A fully stocked freezer can be a blessing, but it’s also a disaster waiting to happen. Depending on your tastes, there could be hundreds of dollars worth of food in there, and the only thing between it and the landfill is an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Keep the freezer in an out-of-the-way spot and your food is at even greater risk.

Mitigating that risk is the job of this junkbox power failure alarm. [Derek]’s freezer is in the garage, where GFCI outlets are mandated by code. We’ve covered circuit protection before, including GFCIs, and while they can save a life, they can also trip accidentally and cost you your steaks. [Derek] whipped up a simple alarm based on current flow to the freezer. A home-brew current transformer made from a split ferrite core and some magnet wire is the sensor, and a couple of op-amps and a 555 timer make up the detection and alarm part. And it’s all junk bin stuff — get a load of that Mallory Sonalert from 1983!

Granted, loss of power on a branch circuit is probably one of the less likely failure modes for a freezer, but the principles are generally applicable and worth knowing. And hats off to [Derek] for eschewing the microcontroller and rolling this old school. Not that there’s anything wrong with IoT fridge and freezer alarms.

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