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.

Linux Fu: Controlling the Terminal

A Linux terminal has a lot more features than the TeleType of yore. On a TeleType, text spews out and scrolls up and is gone forever. A real terminal can use escape characters to do navigate around and emulate most of what you like about GUIs. However, doing this at the lowest level is a chore and limits portability. Luckily, all the hard work has already been done.

First, there’s a large database of terminal capabilities available for you to use: terminfo.  And in addition, there’s a high-level library called curses or ncurses that simplifies writing programs to control the terminal display. Digging deep into every nook and cranny of ncurses could take years. Instead, I’m going to talk about using a program that comes with ncurses to control the terminal, called tput. Using these two commands, you can figure out what kind of terminal you’re dealing with, and then manipulate it nearly to your heart’s content. Let’s get started!

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Run a Linux Terminal on Cheap E-Ink Displays

If you haven’t kept up with the world of e-ink displays, here’s some good news: they are pretty cheap now. For as little as $15 you can get a small e-ink display that has good enough performance and contrast to actually do something useful. There’s only one problem: figuring out how to drive them in your project.

Tired of seeing nothing but wiring diagrams and sample code when it came to actually putting these e-ink modules to use, [Jouko Strömmer] decided to try his hand at creating a turn-key application for these gorgeous little displays. The result is PaperTTY, a Python program that allows the user to open up a fully functional Linux virtual terminal on an e-ink display.

Of course, there are some caveats. For one, this all assumes you’re using a Waveshare display (specifically their 2.13 inch HAT) connected to a Raspberry Pi over SPI. Not to say that’s the only hardware combination that will work, but it’s the only one that [Jouko] has done any testing on at this point. If you want to try to shake things up in terms of hardware, you might need to get your hands dirty.

The advantage of being able to open a Linux VT on one of these e-ink displays is pretty simple: you can run basically any piece of software you want on it. Rather than having to come up with software that specifically features support for the display, you can just use (or write) standard Linux console programs. [Jouko] mentions a number of popular programs such as vim and irssi, but you could just as easily write a Bash script to dump whatever data you like to the screen.

In the video after the break [Jouko] shows PaperTTY in action for the doubters who think these sorts of displays are no good for interactive use. The display is very crisp and readable, with no signs of flickering. Overall he says the experience is not unlike using a slow SSH connection. It might not be how we’d like to use a computer full time, but we can definitely see the potential.

With the recent progress with Kindle hacking, it seems that interest in e-ink is as high as ever. Despite what the haters might claim, it’s a useful niche tech that still holds plenty of promise.

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Ask Hackaday: Whatever Happened to Wire Wrapping?

Back in the 70s when I started getting interested in electronics, tons of magazines catered to the hobbyist market. Popular Electronics was my favorite, and I think I remember the advertisements more than anything, probably because they outnumbered articles by a large margin. Looking back, it seemed like a lot of ad space was sold to companies hawking the tools and materials needed for wire wrapping, which was very popular for prototyping in the days before solderless breadboards were readily available. I remember beauty shots of neat rows of small, gold posts, with stripped wires wrapped evenly around them.

To the budding hobbyist, wire wrapping looked like the skill to have. With a huge selection of posts, terminals, and sockets for ICs and discrete components, as well as a wide range of manual and powered wrapping tools, it seemed like you could build anything with wire wrapping. But fast forward just a decade or so, and wire wrapping seemed to drop out of favor. And today — well, does anyone even wire wrap anymore?

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Pocket-Sized Workstation Sports Pi Zero, Pop-Up Screen

Many of us could use a general-purpose portable workstation, something small enough to pocket but still be ready for a quick troubleshooting session. Terminal apps on a smartphone will usually do the job fine, but they lack the panache of this pocketable pop-top Raspberry Pi workstation.

It doesn’t appear that [Michael Horne] has a specific mission in mind for his tiny Linux machine, but that’s OK — we respect art for art’s sake. The star of the show is the case itself, a unit intended for dashboard use with a mobile DVD player or backup camera. The screen is a 4.3″ TFT with a relatively low-resolution, so [Michael] wasn’t expecting too much from it. And he faced some challenges, like dealing with the different voltage needs for the display and the Raspberry Pi Zero W he intended to stuff into the base. Luckily, the display regulates the 12-volt supply internally to 3.3-volts, so he just tapped into the 3.3-volt pin on the Pi and powered everything from a USB charger. The display also has some smarts built in, blanking until composite video is applied, which caused a bit of confusion at first. A few case mods to bring connectors out, a wireless keyboard, and he had a nice little machine for whatever.

No interest in a GUI machine? Need a text-only serial terminal? We’ve seen that before too. And here’s one with a nice slide-out keyboard built in.

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Raspberry Pi Zero Drives Tiny RC Truck

We’re not sure which is more fun – putting together a little RC truck with parts laying around on your workbench, or driving it around through a Linux terminal. We’ll take the easy road and say they’re both equally fun. [technodict] had some spare time on his hands and decided to build such a truck.

He started off with a great little chassis that can act as the base for many projects. Powering the four motors is a cheap little dual H bridge motor driver and a couple rechargeable batteries. But the neatest part of this build is that it’s controlled using a little bit of python and driven directly from a terminal, made possible by the Raspberry Pi Zero of course.

With Raspberry Pi Zero now having built in WiFi and Bluetooth – we should see a lot more projects popping up with one at its heart. Be sure to visit [technodict’s] blog for full source and details. And let us know how you could use that little chassis for your next mobile project!

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.