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.
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.
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.
[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.