For those who might have missed it, there was a brief period in the mid-00s where gamers everywhere eschewed consoles and PCs in favor of simple Flash-based games to be played in a browser. Among these was the game Peasant’s Quest, created by the folks at Homestar Runner and modeled after video games from the 80s. [deater] was a fan of this game and wondered if it would actually be possible to play this retro-styled game on actual retro hardware.
For the experiment he decided on using an Apple II since this computer is featured as a prop rather often by the developers at Videlectrix. It turns out that with some determination it’s actually possible to run this game on the late 80s hardware with very little modifications. Squeezing the sprites into the required space was a challenge, as well as getting the sound tracks to play properly, but in the end the game runs within the hardware’s 280×192 resolution with 6 colors. There are also detailed notes on how the complicated graphics system on the Apple works for those willing to take a deep dive. There’s a lot going on here, but surprisingly few compromises needed to be made to get this to work.
The game itself is available on the project’s webpage for anyone who still has an Apple II kicking around, or for anyone who is willing to try it out in an emulator. Of course you could always play the original Flash version but that’s missing a certain charm that decades old retrocomputers have with games. We certainly aren’t seeing video game controllers like those built for the Apple II anymore, for example.
In terms of ease of integration and density of the information that can be shown, it’s hard to argue with the fact that modern displays like LCD panels are anything but superior to the character-based displays of yore. Throw one into a project, add a little code from a few off-the-shelf libraries to drive it, and you’re on to the next job.
Efficient, yes, but what does this approach do for the engineer’s soul? What design itch does it scratch; what aesthetic does it celebrate? Nostalgic questions, true, and not every project lends itself to exploring old display technologies. But some still do, thankfully, and when the occasion calls for it, we’re glad that there are those out there who are still actively involved in the retro display community, making sure that what was once state-of-the-art technology is still able to be added to modern projects.
There’s no doubt that Fran Blanche is one of those passing the torch of vintage displays down to the next generation. You’ll certainly know Fran from her popular Fran Lab channel on YouTube, where in addition to about a million other interests, she has explored some really cool vintage displays: the Nimo cathode-ray tube, super-bright incandescent seven-segment displays, the delightfully strange “Bina-View”, and many, many more. Fran will stop by the Hack Chat to talk about all these retro displays, what she’s learned from collecting them, and how they shaped the displays we take so much for granted these days. Oh, and perhaps we’ll also talk about her upcoming ride on “G-Force 1” as well.
A monochromator is an optical instrument that permits only a narrow selection of wavelengths to be transmitted from a source, and the particular model [Doug] obtained renders visual light monochromatic by way of a mechanically-adjusted system of mirrors and diffraction gratings that allows only the selected wavelength to pass. The big dial is how the operator selects the desired wavelength, and is labeled in ‘mu’ (or milli-micro), but [Doug] helpfully points out the more modern term for that is nanometers.
How does it work? Light enters the device via an opening at the base, and only the selected wavelength exits from the top. The dial’s range is from 450 nm to 640 nm (representing violet-blue to red), which [Doug] demonstrates by shining a white LED flashlight into the unit and showing how only green, red, or blue will exit from the top depending on the setting of the dial.
An interesting side note is that with this particular device, images can be rendered monochromatic but otherwise remain intact. [Doug] demonstrates this by viewing a small section of his LCD monitor through the device, as shown in the photo he managed to capture.
It’s an interesting piece of vintage equipment that shows what is possible with passive optical components and a clever mechanical design. These devices are therefore entirely manually-operated tools (at least until someone sticks a stepper motor to the adjustment dial to create an automated scanner, that is.)
[Ken Shirriff]’s analysis of a fascinating high-tech paperweight created by GE at the height of the space race is as informative as it is fun to look at. This device was created to show off GE’s thin-film electronics technology, and while it’s attractive enough on its own, there’s an added feature: as soon as the paperweight is picked up, it begins emitting a satellite-like rhythmic beep. It is very well-made, and was doubtlessly an impressive novelty for its time. As usual, [Ken] dives into what exactly makes it tick, and shares important history along the way.
In the clear area of the paperweight is a thin-film circuit, accompanied by a model of an early satellite. The module implements a flip-flop, and the flat conductors connect it to some additional components inside the compartment on the left, which contains a power supply and the necessary parts to create the beeps when it is picked up.
Thin-film electronics reduced the need for individual components by depositing material onto a substrate to form things like resistors and capacitors. The resulting weight and space savings could be considerable, and close-ups of the thin film module sure look like a precursor to integrated circuits. The inside of the left compartment contains a tilt switch, a battery, a vintage earphone acting as a small speaker, and a small block of components connected to the thin-film module. This block contains two oscillators made with unijunction transistors (UJTs); one to create the beep, and one to control each beep’s duration. The construction and overall design of the device is easily recognizable, although some of the parts are now obsolete.
If you’d like a bit more detail on exactly how this device worked, including circuit diagrams and historical context, be sure to click that first link, and pay attention to the notes and references at the end. One other thing that’s clear is that functional electronics embedded in clear plastic shapes simply never go out of style.
The first order of business was to open the machine up and inspect the internals. Visible corrosion gets cleaned up with oxalic acid, old electrolytic capacitors are replaced as a matter of course, and any corroded traces get careful repair. Removing corrosion from sockets requires desoldering the part for cleaning then re-soldering, so this whole process can be a lot of work. Fortunately, vintage hardware was often designed with hand-assembly in mind, so parts tend to be accessible for servicing with decent visibility in the process. The keyboard was entirely disassembled and de-yellowed, yielding an eye-poppingly attractive result.
Once the computer itself was working properly, it was time for a few modern upgrades. One was to give the machine an adapter to use a CF card in place of an internal IDE hard drive, and [drygol] did a great job of using a 3D-printed piece to make the CF2IDE adapter look like a factory offering. The internal floppy drive was also replaced with a GOTEK floppy emulator (also with a 3D-printed adapter) for another modern upgrade.
The fully refurbished and upgraded machine looks slick, so watch the Acorn Archimedes A3020 show off what it can do in the video (embedded below), and maybe feel a bit of nostalgia.
One thing about vintage computers is that they depend greatly on whether or not one can plug a compatible monitor into them. That’s what’s behind [Tube Time]’s Graphics Gremlin, a modern-design retro ISA video card that uses an FPGA to act just like a vintage MDA or CGA video card on the input end, but provides a VGA port for more modern display output options. (Actually, there is also an RGBI connector and a composite video out, but the VGA is probably the most broadly useful.)
Why bother making a new device to emulate an old ISA video card when actual vintage video cards are still plentiful? Because availability of the old cards isn’t the bottleneck. The trouble is that MDA or CGA monitors just aren’t as easy to come across as they once were, and irreplaceable vintage monitors that do still exist risk getting smashed during shipping. Luckily, VGA monitors (or at least converters that accept VGA input) are far more plentiful.
As functional as the application is, there are still improvements and optimizations to be made. To address this, [omni_shaNker] put out a call for beta testers on Reddit, so if that’s up your alley be sure to get in touch. A video demonstration and overview that is chock-full of technical details is also embedded below; be sure to give it a watch to see what the project is all about.