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. 😸
This morning's task: Model the case that will slip over the metal frame of the base. The metal frame will be laser cut and bent so I had to design in some material on the front arms that will be ground away to fit inside the case.
TIL about the Alto "nose boot" in which eleven keys needed to be simultaneously pressed in order to set specific bits during boot of an early build of the OS.
It's not in scope for this project but once I've delivered the Alto display replicas I'll be tempted to replicate the custom Honeywell keyboard that slips into the front cutout of the base. Along with the chording keys and mouse, it would complete the user-facing aspects of the Alto. The Dorado CPU could also drive an Alto display when necessary.
I drew up the bezel in #FreeCAD which is the last major external element of the Alto. There are still a number of internal features like fasteners and the LCD fixture as well as a few tweaks to the curves to more closely match the curvaceous cases.
@trevorflowers Do you intend to reproduce these labels exactly, not at all, or in the same style but updated to reflect the fact that you built the replicas?
@rdnlsmith I think it would be a bit shady to reproduce them exactly, though in reality I think that nobody looking closely will be fooled since we're not using CRTs. 😸 For the museum units I'll make up new labels in the same style but with my information.
@rdnlsmith The original cases are cast aluminum but the replicas will have a steel inner frame and printed case. I'll attempt to replicate the texture and color but it'll be an obvious replica to anyone who peeks underneath or inside. Maybe one day someone will commission cast aluminum parts, but not for this project.
@trevorflowers Nice! P.S., thanks for continuing to write this thread—it’s been very interesting to follow along thus far.
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