Daphne Oram and the Birth of Electronic Music

For most of human history, musical instruments were strictly mechanical devices. The musician either plucked something, blew into or across something, or banged on something to produce the sounds the occasion called for. All musical instruments, the human voice included, worked by vibrating air more or less directly as a result of these mechanical manipulations.

But if one thing can be said of musicians at any point in history, it’s that they’ll use anything and everything to create just the right sound. The dawn of the electronic age presented opportunities galore for musicians by giving them new tools to create sounds that nobody had ever dreamed of before. No longer would musicians be constrained by the limitations of traditional instruments; sounds could now be synthesized, recorded, modified, filtered, and amplified to create something completely new.

Few composers took to the new opportunities offered by electronics like Daphne Oram. From earliest days, Daphne lived at the intersection of music and electronics, and her passion for pursuing “the sound” lead to one of the earliest and hackiest synthesizers, and a totally unique way of making music.

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Retrotechtacular: Some Of The Last CRTs From The Factory Floor

It seems crazy having to explain what a piece of technology was like to someone who is barely fifteen years your junior, but yet we have reached that point when it comes to CRTs. There may still be remnants of CRT televisions and monitors left out in the wild, however, the chances that a kid preparing to enter high school has encountered one is slim. While there may be no substitute for the real thing, there is this raw video from [Glenn] who shared his tour of the Sony Trinitron assembly line in the early 2000s. Sony Trinitron Television

Sony Electronics’ cathode ray tube manufacturing facility was located alongside headquarters in Rancho Bernado, CA. The facility was shuttered in 2006 when Sony transitioned wholly onto digital displays like the flat-panel LCD line of Bravia televisions. [Glenn]’s video shows that the manufacturing process was almost entirely automated from end to end. A point that was made even more clear with the distinct lack of human beings in the video.

The Trinitron line of televisions first appeared in 1968. At a time where most manufacturer’s were offering black and white picture tubes, Sony’s Trinitron line was in color. That name carried through until the end when it was retired alongside tube televisions themselves. Sony’s focus on technological innovation (and proprietary media formats) made them a giant in the world of consumer electronics for over forty years in the United States, but in the transition to a digital world saw them seeding market share to their competitors.

A quick word of warning as the video below was shot directly on Sony’s factory floor so the machinery is quite loud. Viewers may want to reduce the volume prior to pressing play.

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Unique Flat-Screen Display Put to Use in CRT Game Boy

The cathode-ray tube ruled the display world from the earliest days of TV until only comparatively recently, when flat-screen technology began to take over. CRTs just kept getting bigger over that time until they reached a limit beyond which the tubes got just too bulky to be practical.

But there was action at the low end of the CRT market, too. Tiny CRTs popped up in all sorts of products, from camcorders to the famous Sony Watchman. One nifty CRT from this group, a flat(tish) tube from a video intercom system, ended up in [bitluni]’s lab, where he’s in the process of turning it into a retro Game Boy clone with a CRT display. The display, which once showed the video from a door-mounted camera, was a gift from a viewer. Date codes on the display show it’s a surprisingly recent device; were monochrome TFT displays that hard to come by in 2007? Regardless, it’s a neat design, with the electron gun shooting upward toward a curved phosphor screen. With a little Google-assisted reverse engineering, [Bitluni] was able to track done the video connections needed to use his retro game console, which uses an ESP32 that outputs composite video. He harvested the intercom speaker for game audio, added a temporary Nintendo gamepad, and soon he was playing Tetris in glorious monochrome on the flat screen.

The video below is only the first in a series where the prototype will be stuffed into one nice tidy package. It certainly still needs some tweaking, but it’s off to a great start. We can’t wait to see the finished product.

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Circuit Bending A TV For Better Input

If you haven’t noticed, CRTs are getting hard to find. You can’t get them in Goodwill, because thrift stores don’t take giant tube TVs anymore. You can’t find them on the curb set out for the trash man, because they won’t pick them up. It’s hard to find them on eBay, because no one wants to ship them. That’s a shame, because the best way to enjoy old retrocomputers and game systems is with a CRT with RGB input. If you don’t already have one, the best you can hope for is an old CRT with a composite input.

But there’s a way. [The 8-Bit Guy] just opened up late 90s CRT TV and modded it to accept RGB input. That’s a monitor for your Apple, your Commodore, and a much better display for your Sega Genesis.

There are a few things to know before cracking open an old CRT and messing with the circuits. Every (color) CRT has three electron guns, one each for red, green, and blue. These require high voltage, and in CRTs with RGB inputs you’re looking at a circuit path that takes those inputs, amplifies them, and sends them to the gun. If the TV only has a composite input, there’s a bit of circuitry that takes that composite signal apart and sends it to the guns. In [8-bit guy]’s TV — and just about every CRT TV you would find from the mid to late 90s — there’s a ‘Jungle IC’ that handles this conversion, and most of the time there’s RGB inputs meant for the on-screen display. By simply tapping into those inputs, you can add RGB inputs with fancy-schmancy RCA jacks on the back.

While the actual process of adding RGB inputs to a late 90’s CRT will be slightly different for each individual make and model, the process is pretty much the same. It’s really just a little bit of soldering and then sitting back and playing with old computers that are finally displaying the right colors on a proper screen.

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This Nearly NIMO Clock Fakes it and Makes It

Pity the aficionado of rare vintage displays. While Nixies and VFD tubes get all the attention and benefit from a thriving market to satisfy demand, the rarer displays from the mid-20th century period are getting harder and harder to find. One copy of an especially rare display is hard enough to find. Six copies for a clock? That’s a tall order.

That doesn’t mean you can’t fudge it, though, which is how this faux-NIMO clock came to be. [Paul Bricmont] was inspired by [Fran Blanche]’s NIMO tube primer, wherein the rare, single-digit CRT display was put through its paces. We’ve got to admit, it’s an easy display to fall in love with, thanks to its eerie blue phosphor glow, high voltage supply, and general quirkiness. [Paul] was unable to lay hands on a single tube, though, so he faked it with six tiny TFT displays and some plastic lenses. The lenses mimic the curved front glass of the original NIMO, while the TFT displays provide the stencil-style images of each numeral. The phosphor glow comes from replacing the stock white TFT backlight with a Neopixel array that can produce just the right shade of blue-green. 3D-printed modules hold two digits each, and the usual Arduino components run the show. The effect is quite convincing, although we bet some software tweaks could add things like faux burn-in and perhaps soften the edges of the digits to really sell it.

What other rare displays could be replicated this way? Given the variety of displays that were tried in the pre-LED era, it may be a rich vein to mine.

A Look At The Smallest Magnetic Deflection CRT Ever Made

A high-resolution LCD or OLED screen is a commodity component that we can buy on a little breakout board and plug into our microcontrollers without spending more than a dollar or two. We can buy them in sizes ranging from sub-postage-stamp to desktop TV if our budgets stretch that far, and they are easy to drive in every sense of the word. It is not so long ago though that a high-resolution LCD, even a small one, was a seriously expensive component. In consumer electronic devices such as camcorders engineers went to great lengths to avoid those costs, and [12voltvids] recently took a look at one of them.

Inside the viewfinder of a miniaturized Sony camcorder is a CRT. It’s fairly mundane in the scheme of CRTs, in that it’s a monochrome device with no unexpected features. Except that is, for one thing. It’s tiny, with only a 0.5″ inch screen size. Everything else is the same as your vintage full-sized TV, it has an electron gun and a deflection and focusing coil pack, but the entire device has been miniaturized to the point at which the coil pack is larger than the screen it is driving. On the accompanying PCB are all the support circuits, including a tiny flyback transformer and a single IC –  a Rohm BA7149 electronic viewfinder driver that is as near as possible an entire CRT TV on a chip. That’s it, the whole device runs from a single 5 volt supply.

He doesn’t give the date of the camcorder, but given that it looks as though it uses 8mm cassette tapes and has a curved miniaturized design rather than the angular black exteriors that were fashionable earlier we’d guess it to be from some time around the year 2000. To give it some context, at the time one of the hottest pieces of consumer electronics would have been a Diamond Rio MP3 player, and if your desktop PC had the first of the AMD Athlon processors you probably considered it to be about the fastest you could hope to own. The surprise then is that Sony still considered it more economical even at that point to use the CRT and associated circuitry than a tiny LCD. Either way we’d agree with him that it’s a keeper, a fascinating curio for any electronics enthusiast. If we see an old camcorder going for not a lot, we’ll certainly give it a second look after this.

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The Pre-CRT Oscilloscope

Oscilloscopes are especially magical because they translate the abstract world of electronics into something you can visualize. These days, a scope is likely to use an LCD or another kind of flat electronic display, but the gold standard for many years was the ubiquitous CRT (cathode ray tube). Historically, though, CRTs were not very common in the early days of electronics and radio. What we think of as a CRT didn’t really show up until 1931, although if you could draw a high vacuum and provide 30 kV, there were tubes as early as 1919. But there was a lot of electronics work done well before that, so how did early scientists visualize electric current? You might think the answer is “they didn’t,” but that’s not true. We are spoiled today with high-resolution electronic displays, but our grandfathers were clever and used what they had to visualize electronics.

Keep in mind, you couldn’t even get an electronic amplifier until the early 1900s (something we’ve talked about before). The earliest way to get a visual idea of what was happening in a circuit was purely a manual process. You would make measurements and draw your readings on a piece of graph paper.

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