Retrotechtacular: Mechanical TV From The People Who Made It Happen

If we have a television in 2021 the chances are that it will be a large LCD model, flat and widescreen, able to display HD images in stunning clarity. Before that we’d have had a CRT colour TV, them maybe our parents grew up with a monochrome model. Before those though came the first TVs of all, which were mechanical devices that relied on a spinning disk to both acquire and display the image. The BBC Archive recently shared a vintage clip from 1970 in which two of the assistants of [John Logie Baird], the inventor of the first demonstrable television system, demonstrated its various parts and revealed its inner workings.

We’ve covered the Nipkow scanning disk in a previous article, with its characteristic spiral of holes. We see the original Baird Televisor, but the interesting part comes as we move to the studio. Using the original equipment they show a dot of light traversing the presenter’s face to scan a picture before taking us to a mock-up of the original studio. Here there’s a surprise, because instead of the camera we’d expect today there is a Nipkow disk projector which traverses the subject sitting in the dark. A bank of photocells above the projector senses the reflected light, and returns a video signal.

The resulting low-resolution pictures had a low enough bandwidth to be broadcast over an AM radio transmitter, and for a tiny 30-line picture in the glowing pink of a neon light they provide a surprising amount of detail. With such a straightforward principle it’s not surprising that they’ve appeared in a few projects on these pages, including an Arduino driven colour video monitor, and a POV clock. Take a look at the video below the break.

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Proto-TV Tech Lies Behind This POV Clock

If it weren’t for persistence of vision, that quirk of biochemically mediated vision, life would be pretty boring. No movies, no TV — nothing but reality, the beauty of nature, and live performances to keep us entertained. Sounds dreadful.

We jest, of course, but POV is behind many cool hacks, one of which is [Joe]’s neat Nipkow disk clock. If you think you’ve never heard of such a thing, you’re probably wrong; Nipkow disks, named after their 19th-century inventor Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, were the central idea behind the earliest attempts at mechanically scanned television. Nipkow disks have a series of evenly spaced, spirally arranged holes that appear to scan across a fixed area when rotated. When placed between a lens and a photosensor, a rudimentary TV camera can be made.

For his Nipkow clock, though, [Joe] turned the idea around and placed a light source behind the rotating disk. Controlling when and what color the LEDs in the array are illuminated relative to the position of the disk determines which pixels are illuminated. [Joe]’s clock uses two LED arrays to double the size of the display area, and a disk with rectangular apertures. The resulting pixels are somewhat keystone-shaped, but it doesn’t really distract from the look of the display. The video below shows the build process and the finished clock in action.

The key to getting the look right in a display like this is the code, and [Joe] put in a considerable effort for his software. If only the early mechanical TV tinkerers had had such help. [Jenny List] did a nice write-up on the early TV pioneers and their Nipkow disk cameras; we’ve also seen other Nipkow displays before, but [Joe]’s clock takes the concept to another level.

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