Xerox Alto CRTs Needed a Tiny Lightbulb to Function

In the real world, components don’t work like we imagine they do. Wires have resistance, resistors have inductance, and capacitors have resistance. However, some designers like to take advantage of those imperfections, something our old friend [Ken Shirriff] noted when he was restoring the CRT of a Xerox Alto.

[Ken] tried to connect a Xerox monitor to the Alto and — since it was almost as old as the Alto — he wasn’t surprised that it didn’t work. What did surprise him, though, is that when he turned the monitor off, a perfect picture appeared for just a split second as the unit powered off. What could that mean?

Keep in mind this is a CRT device. So a perfect picture means you have vertical and horizontal sweep all at the right frequency. It also means you have high voltage and drive on the electron guns. If you are too young to remember all that, [Ken] covers the details in his post.

He found that the CRT grid voltage wasn’t present during operation. The voltage derived from the high voltage supply but, mysteriously, the high voltage was fine. There was a small lightbulb in the grid voltage circuit. A 28V device about like a flashlight bulb. It measured open and that turned out to be due to a broken lead. Repairing the broken lead to the bulb put the monitor back in operation.

On paper, a light bulb lights up when you put current through it. In real life, it is a bit more complicated. An incandescent filament starts off as almost a dead short and draws a lot of current for a very brief time. As the current flows, the filament gets hot and the resistance goes up. That reduces the current draw. This effect — known as inrush current — is the scourge of designers trying to turn on light bulbs with transistors or other electronic switches.

However, the unknown Xerox power supply designer used that effect as a current limiter. The short 600V pulses would hardly notice the light bulb but if too much current or time elapsed, the resistance of the bulb would rise preventing too much current from flowing for too long. With the bulb open, the negative brightness grid provided an impassible barrier to the electrons. Apparently, the brightness grid lost power a bit earlier than the rest of the circuit and with it out of the way — or perhaps, partially out of the way — the picture was fine until the rest of the circuit also lost power.

We looked at [Ken’s] efforts on this machine earlier this year. Light bulbs, by the way, aren’t the only thing that changes resistance in response to some stimulus. You might enjoy the 1972 commercial from Xerox touting the Alto’s ability to do advanced tasks like e-mail and printing.

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Flash a Light Bulb, Win a Prize

How many geeks does it take to flash a lightbulb? Judging from the list of entries in the 2017 Flashing Light Prize, so far only seven. But we suspect Hackaday readers can add to that total.

The goal is almost as simple as possible: build something that can flash an incandescent light bulb for at least five minutes. The system actually has to power the bulb’s filament, so no mechanical shutters are allowed. Other than that, the sky is the limit — any voltage, any wattage, any frequency and duty cycle, and any circuit. Some of the obvious circuits, like an RC network on a relay, have been tried. But we assume there will be points for style, in which case this sculptural cascading relay flasher might have a chance. Rube Goldberg mechanical approaches are encouraged, as in this motor, thread, stick and switch contraption. But our fave thus far is the 1000-watt bulb with solar cell feedback by Hackaday regular [mikeselectricstuff].

Get your entry in before August 1st and you’ll be on your way to glory and riches — if your definition of rich is the £200 prize. What the heck, your chances are great right now, and it’s enough for a few pints with your mates. Just don’t let it distract you from working on your 2017 Hackaday Prize entry — we’re currently in the “Wheels, Wings, and Walkers” phase, so maybe there’ll be a little crossover that you can leverage for your flasher.

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How Many Inventors Does It Take To Invent A Light Bulb

Many credit the invention of the incandescent light bulb with Edison or Swan but its development actually took place over two centuries and by the time Edison and Swan got involved, the tech was down to the details. Those details, however, meant the difference between a laboratory curiosity that lasted minutes before burning out, and something that could be sold to consumers and last for months. Here then is the story of how the incandescent light bulb was invented.

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Reverse Engineering Ikea’s New Smart Bulbs

Over in Sweden, Czech, Italy, and Belgium, Ikea is launching a new line of ‘smart’ light bulbs. These countries are apparently the test market for these bulbs, and they’ll soon be landing on American shores. This means smart Ikea bulbs will be everywhere soon, and an Internet of Light Bulbs is a neat thing to explore. [Markus] got his hands on a few of these bulbs, and is now digging into their inner workings (German Make Magazine, with a Google Translate that includes the phrase, ‘capering the pear’).

There are currently four versions of these Ikea bulbs, ranging from a 400 lumen bulb designed for track lights to a 980 lumen bulb that will probably work in an American Edison lamp socket. These lights are controlled via a remote, with each individual bulb paired to the remote by turning the lamp on, holding the remote close to the bulb, and pressing a button.

Inside these bulbs is a Silicon Labs microcontroller with ZigBee support, twelve chip LEDs, and associated electronics that look like they might pass the bigclivedotcom smoke test. After tearing apart this bulb and planting the wireless module firmly in a breadboard, [Markus] found he could dim a pair of LEDs simply by clicking on the remote. Somewhere in these bulbs, there’s a possibility of doing something.

As with all Internet of Things, we must ask an important question: will it become part of Skynet and shut down the Internet, like webcams did last summer? These Ikea bulbs look pretty safe in that regard, as the bulb is inexorably tied to the remote and must be paired by holding it close to the bulb. We’re sure there are a few more interesting exploits for these bulbs, so once they’re released in the US we’ll take a look at them.

Retrotechtacular: The Aerolux Light Corporation

The humble incandescent lightbulb is an invention just about anyone born in the 20th Century is more than familiar with. But it’s not the be all and end all of lighting technology – there are neon lights, compact fluorescent bulbs, and even LEDs are finally being adopted for interior lighting. But with the endless march forward, there are vintage throwbacks to the past – how many hipster cafes have you been to lately with great big industrial-looking filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling?

Even when switched off, they have a striking appearance.

However, that’s not all history has to give us. These gas discharge bulbs from yesteryear are absolute works of art.

The bulbs contain delicate floral sculptures in metal, coated with phosphor, and the bulbs are filled with neon or argon gas. Applying mains voltage to the electrodes inside the bulb causes the phospor to fluoresce, creating a glowing flower that is hauntingly beautiful.

These bulbs were manufactured by the Aerolux Light Company, from the 1930s to the 1970s. Once upon a time, they could be had for as little as 20 cents a bulb – nowadays you’re likely to pay over $50 on eBay or Etsy. The bulbs work by the glow discharge effect, not at all dissimilar to garden variety neon lamps.

While it’s not easy, it is possible to make your own vacuum tubes. Maybe it’s time to order some phospor powder and a tank of neon and get to work? Be sure to document your attempt on Hackaday.io.

Thanks to [Itay Ramot] for the tip!

 

 

The Champagne of Light Bulbs

We’re all used to making our own lighting projects. Triac dimmers, LEDs, Neopixels, EL wire, there is a huge array of lighting components and technologies at our fingertips. But how many of us have made our own lighting rather than buying off-the-shelf? [Confined Maker] set out to do just that by creating an incandescent light bulb from scratch, and since he’s obviously a hacker with a bit of class he did it in an empty Dom Perignon champagne bottle.

It might seem a daunting project, but as he shows us in the video below the break, it turns out to be surprisingly straightforward with no exotic tooling required. He starts by winding a fine coil of thin tungsten wire round a dowel to act as his filament, before bringing a pair of enameled copper wires through holes drilled in the base of the bottle and out of the neck. The ends of these wires are then spliced to his filament and secured with conductive epoxy before the whole assembly is carefully slid back into the bottle. The holes are caulked with silicone, and the bottle is then carefully charged with argon. Argon is heavier-than-air, so he can do this on the bench with nothing more than a bicycle tube inflator and a drinking straw. The bottle is then sealed with a cork and more silicone, and his bulb is ready.

The first power-up with 120V mains power sees a puff of smoke inside the bottle as a coating on the tungsten is vapourised, but after that the bulb does its job well. He’s concerned about his epoxy melting, and the filament has moved to one side of the bottle so he’s not sure about the lifetime he can expect, but to make a working light bulb with such basic equipment is still an impressive accomplishment. His video below the break is eleven and a half minutes long, but well worth watching every minute.

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Retrotechtacular: 100 Watts 120 Volts

If you read our recent feature about the Tal-y-Llyn Railway, the world’s first preserved line, you may have taken a while to watch the short film about the railway in the early 1950s. It was the work of an American film maker, [Carson “Kit” Davidson].

His other work includes some films that might be of interest to Hackaday readers, including one filmed in 1977: “100 Watts 120 Volts”. In it, he follows the manufacture of Duro-Test 100-watt light bulbs through all the stages of their assembly as neck, filament and envelope are brought together in strangely beautiful twentieth century production machinery.

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