Tag Archives: Throwback Thursday

Makers bring some iconic 1980s tech back to life

Warning: This blog post will cause some serious nostalgia.

Ah, the 1980s. A time when indispensable devices like the personal computer, the Walkman and the portable gaming console hit critical mass and found their way into the heart of pop culture. After being challenged by one of our social followers to do a “Throwback Thursday” post around this iconic period, we decided to highlight some of the most memorable innovations from the decade along with their reincarnations by Makers today. Let’s take a look!

The Walkman

Long before the days of the iPod and MP3 player, there was the Sony Walkman. With one still in his possession, Maker Robot Swans had taken his malfunctioning device and transformed it into a new instrument for his band. Using an Arduino Uno (ATmega328) to drive the Walkman’s motor, it can now play a pre-recorded note at different speeds to complement his drum machine quite nicely.

Nintendo NES

The ’80s introduced a new era of video gaming with the debut of NES. Duck Hunt, Blades of Steel, Donkey Kong… the list goes on and on. Inspired by these classics, the Uzebox is a homebrew console based on an ATmega644 MCU that was designed to serve as the simplest device possible with decent enough sound and graphics to implement interesting games. Mission accomplished! For those interested in similar hacks, there’s plenty more, ranging from a Maker who decided to play NES inside a cartridge to another who crafted Super Mario Bros. musical LED sprite pieces.

The Power Glove

While on the topic of Nintendo, who can ever forget the Power Glove? Equipped with traditional NES controller buttons on the forearm, the wearable gaming device failed to catch on in terms of popularity. However, that didn’t stop Maker Greg Sowell from rigging the obsolete NES Power Glove into a psychedelic light suit using addressable LED strips and an Arduino Pro Mini (ATmega328).


The motorized bot managed to carry out a variety of functions such as transporting light objects, rovering across the carpet, playing cassette tapes and even speaking in robotic fashion via a remote microphone. While reminiscing about his childhood desire to attain an Omnibot of his own, a Maker dubbed “pinter75” decided to teardown the gizmo and give it a full makeover with new paint, stickers, and Arduino control gear. Then, there’s DIYer DJ Sures, who modded a fully-operational Omnibot that he got off of eBay with voice recognition, camera, color tracking, servos and Bluetooth.

The ZX Spectrum

Credited as one of the first mainstream home computers, ol’ Speccy featured classics like Atic Atac, Elite and Manic Miner. Looking to spark up some 8-bit nostalgia, Alistair MacDonald took a broken ZX Spectrum and repurposed it as a fully-usable keyboard that could function with a PC, Raspberry Pi or an Android device supporting HID via a USB host adapter. The project is based on an Arduino Pro Mini (ATmega328).


Manufactured by RadioShack, the crane-like robot seemed pretty high-tech at the time. In hopes of giving the arm a modern-day update, Maker “ckung0400” embedded an Arduino Nano (ATmega328) and used an IR remote to enable its six-motor control.

Teddy Ruxpin

This endearing, animatronic stuffed bear was every child’s favorite storyteller. Thanks to a Portland-based DIYer and self-proclaimed geek father Sean Gallagher, BearDuino is a hardware-hacked Teddy Ruxpin that has been turned into a kit using either an Arduino Leonardo (ATmega32u4) or Uno (ATmega328).

Dot Matrix Printers

Back in the ’80s, these dot matrix machines were considered quite the combination of expense and versatility before they were gradually succeeded by inkjet printers. Well, a hacker by the name of MIDIDesaster has made a habit of turning these dot matrix printers into MIDI-compatible sound generators capable of emitting tunes such as the Macarena and Eye of the Tiger. The DMP is equipped with a stalwart ATmega8 MCU and an FPGA connected to various sectors of the original printer’s circuit board.

The Boombox

Boombastic, very fantastic! Boomboxes became quite the status symbol of the 1980s — whether it was being held in the air by John Cusack in Say Anything to being lugged on the shoulders of hip-hoppers at the park. In order to bring the antiquated gadget into the 21st century, David Watts pieced together one of his own packed with an Arduino, Bluetooth, FM radio and line-in connectivity. It made use of an MSGEQ7 IC for the spectrum visualizer, a Nokia 5110 display, and ran off six AA batteries.

Atari 2600

This system is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and ROM cartridges containing game code. Maker “jolt527” managed to get his hands on a vintage Atari 2600 joystick and used an Arduino Duemilanove (ATmega328) as its input/output controller. The makeshift piece is tasked with directing the output to a seven-segment display to show what is being done with the joystick.

The Clapper

Clap on, clap off… Need we say more? The Clapper was a sound activated electrical switch, which became incredibly popular halfway through the ’80s. MAKE: Magazine’s Jason Poel Smith recently showed off a DIY version of the gadget, not only capable of evoking your lights but appliances as well.

Lazer Tag

Also known as “laser tag,” the game was first introduced by Worlds of Wonder in 1986, while the Lazer Tag brand is now currently a subsidiary of Hasbro’s NERF toy line. A fresh take on the classic activity, Skirmos is an open-source, versatile laser tag system that features an ATmega328P, an Arduino bootloader, a color LCD screen (that acts as a real-time HUD), and an infrared LED.


Think of it as HORSE yet in digital form. The flash game made for some fun and frustrating times depending on how great your photographic memory and timing were. To combat its tediousness, Maker Ben North and his 7-year-old daughter have built a Simon-playing robot. To detect the lights, the Maker duo connected four phototransistors to an Arduino Duemilanove (ATmega328), while the Arduino recorded the pattern of lights on the Simon and activated the LEGO arms in response to that pattern.

Shoulder Pads

Don’t ask us why, but it was surely a wardrobe staple of the time. Here’s a new spin on a trend most of us would hope never to see again! These glitteriffic shoulder pads shine bright with 50 LEDs that are controlled by an Arduino Micro (ATmega32U4).

Apple II

Let’s just say that had the Apple Watch came out in the 1980s, it would’ve looked just like this. Instructables user “Aleator777”  packed a Teensy MCU, a 1.8″ LCD screen, a rechargeable battery, and a tiny 2W speaker for emitting alerts, all inside a 3D-printed shell.

Space Invaders

Originally released in 1978, the laser cannon shooting game led the way for the industry in migrating from just Pong-inspired sports games towards action-packed ones involving fantastical scenarios. However, the pixelated blocky graphic graphics always seemed a little unrealistic. That’s why one engineer has made a real-world version with real-world lasers using the hardware of a modified Whitetooth A1 laser cutter along with a laptop keyboard to serve as its gamepad. Meanwhile, an Arduino Nano (ATmega328) was mounted to a custom 80W laser controller to enable side-to-side movement to help shoot the paper invaders, each clipped to a plate and driven by stepper motors.


This arcade game was a fixture at ice cream shops and pizza parlors throughout the ‘80s. And today, it can even be found at bus stops throughout Trondheim, Norway. That’s because a group of Makers created interactive stops consisting of pre-cut sheet of plywood, old computer screens, a Raspberry Pi installed with Pac-Man, and MaKey MaKey (ATMega32U4) controlled by aluminum foil tape on the glass front of the poster box.

These 40 throwback ads show how far computers have come

As we enter an era of ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things, it’s crazy to think about how far we’ve come. 

It wasn’t too long ago that consumers were fascinated by the endless possibilities of computers, and these ads surely do prove it. If you really want to get a good sense of just how far technology has come over the last couple of decades, browse through the list below.

The hard disk you’ve been waiting for… only $3,398!


Hey, it adds 15 million characters of storage!


If a Commodore is good enough for Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, then it’s good enough for you.


“Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Computer Is the Smartest Way to Write,” says Isaac Asimov.


16K RAM turns your computer to a working giant.

For the record, that 1977 “giant” is actually 256,000 times smaller than today’s 4GB.


Ultimate mobility? The 1976 equivalent of a modern-day laptop.


300 Mbytes for the price of a Honda Civic? Luckily, our hard disks don’t cost as much today.


Computers are a beautiful thing.


Unlimited vocabulary? Geewizbang!


There’s nothing like your first video game.


Speaking of joysticks…


If the price doesn’t scare you, try looking at that original Apple logo.


Long before the days of Amazon.


Did you know apples make great carrots?


Well, because two bytes are better than one…


What the heck is electronic mail?


Look, it’s a small (9-pounded) miracle!


Based on that rate, it looks like today’s 4GB would cost you $85,899,345.92.


Now that’s ‘surfing’ the web.


Complete with write protection and all!


We said a flip flop, the flippie to the flippie, the flip flip a flop, you don’t stop.


So that’s how you write music?


Remember the Logitech HiREZ Mouse?


Or this one? This gem would become the blueprint of future mice.


What do you get when you combine a calculator and intercom?


A far cry from Apple’s uber-thin Macbook Air today.


So that’s the original use for an Apple?


We imagine our lives were never the same.


Apple has always had a way with celebs, even those from more two centuries ago.

Kevin Costner, Jeff Goldblum, Tony Hawk, Will Ferrell… Thomas Jefferson?


If you were to carry that Osborne model today, you’d probably the same reaction.


Extraordinary… in size and price.


It was the ’70s, what can we say?


Doesn’t seem too mobile. Por-table, maybe.

Also, is that a kitchen table?


Did anyone else know they had computers way back when?


Ironically, some may say this question still holds true today.


Cut and paste!

Safe to say, we couldn’t have done this article without that function!


To think, this was at one time the smallest analog computer ever.


Hey girl, you want me to hold that computer for you?


Sir, you forgot your laptop bag.


Before the days of Atmel’s maXStylus…




And, we couldn’t help ourselves. After having recently celebrated our 30th birthday, here’s a blast from the past with a few old-school Atmel ads…

10 years later and they’re still ’sticking’ with us.


Some things never change.


Affordable then, affordable now.



Resurrecting a Macintosh Plus from the dustbin

Stuart Cording, an Atmel aficionado over in Europe, tipped me off to this blog where a fellow got his old Mac Plus up and running. Jeff Keacher had the typical hardware problem, a power supply capacitor blew on him after a short while. What was amazing is he also got it to connect to the World Wide Web.


Jeff Keacher got this 27-year-old Macintosh computer up and running and then got it to browse the web.

My buddy Alan Martin over at honored competitor Texas Instruments has a saying “It’s always a cap”. With old radios and such it is the large can electrolytic that dry out. They stop filtering the wall voltage so you then hear a bad hum in the output. Eventually they “punch through” and blow up. For test equipment, Alan often comments on how great it was that Tektronix used all those “lemon drop” tantalum capacitors, since they all fail and make it easy to buy really good test equipment really cheap. Then you just replace all the tantalum and electrolytic capacitors. Like the old Macintosh, you can always find a suitable replacement at Digi-Key, or one of the other distributors. I have described how Eric Schlaepfer over at Google manages to put a new capacitor in the original can, so the gizmo still has that classic vintage took to it.


This is the X-rated capacitor that failed in the Mac Plus.

The cap in the Mac was an X-cap, a film capacitor that is rated for long life and designed to be across line voltage, the 120AC in your house. It is a little disturbing that it failed, film caps don’t dry out like electrolytic. I know some of my pals use a Variac to slowly bring up the line voltage the first time they power up old equipment. I hear that doing that is less stressful to the capacitors and you can see things smoking at a lower voltage so you might not do as much damage.


My analog aficionado pals bring up old equipment with a variac like this. That way you are applying voltage to the input capacitors with a slow ramp-up.

Now there was quite a hardware and software challenge to get the Mac Plus on the web. I think it was a bit of a cheat to use a Raspberry pi. Heck the pi will run Linux and has a video system. Why not just toss the Mac Plus in the garbage and connect a monitor the Raspberry pi? Well, sure, anybody can do that. So the author solved the hardware problem letting a Raspberry Pi be the middle-ware between the Mac and the Web. But there was still plenty of fun putting in a TCP/IP stack and a browser and all the other fun coding they had to do to get a web page to render. Bravo, now I think I will listen to that Merle Haggard song about Fords and Chevys lasting ten years like they should.

A look back at the evolution of wearable tech

Wearable technology is undoubtedly one of the latest trends to proliferate our digital world. While wearables might seem like an innovation entirely out of the 21st century, humans have been tinkering with these gizmos and gadgets long before the days of Pebble, Jawbone, Fitbit and Google Glass.

In fact, the definition of “wearable computers” can date all the way back to the 16th century when humans first starting wearing time-keeping devices. However, due to the differing definitions of both “wearable” and “computer,” there remains varying beliefs as to who devised the first computer with which we adorned our bodies. For some, the first wearable (an abacus ring) arrived on the scene early as between 1368 and 1644 during Qing Dynasty era, while others believe it was either the first wristwatch by Breguet for the Queen of Naples in 1810, or the covert timing devices hidden in shoes to cheat the game of roulette by Thorp and Shannon in the 1960s.

The 1920s saw the debut of digital mechanical watches such as the Cortebert Mechanical Digital, the ancestors of today’s high-tech materials and innovative designs. Then, nearly a half of a century later in 1972, Hamilton introduced the world’s first fully electronic wristwatch with a digital display, the Pulsar P1 Limited Edition Watch. By the end of 1970s, the price of the average digital watch dropped drastically and come 1980, these became nothing more than a mere novelty. During this time, however, consumers were introduced to the revolutionary Sony Walkman, which remains arguably one of the first real success stories in the wearable world with over 385 million units sold worldwide.

Throughout the evolution of what many would dub “archaic” wearables, the world came to love (and sometimes strongly dislike) these devices — many ahead of their time, while some real duds. Fortunately, we still remember them, and today, we pay homage to some of wearable technology’s predecessors… before the days of versatile microcontrollers.

Abacus Ring, 1600s

Developed in the Qing Dynasty era (1644-1911), the ring features a 1.2cm x 0.7cm abacus that sits on the finger. While the ring may not be able to make phone calls, it does prove that wearable tech may not be a modern-day concept as many would think.

(Source: ChinaCulture.org)

(Source: ChinaCulture.org)

Breguet Wrist Watch, 1810

Breguet created the first wrist watch for the Queen of Naples, Caroline Murat. 


Protona Minifon P55 Recorder Wristwatch, 1955

This wristwatch got a little closer to true spy action, except for that conspicuous carrying case.

(Source: Gizmag)

(Source: Gizmag)

Atsuko Tanaka Electric Dress, 1956

The center of attention at exhibitions, this burqa-like costume consisted of electrical wires and colored lightbulbs. Inspired by a pharmaceutical advertisement illuminated by neon lights, the bulky garment set out to express the body’s circuitry, while acting like a costume.

(Source: WilliamGibsonBoard.com)

(Source: WilliamGibsonBoard.com)

ARPA Sword of Damocles, 1968

Created by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland, the Sword of Damocles was the first pioneering example of a virtual and augmented reality head-mounted display system.

(Source: www.io9.com)

(Source: io9.com)

Keith Taft’s George Blackjack Shoe Computer, 1972

Weighing fifteen pounds and the size of three large textbooks, the world’s first microcomputer-powered blackjack cheating device was fitted around the waist, surrounded by batteries and controlled by switches attached to big toes inside custom made shoes.

(Source: www.VegasTripping.com)

(Source: VegasTripping.com)

Hamilton Pulsar P1 Limited Edition, 1972

The very first electronic digital watch to reach the market made its in April 1972 for $2,100 — about $11,400 today.


Hamilton Pulsar Calculator Watch, 1976

Only a few years after the launch of LED wristwatches, several manufacturers like Hamilton showed off prototypes for models containing fully-functional calculators.

(Source: watchismo.blogspot.com)

(Source: watchismo.blogspot.com)

Hewlett-Packard HP-01, 1977

While this wrist instrument may have resemble an ordinary digital watch, it was in fact much smarter than its fellow pocket calculators. The HP device performed more than three dozen functions to manipulate and interrelate time, calendar and numeric data. With six interactive functions (time, alarm, timer/stopwatch, date/calendar, calculator and memory), the HP-01 had 28 tiny keys that the user operated with a stylus built into the bracelet.

(Source: HP)

(Source: HP)

Texas Instruments Star Wars Watch, 1977

TI revolutionized the digital wristwatch industry with the introduction of the first under-$20 LED watch in 1976. Soon, the company produced licensed LED watches that tied-in with the release of movies like Star Wars the following year.

(Source: www.newturfers.com)

(Source: newturfers.com)

Sony Walkman, 1979

Kids, way before the days of your MP3, Sony debuted its iconic portable cassette tape players on July 1, 1979 for $150.

(Source: www.dvice.com)

(Source: dvice.com)

Casio Game-10, 1980

Who remembers playing mini-versions of Legend of Zelda or Super Mario on their wrists?


Steve Mann’s WearComp, 1981

While still in high school, the revolutionary Maker designed a backpack-mounted computer to control photographic equipment. Mann felt that humans that computers and computing environments should be available anywhere to a person, not just at a specifically designed computer terminal.

(Source: TechHive)

(Source: TechHive)

Seiko TV Watch, 1982

Now this watch did something rather innovative for 1982 — it allowed wearers to view live TV on a tiny LCD screen embedded into the watch face.

(Source: www.visions4.net)

(Source: visions4.net)

Puma RS Computer Shoe Pedometers, 1986

These Puma running shoes were affixed with pedometer computers that could be reset and would count up time and distance that could be then downloaded to the game port on the Apple II.

(Source: www.digibarn.com)

(Source: digibarn.com)

Reflection Technology Private Eye, 1989

The Private Eye head-mounted display scanned a vertical array of LEDs across the visual field using a vibrating mirror.

(Source: CNET)

(Source: CNET)

First Wrist Computer, 1994

Designed by Edgar Matias and Mike Ruicci of the University of Toronto, this “wrist computer” presented an alternative approach to the emerging HUD + chord keyboard wearable. The system was built from a modified HP 95LX palmtop computer and a half-QWERTY keyboard. With the keyboard and display modules strapped to the operator’s forearms, text could be entered by bringing the the wrists together and typing.

(Source: www.edgarmatias.com)

(Source: edgarmatias.com)

First Linux Wristwatch, 1998

The “Father of Wearable Computing” Steve Mann invented, designed and built the world’s first Linux wristwatch.

(Source: Wikipedia)

(Source: Wikipedia)

The Trekker, 1998

In terms of size, this device is a slight improvement of Steve Mann’s pioneering work, but still lacked the appropriate geek chicness. Produced by Rockwell, the Trekker was a rugged wearable computer based on a 120 MHz Pentium with built-in DSP support for speech interface and a monocular head-worn display.

(Source: TechHive)

(Source: TechHive)

Digital Eye Glass EyeTap Augmediated Reality Goggles, 1998

A step closer to today’s smart glasses…

(Source: Flickr)

(Source: Flickr)

MicroOptical TASK-9, 2000

Even closer… Founded in 1995 by Mark Spitzer, the company produced several patented designs which were bought by Google after the company closed in 2010. One such design was the TASK-9, a wearable computer that is attachable to a set of glasses.

(Source: CNET)

(Source: CNET)

WatchPad, 2000

IBM first prototyped a watch running Linux in 2000, and quickly evolved into the WatchPad, made in collaboration with Japan’s Citizen Watch Company.

(Source: Engadget)

(Source: Engadget)

Casio Wrist Camera, 2002

The Casio Wrist Camera was the first wristwatch with an integrated digital camera. Sure, it only captured 120-by-120-pixel photos in grayscale, but the fact that Casio crammed a working camera into a watch turned many heads.


Xybernaut Poma, 2002

The Xybernaut Poma Wearable PC was another foray into the head-mounted display market that launched after Steve Mann’s gadgets and way before Google Glass. The wearable comprised of a 309g Windows CE device, running on the Hitachi 128MHz Risc processor with 32MB of RAM.

(Source: TechRadar)

(Source: TechRadar)

Fossil Wrist PDA, 2003

Essentially be a watch running a read-only version of the Palm OS…

(Source: TechRadar)

(Source: TechRadar)

Whatever the future may hold, rest assured we’ll continue to power a number of these next-gen devices — from the Atmel | SMART SAM4S Cortex-M4 being embedded in smartwatches to ATmega32U4 MCUs used to design some wild FLORA-based creations. Interested in learning more? Discover how the computers that we wear will help you work, play and just about everything else in our latest white paper here.