1970s Lab Equipment Turned Retro Pi Terminal

When it was released, the Beckman Model 421 CRT controller represented the latest and greatest in liquid chromatography technology. Its 12 inch screen would allow the operator to view critical information such as flow rate and concentration, and its integrated keyboard simplified system control. It made liquid chromatography faster and easier, allowing lab technicians to focus on analysis rather than the complexities of operating the equipment.

But none of that matters right now. What matters is that [Igor Afanasyev] found one of these gloriously vintage devices at a local swap meet and decided it deserved a second chance at life. With a Raspberry Pi and a surprising amount of support hardware, he was able to turn this roughly 40 year old piece of scientific equipment into a multipurpose device that does everything from classic gaming to multimedia playback. It’s got a few quirks, but overall this is a gadget that any hacker would love to have kicking around their modern-day lab.

[Igor] explains that the Model 412 is essentially just a dumb terminal with no internal logic, so in theory it should have been possible to just hang the thing on a serial port and be done with it. But unfortunately the display drive board was dead, so a full rebuild was in order. This meant that there’s little left of the original device other than the keyboard and the case itself, but since it isn’t exactly a “vintage computer” in the traditional sense, we think the purists will allow it.

For the display, [Igor] used an LCD he salvaged from an old digital picture frame. It was the right size to fit the opening, and thanks to an unpopulated VGA header on the board, wasn’t too difficult to get connected to the Pi with an HDMI adapter. He also added a hardware VGA scanline generator board so that no matter what the Pi shows it will have that classic old-school look; a fantastic detail we don’t usually see on builds like this.

The keyboard on the Model 412 was more of a control panel than a traditional input device, so not only does it have keycaps which say things like “FLOW RATE” and “WRITE TAPE”, but it has a fairly weird layout. After reverse engineering the somewhat unusual key matrix, he spun up a custom firmware for the Arduino Pro Micro using QMK which would let him use the board on the Pi as a standard USB input device. But rather than replace the keys, [Igor] created a little cheat-sheet overlay that he could put over the board to see what keys translate to which letters. It’s awkward for sure, but we really appreciate that he preserved the unique nature and look of the Model 412.

Like the Heathkit H19 that was brought back to life with an internal Raspberry Pi or the DEC VT100 with a BealeBone inside there’s something about the visual aesthetic and no-nonsense approach of these vintage terminals which continue to make them compelling into the 21st century.

Tiny, Wearable 8-Bit VT100 Terminal

In the modern era of computing, the end-user is often quite far removed from the machine they’re using. At least in terms of abstraction levels, the user experience of most computers, smart phones, and the like are very far away from the zeros and ones. If you need to get down to that level though, you’ll have to make your way to a terminal somehow, and reminisce fondly about the days when everything was accessed through a serial line.

Nowadays, some harmless nostalgia is often accompanied by a challenge as well, as [Nick] demonstrated with his tiny serial terminal. It mimics the parsing and rendering of a VT100 console using an Arduino Uno and a 1″x1″ TFT screen. His goal was to make it wearable like a wristwatch would be, using two buttons as an HID device. With the size and simple interface, [Nick] also explores the possibility of mounting such a terminal to a pair of glasses.

While not everyone may want to interact with a serial terminal with only two buttons, it’s certainly a great demonstration of what is possible when it comes to implementing retro software in unique ways. There have been serial terminals implemented in many other unique places as well, such as old oscilloscopes and replicas from popular video games.

PocketCHIP As A Hardware Hacker’s Terminal

Conferences these days can be tricky places to be at – especially hardware and hacker cons. If you aren’t the one doing the hacking, then you can be sure your devices are being probed, pinged and possibly, hacked. It certainly isn’t the place to bring your precious laptop. Besides, as the day wears on and your feet start aching, regular laptops start feeling bigger and heavier. What you need is a burner laptop – one that is lightweight, cheap and that you don’t mind getting hacked. [dalmoz] wrote a short, to-the-point, tutorial on making use of PocketCHIP as a hardware-hacker’s best friend when it comes to UART connections. It’s also handy to use as a stand alone serial monitor for your projects without having to dedicate a USB port and screen real estate.

The PocketCHIP is a dock for the C.H.I.P. microcomputer and adds a LED backlit touchscreen display, QWERTY keyboard and LiPo battery in a lightweight, molded case. For $70, you get a 1 GHz ARM v7 processor, 512MB RAM, Mali 400 GPU, WiFi and Bluetooth. It’s light enough to be hung around your neck via its lanyard slot. And all of the GPIO pins are conveniently broken out, including the UART pins. Right now, it’s in the hands of Kickstarter backers, but the Next Thing Co website indicates availability sometime this month.

On the hardware side, all you need to do is add header pins to TX, RX and GND (and maybe 5 V and 3 V if required) on the PocketCHIP GPIO header and you’re good to go. On the software side, things are equally easy. The UART pins are meant to provide debug access to the CHIP itself and need to be released from internal duty. Once the UART port is identified, a single terminal command frees its status as a debugging interface. After that, use any terminal emulator – [dalmoz] recommends Minicom – and you’re all set. In the unlikely event that all you have is an Arduino lying around, [dalmoz] posted a simple sketch that can be used to make sure you have it working. Great hacking tip, ’cause it is as simple as it gets. If you’d like to know more about the CHIP project, check out its documentation and Github repository – it’s all open source.

When a CRT Isn’t Retro Enough: LEDs

When we think of an old-style computer terminal, it has a CRT screen: either one of the big 1970s VDUs with integrated keyboard, or maybe one from a later decade with more svelte styling. You would have found other displays in use in previous decades though, and one of them came our way that we think it worthy of sharing.

16 segments in action. (PD) Wikimedia Commons.

[Dan Julio] was given several tubes of Siemens DL1416B 4-digit 17-segment LED displays by a friend, and decided to use them as an unusual retro display for his terminal project. These devices are an alphanumeric display with a parallel interface that can show a subset of the ASCII character set as well as a cursor. He had 213 of them, so made plans for a 64 character by 16 line display, however on discovering a quantity of the parts were non-functional he had to scale back to 12 lines of 48 characters.

The terminal in action.
The terminal in action.

The displays are mounted on PCBs in groups of four, controlled by a PIC16F1459 and some shift registers. These boards are then daisy-chained via a TTL serial line. The whole display shares one of the three serial ports on a Teensy 3.1 with his retro keyboard that has its own PIC controller, the others serving a serial printer port and the terminal serial port. The Teensy software has two modes: serial terminal or a Tiny Basic interpreter, and the relevant repositories are linked from the project page.

Since each set of DL1416Bs takes 250 mA, the whole display consumes about 9 A at 5 volts. On top of that the keyboard uses another 500 mA, so a sufficiently powerful supply had to be incorporated. This is mounted along with the Teensy in a very well-made enclosure, and the whole is mounted on what looks like a surplus monitor stand for a very professional finish.

To take us through the terminal’s features he’s posted a YouTube video that we’ve placed below the break. It comes across as a surprisingly usable machine, as he logs into a Raspberry Pi and edits a file, and takes us through some features of the BASIC interpreter.

Continue reading “When a CRT Isn’t Retro Enough: LEDs”

By the Glow of the CRT

If you are a certain age, you probably remember writing software (or playing Adventure) bathed in an amber or green light from an old CRT terminal. If you are even older, you might have found it way better than punching cards, but that’s another story. [Tobi] wanted to relive those days (well, sounds like he is too young to have lived them to start with) so he hooked up a VT220 terminal to his Linux box.

This isn’t that surprising. Linux’s forefather, Unix, expected these kind of terminals (or a hard copy TeleType) and all the trappings for working with a glass terminal are still in there. You do have to deal with a few configuration items that [Tobi] works through.

In fact, it appears that he wrote his blog post using vi on that very VT220 using a text-based Web browser to research the links. He has a lot of resources for connecting a terminal of any sort (or even a terminal emulator) to a Linux computer.

There’s been a lot of interest in old terminals lately. You see a lot of old VT100s lying around. I personally have an ADDS Regent 100 that occasionally connects to several of my computers. You can see it in the video below.

Continue reading “By the Glow of the CRT”

Dumb Terminals And Raspberry Pis

Back in the old days, the cool kids didn’t have an Apple II or a Trash-80. The cool kids had jobs, and those jobs had Vaxxen all over the place. The usual way of working with a Vax would have been a terminal, a VT220 at least, or in the case of [Sudos]’ experiments with a Raspberry Pi, A DEC VT510, a single session, text only serial terminal.

Usually, when we see a ‘new hardware stuffed into old tech’ project like this, the idea is simply to find a use for the old hardware. That makes sense; a dumb terminal from the late 90s should be a bit rarer than a Raspberry Pi Zero. This is not the case for [Sudos]’s build. He recently came across a few Raspberry Pi Zeros at Microcenter, and looking for a use for them, he decided to turn a serial terminal into a Real Unix System™.

As you would expect from a serial terminal, connecting a Raspberry Pi and putting some awesome character graphics on the screen is as simple as a Max3232 board picked up from eBay, a WiFi dongle, and an Ethernet adapter. Connect the Pi to the terminal with a serial adapter cable, and you’re off to the races.

While the VT510 serial terminal is just about the end of the line as far as dedicated terminals go, there are classier options. The VT100 terminal, older than most of the Hackaday readership, features a port on its gigantic board, meant to connect to whatever weirdness was coming out of Maynard in the late 70s. You can attach a BeagleBone to this connector, making for a very slick stealth mod.

A Minitel Terminal As A USB Linux Terminal

If you paid a visit to France in the 1980s the chances are you’d have been surprised to see a little brown screen and keyboard sitting next to the telephones wherever you went. At the time, it was another reason apart from the food, wine, and super-fast trains to envy our Gallic cousins. This was Minitel, their take on the cutting-edge of online data services of the day.

Minitel stood apart from similar services of the day in most other countries, because of its business model. Unlike the UK’s Prestel or West Germany’s BTX for which you had to spend significant money on a terminal, the French Minitel terminals were free. Thus in the early 1980s everybody in France was busy using videotext while most of the rest of Europe was still excited by chipping bits of flint into arrow heads. Or at least, that’s how it seemed at the time to those of us who didn’t have Minitel.

The Minitel service was finally shuttered in 2012, but the terminals can still be found. [Tony Pigram] bought one, an Alcatel Minitel 1, and made it into something useful by turning it into a USB serial terminal for his Raspberry Pi. Surprisingly the physical interface between the Minitel and the USB port is a relatively simple level shifter, but the configuration of both the Minitel and the Pi was anything but.

The problem was that Minitel terminals were meant to work with Minitel, and [Tony]’s difficulties were increased by his machine being an earlier model without the handy function key to access settings found on later terminals. A lot of research paid dividends though, and he now has what must be one of the most compact and stylish CRT serial terminals available. We can’t help noticing it has a QWERTY keyboard and English menus, it would be interesting to know which non-French market it was made for.

We’ve featured an RS-232 integration into a Minitel terminal before here at Hackaday, but if you are really interested in Gallic retro-tech take a look at our discussion of their 8-bit scene.