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.

Soviet-Era 7-Segment Display, Built Like a Tank

In a way, all 7-segment displays are alike; at least from the outside looking in. On the inside it can be quite another story, and that’s certainly the case with the construction of this Soviet-era 7-segment numerical display. From the outside it may look a bit sturdier than usual, but it’s still instantly recognizable for what it is. On the inside is an unusual mixture of incandescent bulbs and plastic light guides.

The black-coated blocks of plastic on the left (shown from the rear) act as light guides. The holes are for nesting the incandescent bulbs. Note the puzzle-like arrangement of the uniquely shaped pieces.

The rear of the display is a PCB with a vaguely hexagonal pattern of low-voltage incandescent bulbs, and each bulb mates to one segment of the display. The display segments themselves are solid blocks of plastic, one for each bulb, and each a separate piece. These are painted black, with the only paint-free areas being a thin segment at the top for the display, and a hole in the back for the mating bulb.

The result is that each plastic piece acts as a light guide, ensuring that a lit bulb on the PCB results in one of the seven thin segments on the face being lit as well. An interesting thing is that the black paint is the only thing preventing unwanted light from showing out the front, or leaking from one segment to another; usually some kind of baffle is used for this purpose in displays from this era.

More curiously, each plastic segment is a unique shape apparently unrelated to its function. We think this was probably done to ensure foolproof assembly; it forms a puzzle that can only fit together one way. The result is a compact and remarkably sturdy unit that shows how older and rugged tech isn’t necessarily bulky. Another example of small display tech from the Soviet era is this tiny 7-segment display of a completely different manufacture, which was usually used with an integrated bubble lens to magnify the minuscule display.

E-ink Typewriter Is Refreshingly Slow

It’s pretty hard to use the internet to complete a task without being frequently distracted. For better or worse, there are rabbit holes at every turn and whilst exploring them can be a delight, sometimes you just need to focus on a task at hand. The solution could be in the form of distraction-blocking software, razor-sharp willpower, or a beautifully crafted modern “typewriter”. The constraint and restriction of a traditional typewriter appealed to [NinjaTrappeur], but the inability to correct typos and share content online was a dealbreaker. A hybrid was the answer, with a mechanical keyboard commanding an E-ink display driven by a Raspberry Pi.

The main point of interest in this build is the E-ink screen. Though it’s easy to acquire theses displays in small sizes, obtaining a screen greater than four inches proved to be a challenge. Once acquired, driving the screen over SPI was easy, but the refresh rate was horrific. The display takes three seconds to redraw, and whilst [NinjaTrappeur] was hoping to implement a faster “partial refresh”, he was unable to read the appropriate values from the onboard flash to enable manual control of the drawing stages. Needless to say, [NinjaTrappeur] asks if people have had success driving these displays at a more usable rate, and would love to hear from you if so.

Some auxiliary hacks come in the form of terminal emulator adaptation, porting the E-ink screen library from C++ to C, and capturing the keyboard input. A handmade wooden case finishes it off.

If it’s old-school typewriters that float your boat, we’ve got you covered: this solenoid-actuated typewriter printer eventually became a musical instrument, and this daisy wheel machine produces ASCII art from a live camera.

[Via Boing Boing]

Faded Beauty DMM Gets An OLED Makeover

When a fine piece of lab instrumentation crosses your bench, you’ve got to do your best to put it to work. But even in the highest quality devices no component lasts forever, especially vacuum tubes. For some vintage instruments with vacuum fluorescent displays, that means putting up with less-than-perfect digits in order to get that sweet, sweet precision. Or not – you can always reverse engineer the thing and add a spanking new OLED display.

The Hewlett-Packard 34401A digital multimeter that fell into [qu1ck]’s lap was a beauty, but it had clearly seen better days. The display was full of spuriously illuminated dots and segments, making it hard to use the 6.5 digit DMM. After a futile bit of probing to see if a relatively easy driver fix would help, and with a replacement display being made of solid unobtanium, [qu1ck] settled in for the long process of reverse engineering the front panel protocol. As luck would have it, H-P used the SPI protocol to talk to the display, and it wasn’t long before [qu1ck] had a decent prototype working. The final version is much more polished, with a display sized to fit inside the original space occupied by the VFD. The original digits and annunciator icons are recreated, and he added a USB port and the bargraph display show in the clip below.

We think it looks fabulous, and both the firmware and hardware are on Github if you’d like to rescue a similar meter. You may want to check our guide to buying old test gear first, though, to get the most bang for your buck.

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Beats an Extension Cord

What does your benchtop power supply have that [Pete Marchetto]’s does not? Answer: an extension cord draped across the floor. How often have you said to yourself, “I just need to energize this doodad for a couple seconds,” then you start daisy chaining every battery in the junk drawer to reach the necessary voltage? It is not uncommon to see battery packs with a single voltage output, but [Pete] could not find an adjustable one, so he built his own and put it on Tindie.

Presumably, the internals are not going to surprise anyone: an 18650 battery, charging circuit, a voltage converter, display, adjustment knob, and a dedicated USB charging port. The complexity is not what intrigues us, it is the fact that we do not see more of them and still wind up taping nine-volt batteries together. [Editor’s note: we use one made from an old laptop battery.]

This should not replace your benchtop power supply, it does not have the bells and whistles, like current regulation, but a mobile source of arbitrary voltage does most of the job most of the time. And it’s what this build hasn’t got (a cord) that makes it most useful.

Raytheon’s Analog Read-Only Memory is Tube-Based

There are many ways of storing data in a computer’s memory, and not all of them allow the computer to write to it. For older equipment, this was often a physical limitation to the hardware itself. It’s easier and cheaper for some memory to be read-only, but if you go back really far you reach a time before even ROMs were widespread. One fascinating memory scheme is this example using a vacuum tube that stores the characters needed for a display.

[eric] over at TubeTime recently came across a Raytheon monoscope from days of yore and started figuring out how it works. The device is essentially a character display in an oscilloscope-like CRT package, but the way that it displays the characters is an interesting walk through history. The monoscope has two circuits, one which selects the character and the other determines the position on the screen. Each circuit is fed a delightfully analog sine wave, which allows the device to create essentially a scanning pattern on the screen for refreshing the display.

[eric] goes into a lot of detail on how this c.1967 device works, and it’s interesting to see how engineers were able to get working memory with their relatively limited toolset. One of the nice things about working in the analog world, though, is that it’s relatively easy to figure out how things work and start using them for all kinds of other purposes, like old analog UHF TV tuners.

Roll Up Your Sleeve, Watch a Video with This Smart Watch Forearm Projector

We’re all slowly getting used to the idea of wearable technology, fabulous flops like the creepy Google Glass notwithstanding. But the big problem with tiny tech is in finding the real estate for user interfaces. Sure, we can make it tiny, but human fingers aren’t getting any smaller, and eyeballs can only resolve so much fine detail.

So how do we make wearables more usable? According to Carnegie-Mellon researcher [Chris Harrison], one way is to turn the wearer into the display and the input device (PDF link). More specifically, his LumiWatch projects a touch-responsive display onto the forearm of the wearer. The video below is pretty slick with some obvious CGI “artist’s rendition” displays up front. But even the somewhat limited displays shown later in the video are pretty impressive. The watch can claim up to 40-cm² of the user’s forearm for display, even at the shallow projection angle offered by a watch bezel only slightly above the arm — quite a feat given the irregular surface of the skin. It accomplishes this with a “pico-projector” consisting of red, blue, and green lasers and a pair of MEMS mirrors. The projector can adjust the linearity and brightness of the display to provide a consistent image across the uneven surface. An array of 10 time-of-flight sensors takes care of watching the display area for touch input gestures. It’s a fascinating project with a lot of potential, but we wonder how the variability of the human body might confound the display. Not to mention the need for short sleeves year round.

Need some basics on the micro-electrical mechanic systems (MEMS) behind the pico-projector in this watch? We’ve got a great primer on these microscopic machines.

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