Pity the aficionado of rare vintage displays. While Nixies and VFD tubes get all the attention and benefit from a thriving market to satisfy demand, the rarer displays from the mid-20th century period are getting harder and harder to find. One copy of an especially rare display is hard enough to find. Six copies for a clock? That’s a tall order.
That doesn’t mean you can’t fudge it, though, which is how this faux-NIMO clock came to be. [Paul Bricmont] was inspired by [Fran Blanche]’s NIMO tube primer, wherein the rare, single-digit CRT display was put through its paces. We’ve got to admit, it’s an easy display to fall in love with, thanks to its eerie blue phosphor glow, high voltage supply, and general quirkiness. [Paul] was unable to lay hands on a single tube, though, so he faked it with six tiny TFT displays and some plastic lenses. The lenses mimic the curved front glass of the original NIMO, while the TFT displays provide the stencil-style images of each numeral. The phosphor glow comes from replacing the stock white TFT backlight with a Neopixel array that can produce just the right shade of blue-green. 3D-printed modules hold two digits each, and the usual Arduino components run the show. The effect is quite convincing, although we bet some software tweaks could add things like faux burn-in and perhaps soften the edges of the digits to really sell it.
What other rare displays could be replicated this way? Given the variety of displays that were tried in the pre-LED era, it may be a rich vein to mine.
[CuriousMarc] was restoring an old Model 19 TeleType. The design for these dates back to the 1930s, and they are built like tanks (well, except for the ones built during the war with parts using cheaper metals like zinc). Along the way, he restored a hefty tube-based power supply that had two very large electrolytic capacitors. These dated from the 1950s, and common wisdom says you should always replace old electrolytics because they don’t age well and could damage the assembly if powered up. [Marc] didn’t agree with common wisdom, and he made a video to defend his assertion which you can see below.
If you look at the construction of electrolytic capacitors, one plate of the capacitor is actually a thin layer that is formed electrically. In some cases, a capacitor with this plate is damaged can be reformed either by deliberate application of a constant current or possibly even just in normal operation.
Reading an article about the first transistorized Hi-Fi amplifier, [Netzener] got the itch to make one. But what to use for the starting point? Enter an old Radio Shack P-Box stereo amplifier kit. After a few modernizations and tweaks, the result is an 8-transistor stereo amplifier that’s aesthetically pleasing, sounds great, and is fully documented.
The Radio Shack kit used germanium transistors, but with their high leakage current and low thermal conductivity, he decided to convert it to work with silicon transistors. He also made some improvements to the push-pull bias circuit and limited the high-frequency response. As for the finished product, in true [Netzener] style, he assembled it all to look like the original completed Radio Shack amplifier. He even wrote up a manual which you’d think, as we did at first, was the original one, giving that old, comfortable feeling of reading quality Radio Shack documentation.
Check out the video below where he uses a 9 V battery and half a watt per channel to fill a room with clear, stereo sound.
When he was but a wee hacker, [WhiskeyDrinker] loved to play with the big console stereo his grandparents had. The idea of a functional piece of furniture always appealed to him, and he decided that when he grew up and had a place of his own he’d get a similar stereo. Fast forward to the present, and a Craigslist ad for a working Penncrest stereo seemed to be a dream come true. Until it wasn’t.
The final result really does look like some kind of alternate timeline piece of consumer electronics: where chunky physical buttons and touch screens coexisted in perfect harmony. The vintage stereo aficionados will probably cry foul, but let them. [WhiskeyDrinker] did a fantastic job of blending old and new, being respectful to the original hardware and aesthetic where it made sense, and clearing house where only nostalgia had lease.
A HiFiBerry DAC+ Pro is used to get some decent audio out of the Raspberry Pi, and the touch screen interface is provided by Volumio. [WhiskeyDrinker] mentions that it even has a GPIO plugin which he successfully used to handle getting the physical buttons to play nice with their digital counterparts.
If you want to not take for granted how easy and seamless computers have become, take up vintage computing as a hobby. If you venture down the retro path, you’ll quickly question how anyone ever got any useful work done with computers, and the farther back you go in computer history, the more difficult everything seems to become.
Case in point: how do you easily transfer files between a home-brew PC/XT and your modern desktop? Back in the day we did it with null modem cables or by sneaker-netting stacks of floppies, but [Scott M. Baker] found another way — putting a Raspberry Pi on the ISA bus as a virtual floppy drive. The heart of the ISA card is an IDT7130, a 1-kb RAM chip that allows simultaneous asynchronous access over dual ports. One port talks to the ISA bus and the other talks to the GPIO of the Pi, after level-shifting to make everything voltage compatible, of course. [Scott] wrote a driver for the card, plugged a Pi Zero W into the header pins, and threw a Python server together that makes local images available to the shared memory on the card. The upshot of this is that the retro machine thinks it has a floppy in it, but it’s actually a server. The video below has tons of detail and shows the card in action. Pretty slick.
[Scott]’s projects are always fun to check out, and he really seems to have the retro life dialed in. Whether it’s old jukebox hacks or a Unix-ish OS for Z80s, there’s plenty to learn. Although we’d like to see more about that PC/XT in the video; are those Nixies we spy along the front panel?
In the past we’ve mentioned how there are different schools of thought in terms of how to bring a vintage piece of hardware into the 21st century. You can go down the preservationist’s route, carefully grafting the original components with more modern ones, or you can take the nuclear option and blow all that dusty old gear out of the water. [Derek Traxler] clearly decided to go with the latter option on his recent conversion of 1920’s era Claratone tube radio to an Internet radio and podcast player. Not only is there little left of the original device beyond its knobs and wooden case, but he’s even managed to cram a Windows 10 computer into the base for good measure.
The core of the radio is a LattePanda, an extremely powerful Intel single board computer. It’s running Windows, and loads up a list of Internet radio streams and podcasts to play from a USB thumb drive that’s built into an old vacuum tube. The LattePanda uses its built-in Arduino to interface with the radio’s original front panel knobs, which now are used to switch between streams. A particularly neat effect is the static and cross-talk that’s artificially added when switching “stations”, making it sound like you’re really dialing in a station rather than just selecting between digital files.
On the audio side, the LattePanda is connected to a SX400 amplifier, which in turn drives the external speakers. While [Derek] mentions it isn’t quite perfected, a MSGEQ7 graphic equalizer chip is used to control LEDs mounted inside the original radio’s vacuum tubes. In the video after the break, you can see the tubes flashing madly along with the music, giving an interactive effect to the final product. Unfortunately it seems you can only see the tubes when the radio has its “hood” up, though.
These days, a good proxy for hacking prowess is getting Doom playable on the oldest piece of hardware imaginable. While we respect and applaud these efforts, perhaps the bar should be set a bit higher. Like orbital mechanics on an early 80s Kaypro, perhaps?
At least that’s the hurdle [Chris Fenton] set for himself as a fun project for his spare time with his Kaypro 2/84, a vintage Z80 clocking in at a screaming 4 MHz and 64-kB of RAM. With its built-in 80×25, 9″ green phosphor CRT monitor and flip-top keyboard, the Kaypro fit into that loveable luggable category of machines and predated IBM’s and Apple’s market dominance by a few years. The CP/M operating system has actually aged pretty well — but well enough to port [Chris]’ Deep Dish Nine, a graphical game written for the Arduboy that uses Kerbal-like orbital mechanics skills to deliver interplanetary pizzas? In the first instance, no — the game, ported to Turbo Pascal, only managed fractional frames per second, rendering it unplayable. But with some very clever coding, [Chris] was able to improve refresh rates 10-fold. The optimization road not taken includes hardware hacks, like overclocking the Z80 or even replacing it with an FPGA and emulator, but that’s hardly keeping with the spirit of the thing.