On much cheerier subjects, several big shows are coming up, including the long-standing FenCon IX, so it’s time to consider several new projects. The first one presented itself at an estate sale: old-style CRT televisions are so obsolete that even the Salvation Army won’t take them, so people try to sell Eighties-era console sets on the nostalgia value alone. Some people may do so. Me, I have plans for a Nepenthes pitcher plant Wardian case from the case.
Thanks to the wonders of flat-screen technology, we’ll probably never see a return to big consoles, like the ones inordinately popular in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. Not that I’m complaining, because they took up huge amounts of available floor space, pumped out ridiculous amounts of heat, and encouraged excessive amounts of profanity when the main picture tube would blow and the owner had to haul the irreparable hulk to the curb. By the early Eighties, most televisions had replaced vacuum tubes with solid state circuitry, which meant that automatic picture adjustment was standard. However, it also meant that repairs by the untrained were pretty much impossible. Even better, by the mid-Eighties, the costs of televisions had dropped to the point where buying a new one was much cheaper than repairing an existing one.
Over the last decade, LED and plasma screen displays have made all of these as obsolete as wire-spool recorders. If you find them, they’re usually in the aftermath of an estate sale, where either the owner died or simply decided to move to smaller lodgings. Most of the time, they were put out into the garage for background noise, at least until the US switched from analog to digital television signals and the cost of a converter kit was more than the value of the set. Considering how many converters were given away for free, that’s saying something. Right now, the remaining ones are of value mostly to hobbyists wanting to work with dead tech, and those wanting to do something new with them. Since I already have enough interests that the Czarina would shoot me in the face if I decided to move into archaic electronics, the new project involves taking advantage of the old set’s best features to make a practical and attractive plant display.
Seeing the old Zenith logo and name brings back fond memories, because the first color television my family ever purchased when I was a kid was a Zenith. It also brings on not-so-fond memories: it survived three moves to four states, and then caught fire one night in my parents’ bedroom as they were watching The Tonight Show. I seem to remember that Carl Sagan was the big guest that night, so it’s understandable that the television couldn’t handle that much awesomeness. This one had no such signs of trauma, but we need to crack it open to make sure.
For this conversion, we’re leaving the outer facade alone as much as possible. For most of it, the concern is preservation and conservation instead of modification. With future sets, this may change, but right now, the idea is to continue the conceit that you’re getting a view into another world through an old stalwart TV. This means that on the back of the console, the various input panels remain intact, if only for completeness’s sake. Besides, any holes in the rear cover would need to be filled, especially if the finished conversion were to be used with small animals such as poison dart frogs.
Many console televisions have twist tabs to facilitate removal of the back cover, but apparently Zenith thought “Why do we put big warnings about electric shock and ‘no consumer-repairable parts inside’ and make it easy to crack open the back to play with those parts?” That’s a reasonable fear, so the cover is secured with hex screws. Take off the ones along the edge and along the rear connector panel, and here’s the interior. I don’t worry about my nephews’ and nieces’ kids looking at cutting-edge tech from my high school days and being shocked at how primitive it was. I’m too busy looking in shock at how much space had to be used inside to keep the heat under control.
By way of example, the interior isn’t as horrible as it could be. Computer techs will tell you horror stories about the old Pentiums from the Nineties brought in for repair from households with both smokers and multiple cats. Seriously, if you can pull the resultant mess free, it looks more like the caulking used for the planks in whaling ships than anything found in a high-tech setting. The owner of this set didn’t smoke and apparently didn’t have cats, but enough dust came through since the television’s manufacture in 1991 to cake up on every plastic and metal surface. Just above the main CRT itself, the dust combined with the heat to produce quite the scorch on the interior of the console frame.
See all of this? This handled everything that a 1991 television could do, which wasn’t much. All that room and weight to handle the main picture tube, and everything else was controlled with an assembly smaller than an iPad. Today, of course, that same functionality goes into a processor and motherboard about the size of a Post-It Note pack. God, I love living in the future.
You may also notice the ventilation holes in the bottom of the console. This one not only has these holes, but cheap plastic wheels to allow the console to be moved without too many issues. The conversion is going to deal with both of these, as the air circulation needs better control than this.
Now here’s where things get dangerous. Those nephews and nieces I mentioned earlier will never have to worry about the dangers of CRT implosion unless they do something as stupid as this, and I’m glad of it. Most of the weight of this television was tied up in the picture tube, which is reinforced glass. The reason it’s reinforced is that the old cathode ray tubes required a good vacuum inside to function, and the stronger the vacuum and the wider the screen, the stronger the tube walls themselves. Much like a SCUBA tank, anyone trying this needs to be extremely careful about damaging the neck or walls of the tube, because a sudden implosion means that the tube turns into a fragmentation bomb in close quarters. Such as when you’re removing it from the console for disposal, for instance.
Now’s also the time to mention that the capacitors in old televisions of this sort can store quite the charge, and store it for years. If you have concerns, I highly recommend talking to an electronics authority for proper dissipation of that latent charge, but wearing gloves and using insulated tools is vital.
Now, here we have the post-mortem. Apparently, the original owner took it in for repairs a week before my 32nd birthday, and took it back when it couldn’t be repaired.
And here’s another bit of history: the guide supplied by Zenith with basic repair schematics and voltages, shellacked to the side of the console. You still see some of these in modern electronics, but they’re rapidly being replaced with URLs and QR codes. Completely understandable, seeing as how the information on a Web site can be updated at a moment’s notice, and the only way to update this material is with a recall. This is staying in, but with the option of covering it if the purchaser should be so inclined.
After a bit of wrangling, cutting of wires, and careful removal of the brackets that supported the tube, here’s what state-of-the-art video presentation came down to back in 1991. Putting it into a padded cart, rolling it to the curb, and then popping the vacuum via the circuitboard on the tip made the most sense.
Now, as much as I’d love to hang onto some of the old tech and use it for other things, that’s just not practical or sane. Rigging up the old speaker holes with new ones and connecting them to an iPod jack is reasonable, but these big monstrosities are too old and probably an inch away from blowing out. They both came out for that reason and because they’re going to get in the way of the rest of the conversion.
Here’s where the conversion starts to get interesting. For both security and control of air circulation, the back of the television console is going to be sealed up, and all access to the interior will come through the front. With the main bezel for the CRT unbolted, it’s actually fairly easy to set a fitted piece of glass, on a hinge so it can swing out of the way, into the front of the console. The problem here is that I want to retain the bezel, and it’s shaped specifically for a curved piece of glass. Also, while the controls are never going to have their original functionality, and it’s definitely not going to be usable with a remote with my current knowledge of electronics, the idea is to be able to use at least three of the original switches. Stripping out everything is the start, but this console has a long way to go before it’s ready for plants.
And how will that be done, you wonder? Well, you’ll have to keep coming back to watch the progress, won’t you?