Faded Beauty DMM Gets An OLED Makeover

When a fine piece of lab instrumentation crosses your bench, you’ve got to do your best to put it to work. But even in the highest quality devices no component lasts forever, especially vacuum tubes. For some vintage instruments with vacuum fluorescent displays, that means putting up with less-than-perfect digits in order to get that sweet, sweet precision. Or not – you can always reverse engineer the thing and add a spanking new OLED display.

The Hewlett-Packard 34401A digital multimeter that fell into [qu1ck]’s lap was a beauty, but it had clearly seen better days. The display was full of spuriously illuminated dots and segments, making it hard to use the 6.5 digit DMM. After a futile bit of probing to see if a relatively easy driver fix would help, and with a replacement display being made of solid unobtanium, [qu1ck] settled in for the long process of reverse engineering the front panel protocol. As luck would have it, H-P used the SPI protocol to talk to the display, and it wasn’t long before [qu1ck] had a decent prototype working. The final version is much more polished, with a display sized to fit inside the original space occupied by the VFD. The original digits and annunciator icons are recreated, and he added a USB port and the bargraph display show in the clip below.

We think it looks fabulous, and both the firmware and hardware are on Github if you’d like to rescue a similar meter. You may want to check our guide to buying old test gear first, though, to get the most bang for your buck.

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Marquee Display Uses Six Dozen Surplus VFD Tubes to Great Effect

The quest to repurpose surplus parts into new and interesting displays never ends, it seems. And the bigger the display, the better, with extra points for using some really obscure part, like these surplus Russian vacuum-fluorescent tubes turned into a marquee display.

As [tonyp7] freely admits, this is a pet project that’s just for the fun of it, made possible by the flood of surplus parts on the market these days. The VFD tubes are IV-25s, Russian tubes that can be had by the fistful for a song from the usual sources. The seven small elements in the tube were intended to make bar graph displays like VU meters, but [tonyp7] ganged up twelve side by side to make 84-pixel displays. The custom driver board for each matrix needs three of the old SN75518 driver chips, in 40-pin DIPs no less. A 3D-printed bracket holds the tubes and the board for each module; it looks like a clock is the goal, with six modules ganged together. But the marquee display shown below is great too, and we look forward to seeing the finished project.

From faux-Nixies made with LEDs to flip-segment displays driven by relay logic to giant seven-segment LEDs that can be 3D-printed, we really like the trend to unique displays. What are you dreaming up?

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It’s a Nixie! It’s a VFD! No, It’s a Custom LED Display in a Tube

Like the look of Nixies but they just seem a little overdone? Or perhaps you just don’t want the hassles of a high-voltage power supply? Then maybe these faux-Nixie LED “tube” displays will find a way into your next clock build.

For his 2018 Hackaday Prize entry, [bobricius] decided that what the world needs is a Nixie that’s not a Nixie. To that end, each display is formed by seven surface-mount LEDs soldered to a seven-segment shaped PCB and slipped into a glass tube. The LEDs are in 4014 packages so they’re only 4 millimeters long, but what they lack in size they make up for in brightness. We’re not sure if it’s a trick of the camera, but the LEDs certainly seem to put off a bluish glow that’s reminiscent of vacuum-fluorescent displays — it’s like a Nixie and a VFD all rolled up in one package.  The current case, which hides the clock circuitry on the lower part of the PCB, is just plastic, but this would look spiffy in a fine wooden case.

Could this be another Nixie tube killer that never was? Perhaps, but wherever it ends up, we like the look of it, and we’re glad it’s one of the early Hackaday Prize entries. Have you got something to enter in the greatest hardware competition on Earth? If not, get cracking!

Quick and Dirty Driver Tips for Surplus VFDs

Sometimes it seems like eBay is the world’s junk bin, and we mean that in the best possible way. The variety of parts available for a pittance boggles the mind sometimes, especially when the parts were once ordered in massive quantities but have since gone obsolete. The urge to order parts like these in bulk can be overwhelming, and sooner or later, you’ll find yourself with a fistful of old stuff but no idea how to put it to use.

Case in point: the box of Russian surplus seven-segment vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) that [w_k_fay] had to figure out how to use. The result is a tutorial on quick and dirty VFD drivers that looks pretty handy. [w_k_fay] takes pains to point out that these are practical tips for putting surplus VFDs to work, as opposed to engineered solutions. He starts with tips on characterizing your surplus tubes in case you don’t have a pinout. A 1.5 V battery will suffice for the hot cathode, while a 9 V battery will turn on the segments. The VFDs can be treated much like a common cathode LED display, and a simple circuit driving the tube with a 4026 decade counter can be seen below. He also covers the challenges of driving VFDs from microcontrollers, and promises a full build of a frequency counter wherein the mysteries of multiplexing will be addressed.

Sounds like it’s time to stock up on those surplus VFDs and put them to work. For inspiration, take a look at this minimalist VFD clock, or perhaps mix VFDs with Nixies to satisfy your urge for all things glowy.

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Celebrate Display Diversity for a Circuit Circus Clock

There’s a lot to be said for nice, tidy projects where everything lines up and looks pretty. Seeing straight lines and pleasing proportions speaks to our obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and tends to soothe the mind and calm the spirit. But disorder is not without its charm, and mixing it up a little from time to time, such as with this mixed-media digital clock, can be a good idea.

Now, we know what you’re thinking — yet another Nixie clock. True, but that’s only half the story — or more accurately, one-sixth. There’s but a single Nixie in [Fuselage]’s circus-punk themed clock, used for the least significant digit in the hours part of the display. The other digits are displayed with four seven-segment devices — a Numitron, a vacuum fluorescent display, and an LED dot display — plus a real oddball, an old electromechanical display with individual slides for each character and a rear-screen projector. The RTC part of the project is standard Arduino fare, but as you can imagine the power supply needed for such a diversity of displays is pretty complex and has to provide everything from +5 to -270 volts. Each display needs its own driver, too, making this more of a zoo than a circus. The mixed up look just works with the circus theme, too. We’d really like more information on the projector display, though.

Looking for a real statement for your next clock build? Check out the rare as hens’ teeth NIMO tube.

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VFD Puts the Suck Back into Desoldering Station

A dedicated desoldering station is a fantastic tool if you’re in the business of harvesting components from old gear. Having heat and suction in a single tool is far more convenient than futzing with spring-loaded solder suckers or braid, but only as long as the suction in the desoldering tool has a little oomph behind it. So if the suction on your solder sucker is starting to suck, this simple VFD can help restore performance.

Luckily for [Mr. Carlson], his Hakko 470 desoldering station is equipped with an AC induction motor, so it’s a perfect candidate for a variable frequency drive to boost performance. He decided to build a simple VFD that boosts the frequency from 60-Hz mains to about 90-Hz, thereby jacking the motor speed up by 50%. The VFD is just a TL494 PWM chip gating the primary coil of a power transformer through a MOSFET. Duty cycle and frequency are set by trimmers, and the whole thing is housed in an old chassis attached to the Hakko via an anachronistic socket and plug from the vacuum tube days. That’s a nice touch, though, because the Hakko can be returned to stock operation by a simple bridging plug, and the video below shows the marked difference in motor speed both with and without the VFD plugged in.

We’ve marveled at [Mr. Carlson]’s instrument packed lab before and watched his insider’s tour of a vintage radio transmitter. Here’s hoping we get to see more of his hopped-up solder sucker in action soon.

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Reusing Motors From Washing Machines

Big ol’ motors are great when you need to get a big job done, but they can be expensive or hard to source new. However, there’s a source of big, fat, juicy motors right at home for most people – the garden variety washing machine. These motors would usually require a special controller, however [Jerry] is here to show us how to hack the controller that comes with the machine.

The hack begins as [Jerry] decides to gut a Maytag MAH7500 Neptune front loader. Many projects exist that borrow the motor but rely on a seperately sourced variable frequency drive, so the goal was to see if the machine’s original controller was usable. The machine was first troubleshooted using a factory service mode, which spins the drum at a set speed if everything is working correctly.

From there, it was a relatively simple job to source the machine schematics to identify the pinouts of the various connectors.  After some experimentation with a scope and a function generator, [Jerry] was able to get the motor spinning with the original controller doing the hard work.

It’s a simple hack, and one that relies on the availability of documentation to get the job done, but it’s a great inspiration for anyone else looking to drive similar motors in their own projects. The benefit is that by using the original motor controller, you can be confident that it’s properly rated for the motor on hand.

Perhaps instead of an induction motor, you’d rather drive a high powered brushless DC motor? This project can help.