It's sometimes all too easy for the technology users of this generation to perhaps underappreciate the truly remarkable advancements in technology, which have led to the miniaturizations that power the electronics that power the modern age.
Photolithographic processes mean that we can now carry mobile phones in our pockets, while wearing a wristwatch that could have commanded several Apollo missions at once!
There was an age however, where although we had broken free of the bounds and the bulky space and power requirements of vacuum tubes. Mainframe computing was still mainstay, but the terminals that operators used to interface to them were now able to fit on a desktop, rather than masquerade as the desk itself.
One of the more iconic of the information terminals to have hit the heady hardware markets of the mid 70's was the HP 264x series of ASCII serial terminals, with the first model —the HP 2640A — released way back in November of 1974, with a list price of $3,000 (accounting for inflation, that's a cool $17,000 in 2020-valued freedom tokens).
We can see the 2640A pictured above, and it's important to note that while this is just about the size of a desktop computer, it's somewhat lacking in the latter part of that description.
Being a desktop terminal unit, the sole purpose of the equipment was to provide the HMI / front end to a server, where actual software commands would have been run, and calculations performed, before being optionally reported back to the terminal, or sent onwards elsewhere for additional post-processing.
Perhaps with a taste for the days of old, we've seen previous exploits from twitter user @6502b, in his execution of exquisite works, every one featuring exquisite embellishments of exceptional detail!
You could be forgiven for thinking that the above photo is that of a stock catalog, something from which 6502b could draw reference from, when recreating this retro-tech. Except, that's not a stock photo.
We see below just how incredible the level of detail is that 6502b is able to put into this collection of mind blowing miniatures.
His Imgur feed is a true treasure trove of tiny things, all of which look real enough to be made of cake — though thankfully, the trend of cake base impostor items seems to be fading at last. Though frankly, I'm still a bit suspicious that the chair might secretly be made of fondant icing...
We can see some of the tools of the trade in the background of some of these images that we have featured.
Armed with little more than a seemingly inexhaustible supply of polystyrene sheet, an expertly wielded x-acto knife, and a level of patience that most of us would find an excruciating experience, his tiny tributes to the technology of the golden age are a truly magnificent testament to the steadiness of the hands that are responsible for these dime sized devices!
The latest "crawftwerk" computer to rise from the cutting mat indicates an interesting intent from 6502b, however.
Whereas previously, these have been admittedly spectacular styrene sheet sculptures, the latest creation to emerge from the lab involves a touch less crafting of blank styrene — and a touch more of tech grafting, a 'la Dr. Frankenstein.
More than a pixel-perfect, though somewhat scaled down — reproduction of the original terminal, this UUMPC can play the part pretty convincingly too!
No, that's not some magic video editing going on in that GIF shown above, this sculpted styrene shell has a secret hidden within — an I2C SSD1306 monochrome OLED display. You know the ones, available for less than a cup of cheap coffee, or in even in 10-packs, for the cost of a venti latte from a certain, more well-known coffeehouse chain.
Driven by an externally tethered Raspberry Pi, this tiny terminal unit, barely bigger than your thumb, isn't too far off from emulating more than just the looks of the HP264x. With the 1/10th scale model now able to display text transmitted over TWI (I2C) from the tethered Pi, it can very much act as a "dumb" terminal for the host computer attached to it.
The attention to detail, if not already immediately obvious from what you've seen so far, is further supported by the creation of a custom font to allow for readable text, despite the 4x5 pixel character width. The tool used to do this, FontForge, was a new one for me, and looks useful for anyone looking to get some more control over the of coordinates of the pixels of their chosen characters
We mentioned functional buttons, and I have to admit that was a touch of hyperbole on my part — sorry. There does appear to be perhaps one tactile switch within the incredibly intricate keyboard, and in my opinion, that's quite enough for the sake of this project!
I'd not wish the task of designing, let alone using, such a small switch matrix upon my worst enemies! (Aside from Joe, he always drinks the last of the coffee pot. Damn you,Joe).
We can hope that further advancements in the field of "micro-retro-electronics" might attempt to themselves track the advancements of history, albeit in a slightly time-shifted fashion. With people getting their micro-fab practice put to the test with merit badges such as the solder coin challenge and it's recent 0201 stage, well...
Could this be the start of a trend of truly tiny terminals, pocket-sized PDP-10s, and sub-scale supercomputers? Maybe a Cray-1 crammed into a soda can?
While it's a safe bet that... well, I'm going to just say it, that likely none of us possess the steadiness of hand normally seen in a surgeon, exhibited here by @6502b. Many of us might choose to instead realize such tiny enclosures with the aid of our trusty 3D printer of choice.
No matter the mode of manufacture, I'm looking forward to the possibility that we might start to see a whole collection of keychain-sized computer keepsakes, functional or otherwise!
With the huge range of new and wonderful parts that are being released from the stock warehouses of the last failed IoT product, we are almost spoiled for possibilities, for example, with screens like the ones below available for a few bucks — that's a matrix of 96x96 RGB OLED pixels in a 0.6" panel, for peanuts!
Who's going to be the first to follow in these footsteps with an ESP32-driven iMac or similar? Hey @6502b, if you're reading this, perhaps I could inspire you to take a look at yet another idea I never got around to finishing...
If you aren't yet amazed at the absolute size of this unit, you should take a look at the full Imgur album for the build of this tiny terminal. While you're there, we're sure you might end up making time to check out some of the other amazing miniature marvels that @6502b is creating!