Author Topic: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?  (Read 1471 times)

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Online Ampera

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When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« on: January 19, 2020, 04:01:39 am »
Sometimes you'll just come up with a question, maybe even one you've had for a while but suddenly decided, damn I need to know the answer to that one, it's got to have an interesting history.

Put simply, I want to know what the first installed use of an electronic bitmap sign. This means any large format, think Times Square size, display which utilizes a grid of lights (or non-illuminating active elements), to automatically display information (text).

Now Wikipedia proclaims the first *computerized* sign ever installed was the famous Westinghouse Sign. How computerized it actually was I believe it still up for minor debate, but regardless, Wikipedia claims this was completed in 1967, and construction was first initiated in 1966. Now that might be good enough, except just today I was watching some Beatles music videos on YouTube. In particular, I was watching the Vevo music video for Eight Days a Week, which has footage of the Beatles' concert in Shea Stadium.

https://youtu.be/kle2xHhRHg4?t=107

If you were to pause this video at around 1:46 and 1:47, you can see in soft focus, quite obviously, a bitmap text display in the background. Now I wouldn't say a bitmap screen must be computerized, so the Westinghouse Sign may have genuinely had a "computer" on it, with these signs simply having some other sort of controller logic, but that still leaves the original question. If this concert happened in 1965, and as of that point Shea Stadium had a large format bitmap sign, what was the first large format bitmap sign?

Any ideas or insight would be helpful. I've tried to Google, but this question is particularly strange in that it seems like something someone should know, but I can't find that specific information documented anywhere. That being said, I haven't researched too hard, and thought I'd try here before digging through patents and such.
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Offline james_s

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #1 on: January 19, 2020, 05:07:42 am »
I don't remember what sign it was but I remember seeing an old photo somewhere of the controller for a scrolling text sign that used a paper(?) tape floating on a trough of mercury with a grid of contacts on top of the tape. Holes in the tape allowed the mercury to touch the contacts lighting the associated lamps.
 
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Offline bsdphk

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #2 on: January 19, 2020, 08:36:24 am »
The worlds first scrolling electronic sign was invented by the danish engineer and inventor Viggo Jensen and put into operation in 1914, based on the principle of perforated papertape and using mercury as one of the contacts.

Since 1926 the danish newspaper "Politiken" ran one of these "Light-Newspapers" on their building at Copenhagens "Rådhuspladsen", it was later upgraded to have multiple colors, green, red and yellow/white.  These days it's been replaced with LEDs.

There is a short movie-clip from 1939 here: https://www.danskkulturarv.dk/dr/bt-centralen-og-politikens-hus-lysavis/

Viggo was a very prolific inventor, from variable speed motors for newspaper presses to what essentially became "Technicolor".



« Last Edit: January 19, 2020, 08:39:22 am by bsdphk »
 
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Online Ampera

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #3 on: January 19, 2020, 03:24:42 pm »
That's an absolutely ingenious design. Way simpler than how I'd have thought to make it, and definitely what I was looking for. Thanks for finding/knowing about this.
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Offline jmelson

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #4 on: January 19, 2020, 06:43:22 pm »
In about 1977 or so, I built an electronic controller for the "Nite Sign", a grid of incandescent lights suspended from a small aircraft or helicopter.
The original control used a wide punched cloth tape dragged over a "bed of nails" in a mercury bath!  They wanted to get rid of the mercury both for health hazards and because mercury eats aluminum.  We used a 6800 demo board with a keypad and LED segment display and custome drivers, and the user could save and reload their messages via audio casette tape.

Jon
 
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Online Benta

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #5 on: January 19, 2020, 08:05:25 pm »
In about 1977 or so, I built an electronic controller for the "Nite Sign", a grid of incandescent lights suspended from a small aircraft or helicopter.
...

We used a 6800 demo board with a keypad and LED segment display and custome drivers, and the user could save and reload their messages via audio casette tape.

Jon

Let me guess: MEK6800D2?
Man, I remember those :)

 

Offline james_s

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #6 on: January 19, 2020, 08:08:54 pm »
Yikes, I'm surprised they allowed such a large amount of mercury in an aircraft to begin with, especially in something like that where a spill seems entirely possible or even likely. I've seen what mercury does to aluminum and can imagine it would wreak havoc if it spilled on fresh scratch somewhere.

It would be neat to see more details from that project though.
 

Offline jmelson

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #7 on: February 03, 2020, 09:11:19 pm »
In about 1977 or so, I built an electronic controller for the "Nite Sign", a grid of incandescent lights suspended from a small aircraft or helicopter.
...

We used a 6800 demo board with a keypad and LED segment display and custome drivers, and the user could save and reload their messages via audio casette tape.

Jon

Let me guess: MEK6800D2?
Man, I remember those :)
Yes, that sounds exactly right!  I still have a demo unit, I'll have to check.

Jon
 

Online Ampera

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #8 on: February 04, 2020, 05:22:47 pm »
On the bright side, marquee plane exploding over the city will definitely make the nightly news, and your message will definitely be seen.
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Offline Axk

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #9 on: February 07, 2020, 07:00:05 pm »
I wonder how they implemented showing the current time alternating on the same screen with the scrolling text like in this video: https://youtu.be/ZpXnEvW0XD0?t=1284 (the General Motors ad starting at 21:24)

And this scrolling text doesn't look like it is does with multiple separate bulbs, more like a projection (though it may be due to the low resolution of the film recording).
 

Offline SL4P

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #10 on: February 07, 2020, 11:17:47 pm »
I’d guess that one of the earliest ‘computerised’matrix signs would have been an electromagnetic ‘flip disc’ arrangement.

The power needed in the old days to get daylight readable illuminated pixels would have been enormous...?
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Online Nusa

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #11 on: February 08, 2020, 12:12:03 am »
https://www.edn.com/motograph-news-bulletin-debuts-in-new-york-city-november-6-1928/

Quote
The Motograph News Bulletin, or “zipper” as it was known informally, was an impressive sight when it was first unveiled in the fall of 1928. It extended 380 feet around the fourth floor of what was then the Times Tower at One Times Square—the second tallest building in Manhattan when it opened in 1904. With a band five-feet tall, the moving letters, comprising 14,800 light bulbs, were visible from a distance of several city blocks.


The zipper displayed updates on the D-day invasion on June 6, 1944.
November 6, 1928, also happened to be election day in the United States, and the zipper's first message was “Herbert Hoover defeats Al Smith.”

The zipper, also known at that time as the “Motogram” sign, was installed for The New York Times by Frank C. Reilly, who is credited as being the inventor of electric signs with moving letters.

According to a New York Times article , “Inside the control room, three cables poured energy into transformers. The hookup to all the bulbs totaled 88,000 soldered connections. Messages from a ticker came to a desk beside a cabinet like the case that contained type used by old-time compositors. The cabinet contained thin slabs called letter elements. An operator composed the message letter by letter in a frame.

The frame, when filled with the letters and spaces that spelled out a news item, was inserted in a magazine at one end of a track. A chain conveyor moved the track, and each letter in the frame brushed a number of contacts. Each contact set a light flashing on Broadway.

There were more than 39,000 brushes, which had to undergo maintenance each month. The frame with the letter elements passed up and overhead, forming an endless circuit. Mr. Reilly calculated that there were 261,925,664 flashes an hour.”

The zipper was updated in 1997 with 227,200 amber-colored LEDs, expected to last up to 100,000 hours—30 times as long as the bulbs they replaced and using only about one-tenth the electricity. Dow Jones currently holds the lease to the operate the sign. Headlines are now auto-published with feeds from The Wall Street Journal Online, the Associated Press, and AccuWeather.com.

There's a picture in the link.

Also see Frank C Reilly's patent, filed in 1913:
https://patents.google.com/patent/US1119371A/en
The list of related patents of later state of the art is also interesting.
« Last Edit: February 08, 2020, 12:22:20 am by Nusa »
 

Offline SL4P

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #12 on: February 08, 2020, 12:30:32 am »
Without reading that article, the consumption of that sign-wall must have been staggering -especially with the inefficient technologies of the time...

Even multiplexed (incandescent?) would have been a huge undertaking, and the RF switching noise would have blocked radio reception for many blocks around!

Non-multiplexed would have used more power than Las Vegas in the 80s !!
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Online Nusa

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #13 on: February 08, 2020, 01:20:34 am »
... would have used more power than Las Vegas in the 80s !!

Having been to Las Vegas in the 1980's, I'm going to have to disagree with you on that. Most of major casinos, individually, likely beat that power budget with their exterior incandescent bulbs keeping the night away. Yay for the nearby Hoover Dam!
 

Offline SL4P

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #14 on: February 08, 2020, 01:34:14 am »
Quote
... keeping the night away.
Shrewd observation.
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Offline james_s

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #15 on: February 08, 2020, 03:30:07 am »
Without reading that article, the consumption of that sign-wall must have been staggering -especially with the inefficient technologies of the time...

Even multiplexed (incandescent?) would have been a huge undertaking, and the RF switching noise would have blocked radio reception for many blocks around!

Non-multiplexed would have used more power than Las Vegas in the 80s !!

I don't think it makes any difference if they're multiplexed or not, incandescent lamps respond to RMS power, much like thermal RF power meters, there are no external tricks you can use to make the filament get hotter with less power going into it. Additionally to multiplex incandescent you need a diode in series with each lamp which adds an additional penalty due to the forward drop.

I remember reading years ago that the first programmable electronic sign on the side of some of the Goodyear blimps used 28V incandescent lamps controlled by a minicomputer in the gondola and needed a separate turbine APU slung underneath to power it.
 

Offline bsdphk

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #16 on: February 08, 2020, 07:51:52 am »
"Without reading that article, the consumption of that sign-wall must have been staggering"

No, not really.

The bulbs in the old papertape drive mechanisms were seldom even 5W each.
6-
The first one on "Politiken" had 149x9 bulbs so that would probably only be 6-7 kW fully lit.
 

Offline Brent88

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #17 on: February 09, 2020, 01:11:31 am »
1920s  had readable bulb based signage

« Last Edit: February 09, 2020, 01:28:30 am by Brent88 »
 

Offline AlbertL

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #18 on: April 07, 2020, 05:05:33 pm »
This film from 1935 looks at the workings of the giant Chevrolet sign in Chicago.  It shows the control equipment for the Motograph and an animated explanation of how it functions.
 
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Offline LaserSteve

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #19 on: April 08, 2020, 04:02:45 pm »
The key to the motograph is using a inert gas filled lamp (Usually Krypton)  for quick cooldown of the filament. Once upon a time I found myself getting a quote for 7,700 of the beasts.

Steve

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Offline tooki

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #20 on: April 11, 2020, 08:10:11 pm »
Umm, aren't all incandescent bulbs filled with inert gas?
 

Offline james_s

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #21 on: April 12, 2020, 12:50:33 am »
Umm, aren't all incandescent bulbs filled with inert gas?

No, most under about 50 watts are vacuum filled. In small lamps with thin filaments the convective losses of a gas fill become more significant than the increased rate of tungsten evaporation you get with a vacuum filled lamp.
 
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Offline tooki

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #22 on: April 12, 2020, 07:06:11 pm »
Huh, ok! I guess that explains why when I was a minor (in the 80s/90s), better flashlight bulbs expressly said they were xenon or krypton filled. I guess the cooling from the gas either let them burn brighter, or keep them cooler to make them more shock resistant?
 

Offline james_s

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #23 on: April 12, 2020, 07:18:05 pm »
Ordinary household lightbulbs typically use an argon/nitrogen mix fill, the increased pressure reduces the evaporation of tungsten in the same way that a pressure cooker raises the boiling point of the water within. This allows the filament to be run hotter, producing a brighter, more efficient lamp with higher color temperature while still achieving reasonable lifespan. Xenon and krypton accomplish the same thing but these gases are far less thermally conductive so they allow very small lamps to be gas filled without making them horribly inefficient (relative to vacuum) by excessive convective and conductive cooling of the tiny filaments. Krypton or xenon are very expensive compared to argon and nitrogen so combined with diminishing returns in larger/higher wattage bulbs it is not economical so it was rarely used.

The hotter you burn a filament the more efficient the bulb, but the faster it burns out. Varying the voltage has a roughly linear effect on efficiency but an exponential effect on lamp life, hence the occasional bulb you hear about famously burning for 100+ years, or the once common photoflood bulbs that were rated to last 6 hours. Making a bulb last hundreds of thousands of hours is easy, but the reason it wasn't widely done is that the resulting bulb will be very inefficient. Contrary to the beliefs of some it was never a conspiracy to sell more bulbs, rather manufactures knew that electricity costs a lot more than bulbs so the typical 750-1,000 hours lifespan of a household incandescent lamp was settled on as a compromise between efficiency and lifespan.
 

Offline @rt

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Re: When was the first electronic bitmap sign invented?
« Reply #24 on: April 16, 2020, 04:17:24 am »
Certainly not the oldest, but I still have a Z80 driven sign, with it’s associated DMA controller. How lovely :D
Two colour LEDs ranged in alternating columns used to create 16 colours, so long as the text is moving.

Different display, but this thread also reminded me of my favourite thread in the whole world:
https://www.eevblog.com/forum/repair/progressive-gaming-neurizon-led-sign/?nowap
« Last Edit: April 16, 2020, 04:20:47 am by @rt »
 


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