Ok, I now have permission to talk about this project in full and in public. I'm working with Alan Kay to build six replicas* of a Xerox PARC Alto display for use in a museum exhibit**. Visitors will see a real Alto and then walk over to one of the replicas to futz with Smalltalk '78***.
Here's a nice writeup of a different project that rejuvenated an actual Alto.
* by "replicas" I mean that they'll look and feel as close to the original as possible but inside will be modern technology. I'm not replicating the original CRTs and driver electronics.
** the museum is in the UK (where Kay now lives) but I'll leave it to them to make their own announcement.
*** this version of Smalltalk was thought lost but then was saved by a dumpster diver who found Alto drive cartridges in the trash!
My general plan is to laser cut and bend inner frames for the portrait oriented displays and the uniquely U-shaped bases, then hang the case elements (with their many complex curves) and electronics on those frames. I've ordered a large format additive printer to avoid seams and joints where they don't belong and while that's in transit I'll be running materials tests and furthering the CAD drawings. I have reference photos of Kay's personal Alto so that I can nail the dimensions.
If this seems to you a bit out of the blue then you're a bit correct, but I have a history of reproducing real and theoretical intellectual infrastructure (e.g. my two Memex builds) and I used to work as a prototype engineer in the PARC lab where the Altos (and laser printing, and Ethernet) originated. That all happened well before I worked there, but that's how I'm connected to that community.
In the meantime, if you're into the Alto then definitely swing by this link to see a metric boatload of photos and document scans like this one from the hardware manual.
While looking into texturing techniques to replicate the original cast parts of the Alto displays I ran across this video about wall texturing and painting techniques. Now I may never be satisfied with flat, boring walls.
So far I'm pretty happy with OSH Cut. Their instant quote system is pretty good at telling me how to tweak my designs to get the best cut and bend. The one hiccup I had was quickly and effectively responded to by a support person, Emily. I ordered a couple of samples to see the quality of their cuts and finishes and they look good, so my next step is to polish the design a bit and then order parts for a prototype!
The display swivel mechanism design is coming together. It's basically a cylinder and a hemisphere that squeeze a hemisphere that's welded to the display's base. #FreeCAD
A Creality CR-10 S5 is coming my way so I need to rearrange my shop to make room. It has a print volume of 500mm x 500mm x 500mm so it'll handle Alto case parts without adding unnecessary seams. 😸
@trevorflowers this sounds amazing, very interested to witness the process! Congrats on being a part of it!
@tendigits Thanks! Yeah, this project arrived just at the right time in my life and includes many aspects that are my jam. I feel very lucky.
It can be frustrating to know what you want, but have no idea what to call it, and therefore what to search for!
On Popular Mechanics, Nov. 1921, there are some way to reuse a steel trench helmet: bird baths, oil-drip pans, greenhouse…
@trevorflowers There's a fun bit in Zodiac where the main character is wandering around a hardware store looking for things to use completely differently from their intended purpose—as is traditionally done in hardware stores.
I had a moment a couple months ago, looking at a Nylabone in the pet section, thinking "if I had a lathe, this would actually be perfect for repairing my trailer hitch".
@varx I vaguely remember that scene but I read it years (decades?) ago. But yeah, having machines and skills to turn, mill, and weld turns almost any product into a raw material.
@trevorflowers Even without that! There's a YouTube channel I follow (NightHawkInLight) that's mostly about DIY stuff (primitive skills, air cannons, sparklers, random stuff), and it's amazing how many things he casually appropriates from their intended uses -- a steel brake line for a thermic lance, a furniture floor-protector for a flapper valve, stuff like that. And that's without tools.
(My trailer repair ended up using a chunk of I think a thick rubber gas line or whatever.)
@trevorflowers I'm really excited to see how this comes together! Are you going to use CRTs at all or will these be LCDs behind glass/plastic?
@phooky They'll be LCDs. It won't be as cool as CRTs but we don't have time/budget/skillz to make CRTs work and look right.
@swetland @phooky That's a good point. We haven't settled on the computer. Originally when I thought I was making miniatures we were planning on a SBC but at original size we have more room inside (where the CRT was) and as an indefinite museum exhibit it needs to be both stable and easily replaced.
@trevorflowers @phooky You probably don't need a super-high-end NUC -- the Alto appears to have had a 606x808 pixel display. You'll want a modern higher res panel for room to render the artifacts, maybe 2560x1440. But having the GPU's work be "scale up and distort" is not going to make it break a sweat.
Would some simple optics be beneficial in helping create those artifacts? (Or rather, beneficial enough for that to make sense.)
Things that come to mind that might be:
- pixel shape distortion (but that might be easy with a very slight superresolution),
- pixel shape and cross-pixel blending (but that would require one (Fresnel?) lens per pixel, which would probably be very hard to produce~~).
Also, are there ways to replicate the CRT's refresh cycle (both the existence of the flicker and the fact that each pixel is dark for a large fraction of the time)? I guess you could blink the backlight?
A notary I knew in the middle '80 had a bulky central computer with terminals in portrait mode, to fit a whole sheet of legal paper, but it wasn't an Alto.
May I ask, what the difference of ST78 wrt ST80 are? Thanks!
Otherwise, fantastic project! Where can I stay up to date?
@alexshendi1 I'm not enough of a Smalltalk nerd to answer your first question. It's the version that Kay likes the most and I trust him to know. :-) As to where you can stay up to date on the project, that would be this thread.
Oh my, I'm so excited I can't sleep!
Just see below:
@Dreamer9177 The Alto shipped in 1973 and the THGTTG show was in 1981 so maybe the Marvin designers were inspired by the display!
Machines.social is a Mastodon instance for people who Trevor Flowers knows and are of the maker, machinist, and/or manufacturer persuasion.