Fran Finds Four Foot Alphanumeric Displays From 1910

Video blogger and display technology guru [Fran Blanche] has discovered a splendid retro-tech alphanumeric display from 1910. (Video, embedded below.)

We have always enjoyed her forays into old and unusual displays, including her project researching and reverse engineering an Apollo DSKY unit. This time [Fran] has dug up an amazing billboard from the early 20th century. It was built by the Rice Electric Display Company of Dayton Ohio, and operated in Herald Square for about two years. Requiring $400,000 in 1910-US-dollars to build, this was clearly an Herculean effort for its day and no doubt is the first example of selling advertising time on a computer-controller billboard. It boasts characters that are about 1.3 m tall and 1 m wide which can display letters, numbers, and various punctuation and symbols. These are arrayed into a 3-line 18-character matrix that is about 27 x 4 meters, and that’s up only a third of the total billboard, itself an illuminated and dynamic work of art.

Diagram Depicting the 3×18 Character Display

There are quite a few tantalizing details in the video, but a few that jumped out at us are the 20,000 light bulbs, the 40 Hz display update rate, the 150 km of wire used and the three month long installation time. We would really like to learn more about these two 7.5 kW motorized switch controllers, how were they programmed, how were the character segments arranged, what were their shapes?

In the video, you can see triangles arranged in some pattern not unlike more modern sixteen segment displays, although as [Fran] points out, Mr Rice’s characters are more pleasing. We hope [Fran] can tease out more details for a future video. If you have any ideas or knowledge about this display, please put them in the comments section below. Spoiler alert after the video…

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A 50W Speaker Made Of Light Bulbs

When we think of a speaker, we are likely to imagine a paper cone with a coil of wire somewhere at the bottom of it suspended in a magnetic field. It’s a hundred-plus-year-old technology that has been nearly perfected. The moving coil is not however the only means of turning an electrical current into a sound. A number of components will make a sound when exposed to audio, including to the surprise of [Eric], the humble incandescent light bulb. He discovered when making an addressable driver for them that he could hear the PWM frequency when they lit up, so he set about harnessing the effect for use as a speaker.

Using an ESP32 board and with a few false starts due to cheap components, he started with MIDI files and ended up with PWM frequencies. It’s an interesting journey into creating multiple PWM channels from an ESP32, and he details some of his problems along the way. The result is the set of singing light bulbs that can be seen in the video below the break, which he freely admits is probably the most awful 50 W speaker that he could have made. That however is not the point of such an experiment, and we applaud him for doing it.

For more MIDI-based tomfoolery, take a look at the PCB Tesla coil.

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