Old Tech Find – Unigraph Barometer

A truly great find on Gumtree this evening, a “Unigraph” desktop barometer from the 1930s. I just had to have this cool-looking thing as soon as I saw the ad, I drove round and picked it up straightaway, £10.

Up top it has a Fahrenheit temperature display, with a manual date indicator on the right of the (deco style?) stand, but it’s the barometer display that really attracted me. Instead of having a needle that meanders from Fair to Stormy this thing has what appears to be a decorated paper drum inside, that rotates to display a weather scene matching the current barometric pressure. An amazing data visualisation for the time!

The only slight problem is – it seems to be working perfectly. Both the temperature and pressure drums are wiggling fairly freely. I had great visions of keeping the visuals the same and recreating the mechanism with servos and weather API calls, illuminating the case from the inside and swapping the ratty date cards for an e-ink display!

I’ll have to keep an eye on it over the coming days as it gets used to the rarefied climate in my office. If it doesn’t change with the weather – well it’s coming apart.



Really Old Tech

A fascinating Old Tech find at the car boot this week – a wax cylinder “Dictaphone Cameo Model” office transcribing machine.

Not a robotic wine rack

It would have been used in an office around the 1930s, likely in combination with other emerging technology like the telephone and the typewriter. It must have been quite the leap forward in efficiency at the time, though it seems equal parts clunky & bulky now.

Under the hood

It retains a lot of elegance though, and with those castors you can imagine it being dragged from one desk to another. It’s missing its control pedals, flexible speaking tube and horn, but the mechanism looks sound and the recording/playback head moves freely as it would have run up & down a wax cylinder around eighty years ago.

Take a letter…

I’ve not decided what to do with it as yet, its purchase coincided with my recent office renovations so for now it’s just for display.

It’d be nice to build a replacement speaking tube for it though, and maybe in a non-destructive way adapt it to record voice memos and upload / transcribe them, that’d be a lot of fun and possibly a straightforward conversion.

Autumnal OutRun

Another recent car boot find costing £2, a 1986 tabletop #OutRun game (or what’s left of it). This thing is absolutely trashed cosmetically, but has a strong look and an absolute ton of potential.

The main controls are a start button, high-low shifter on the left and that cool wheel. Amazingly it still kind of works, it chirps into life with a few beeps and bloops when you press the button and the LCD screen still partly shows the iconic OutRun car you’d control.

To be honest it was only when I took the LCD closeup pic today and saw the car that I realised it was an OutRun game, from there looking closely at the remaining sticker on the wheel I could just make out “Run”, confirming my hopes.

This would have been a really cool game at the time, and after researching what it looked like originally it’s accelerated quickly from the “to do” shelf onto the workbench.

And here it is in the 1989 Argos catalogue:

The thing is I just loved OutRun as a teenager, both in the arcades and on my Spectrum, playing Forza Horizon 4 with the kids yesterday really reminded me of those days. And oddly enough the cassette I used as a base for the “Old Tech. New Spec” branding is my very own original copy.

So here’s the plan.

  • Have it apart and figure out how the original controls work
  • Get the controls working with RetroPie
  • Possibly install an Adafruit Joy Bonnet in the centre of the wheel (to allow other games to be played, Mario Kart 64 runs great on a Pi 3 Model B+)
  • Install a 5″ 4:3 LCD TV in place of the existing LCD screen
  • Make some new bodywork, wheels etc and paint the whole thing, making some decals like the original.

It’ll be a decent-sized project but fun to build and well worth it to have my own unique bar-top OutRun game. Stay tuned for updates!

Sunday Roasted

Back in the summer heatwave I picked up this roasted old game console at the car boot for £3 – it’s an Interton VC 4000, an early German-made 8-bit cartridge  system from way back in 1978.

There’s not much left of it, but it was fascinating to read up on its history – it looks like 40 separate games were available, and each of them had multiple variations. Obviously with the limited graphics you’d have to use your imagination a bit for titles like Winter Sports and Outer Space Combat.

What really attracted me to the piece though was that analogue controller, with its tactile joystick and 14 buttons. Some of the games at the time included a cardboard overlay you’d put over the buttons, which I really like the idea of – and that explains why they don’t have any obvious markings.

I learned more about this old console from VectrexRoli’s Youtube Video  – he gives a tour of the features and some of the games, with a working console and a charming Austrian accent.

The joystick feels like one you’d see on an R/C plane controller, and with so many button options I think this would be ideal for controlling a Pi-based robot, ideally via bluetooth. It’s in stasis on the “to do” shelf for now until the right project comes along.

A Blast from the Past

Not a bad car boot last weekend, lots of sellers and not too many gawkers, which is how we like it. We scored some Old Tech on the very first stall, first a vintage Screen Pointer for £1, very similar to the one we picked up a few weeks ago, which will make a nice little project in the future.

The standout find though was an early 1980s personal stereo, a Saisho PS-121. It also set me back £1 and is almost identical to the first one I owned. Back in 1984 I went on my first “big” school trip to Paris – a not inconsiderable 23 hour coach trip from Newcastle. With the growing popularity of personal stereos the school suggested that we all bring one along, to help keep us entertained on the journey.

Of course Paris was the ideal place to expand my tape collection, and I picked up a couple of Jean Michel Jarre cassettes (french versions, ooh la la!) while we were there, listening to them throughout the trip. It was really nostalgic to dig out the original tape and give it a play (amazingly the stereo works perfectly), sounding even better through the Walkman headphones I snagged a few weeks ago.

As we left the sale I spotted a pretty old TV Turntable, which I’ve been after for a while – I need to present the Raspberry Pi VCR at the upcoming Raspberry Fields event, but it’s really tricky as it weighs a ton and has both a screen on the back and controls on the front – this turntable will hopefully make things much easier!


Not for Conversion

This slightly toasty early 80s cassette player was picked up alongside the Crown recorder at Saturday’s car boot – £5 for both (bundlemania as the kids call it).

As usual I plugged it in out of curiosity and stone me it worked, though the pitch varies a bit, probably a worn out belt in there somewhere. I was fascinated to listen to the tape that was left in the Crown portable player, it contained some music taped off Radio Norfolk (paused at just the right points when the DJ piped up) but also some dictations from what I firmly believe to be a gas appliance salesman.

I’ve not had a working cassette player for a while and I’m really enjoying digging out our old mix tapes, from the days when we’d keep a stack in the glovebox of the car.

The sound quality can’t compare to the likes of Spotify of course, but for background music in the workshop it’s a tactile and fitting addition. I think it’s safe from the screwdriver (for now).

A Regal Find

As if to coincide with the Royal Wedding, Saturday’s car boot yielded this super-cute Crown (SWIDT) CRP-418 portable cassette recorder!

It’s a great little thing, slightly bigger than a Sony Walkman but outwardly in good condition. Inwardly there’s a world of corrosion, the slide-out battery pack contains what were once four AA batteries.

It does have a 6v DC power socket, but although there was some whirring when I plugged in its vital signs were absent. This must have been a pretty handy thing back in the early 70s, and the tape that was in it contained some authentic dictations recorded with the built-in microphone you can see on top.

This is going to make a great project for a later date. Because of the period the external case is all-metal and screwed together, so it’ll dismantle without trouble. Also it’s the ideal size, plenty of space inside for a full-size Raspberry Pi and maybe even a couple of HATs and a battery. A portable internet radio using the original 3.5mm headphone socket and controls would be awesome, or staying closer to the original it could be a digital recording machine, maybe using a USB sound card to connect the original microphone, performing some speech to text conversion.


A Historical Pointer

Just imagine – It’s the 1970s, you’ve just returned from your first package holiday and the neighbours are assembled in your front parlour to sit through your slide show. The fondue is flowing. But how are you going to point out your hotel room or that dog in the background that stole your calamari? Use a bamboo cane like an animal?

Thankfully Boots has you covered, with their “brilliant light arrow” projecting Screen Pointer!

Another find from Beccles antique market, this piece of 70s culture set me back a modest £1.50. It’s basically just a torch with an arrow filter and a focus mechanism. I’m not sure how well or even if it works as the connections are corroded and the bulb long blown, but it could make a really interesting and practical conversion.

Using AA or coin cells instead of the original SP11 (C Cell) batteries would leave lots of room to manoeuvre inside, and the bulb could be replaced with a super-bright LED, a COB (Chip on Board) LED from a modern torch or even a laser, using the original switch to power it on.

Begging for Conversion

When rummaging around for old tech at sales some unloved pieces just leap out at you and beg to be upgraded, like this old intercom phone we found at Beccles antique market at the weekend.

It’s a fairly standard old phone, but with a grille where you’d expect the rotary dial to be! The stallholder thought it was originally from an RAF base and it does have that vaguely military / industrial look to it.

It cost around £7, hard to say exactly as I bundled it with some vintage Babycham merch for the Progress Bar. What really appealed to me was how easily this phone could be converted using the Google AIY Voice Kit – it has a grille for the speaker, a built-in button and even a translucent red lens for the indicator LED. Couple of drill holes for the microphones and that’d be it.

With minimal work this could be turned into a unique and practical voice assistant. Most of the work would be on the cosmetics, it’s obviously been exposed while someone’s been decorating as it’s absolutely covered in tiny flecks of white paint.

It’ll clean up though, and with a lick of paint for that grille it will make an attractive bedside voice assistant – especially useful for those weekend “bring me a cup of coffee” broadcasts to the kids.

Weekend Gala

Fantastic weather for the car boot this weekend, I went with several things in mind and found the first one almost straightaway, a pocket transistor radio, £1.

Harvard’s not a huge brand but it’s a really nice little unit – no FM option so without an external aerial. I’ve been after something similar for a while, they have a great look and come apart easily (this one just clips closed). Not much to discover online about it, all I could really find were similar radios for sale, in a range of colours.

The plan is to build something small and functional in the case, as ever keeping true to the spirit of the original. I’m really enjoying playing with the Pimoroni Phat DAC and Phat Beat at the moment, small amplifier boards for the Pi. I think they’d fit really well – in fact the tuning dial on this radio is ideally placed to display the LED VU meter on Phat Beat.

So far I know I want it to play audio – I’m leaning towards making it an internet radio with presets for my favourite stations, or maybe a podcast player or airplay speaker. To stay true to the original it should really be portable as well, but adding in power to the case may make fitting everything in a bit tight. A voice assistant would be another option, but I’m pretty tied to a Pi Zero with the size and they run best on a full size board.