Make: Gift Guide 2009: Retro Tech Guide

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Make: Gift Guide 2009: Retro Tech Guide

by Eric Archer

Straight from the 1890s to the 1980s, I would like to suggest any of these fun bits of retro technology for the tinkerers, makers, and geeks on your shopping list. I’ve included plenty of affordable items to help you spread the good cheer. Some are kits that require assembly, others are enjoyable right out of the box.


LD40 Pink 8-digit Calculator Watch (Casio, $19.99)

CA53W-1 Twincept Databank Watch (Casio, $18.95)

Many of us remember the futuristic thrill when calculator watches hit the scene. I knew I had to have one, so I made a business deal with my dad when I was in 7th grade: I painted the entire exterior of our house in exchange for a Casio Databank watch. Although the cellphone is probably the most common calculator in use now, the wrist-calculator is far more likely to start a conversation. Casio has indeed released an entire series of affordable and retro-styled calculator watches that will take your recipient back to future.


GMC-4 4-Bit Microcomputer Kit (Gakken, $39.95)

Your bit-bangin’ microcontroller friends will appreciate the challenge of programming a minimal 4-bit computer in assembly language. An exercise in minimalism, the Gakken GMC-4 has a 16-key keypad, a seven segment LED, and a built-in speaker. It comes with built-in game and sound generator programs to get them fired up about 4-bit hacking. In fact, the first commercial microprocessor chip, the Intel 4004, had a 4-bit architecture when it was released in 1971. Compare that with the Gakken GMC-4, which has a simpler instruction set so it should be easier to approach. This is a kit that requires simple assembly. The instructions are in Japanese, but they include step-by-step illustrations to guide the builder.


Poulsen’s Wire Recorder Kit (Gakken, $38.99)

I’m so glad that Maker Shed carries Gakken’s brilliant products, like the intriguing Poulsen’s Wire Recorder. This kit replicates the earliest magnetic recording technology, allowing the recipient to experiment with recording their voice onto a length of magnetized wire. Its motion is human powered — the mechanism is handheld and playback speed is controlled by sliding it along the wire. This should increase the vintage vibe by adding warbly pitch-shifting effects to the recordings.

A technology dating back even farther than analog tape, wire recording was invented in the 1890s and was a commercial success up through the 1930s. Usually, its not hard to find rolls of pre-recorded vintage wire recorder media on the ‘bay. I imagine it wouldn’t be difficult to listen to these forgotten voices with this kit.




Tweed Champ Vacuum Tube Amp Kit (Tube Depot, $499.95)

Any crafty guitarist with a soldering iron would flip over one of these gorgeous tube amp kits. A quick survey of the buzz online about Tube Depot’s Champ kit indicates that even beginners are successful at completing the assembly, with remarks on the thorough and easy-to-follow instructions.

5E3 Chassis Kit, Cabinet, Hardware and C12Q Speaker (Mission Amps, $719.99)

Mission Amps offers a similarly styled vacuum tube amp kit, the 5E3. And folks are raving about its tone. Its an intricate kit that requires soldering, but In the event the recipient runs into trouble putting it together, Mission Amps states that they will fix it for $75 plus the cost of shipping and any broken parts.



Large Music Box Set (Kikkerland, $28.78)

Mechanical Music Box Set, small (Kikkerland, $15.00)

DIY Mechanical Music Box Set, small (Kikkerland, $15)

5 Piece Paper Refill (Kikkerland, $6)

Music boxes were big business in the 1800s, and may be considered the great-great-grandaddy of today’s portable music players, even besting them in two areas – no battery or headphones are required. Now that we’ve all heard Brahm’s Lullaby nearly to the point of insanity, some of us will be eager to experiment with Kikkerland’s programmable retro-styled music box. It plays music encoded in punched holes on a strip of special paper. Blank paper is provided, with a hole punch for composers to punch in the notes. Note that it requires steady cranking motion to play (i.e. it’s not wind-up).

Kikkerland’s music boxes are available in small (15 notes, 2 octaves) and large (20 notes, 2.5 octaves) versions. I’d suggest adding in a pack or two of blank paper refills to accommodate creative experiments because, like everything from the 1800s, there’s no undo.

[Editor’s Note: Niko Case used these DIY music boxes on the title track to her most recent record, Middle Cyclone, and it sounds like her band found out about them from MAKE, or at least she recommends MAKE as a source on this CBC Radio show.]


Astronaut Ice Cream ($2.25)

Astronaut Strawberries ($2.95)

In the early years of human space flight, astronauts were only allowed to snack on baby-food consistency meals, squeezed from dispensers like toothpaste tubes. But, the advanced miracles of food science in 1968 led NASA to introduce this, the most desirable, delicious dessert product from the cosmic retro-future: Astronaut Ice Cream! Its brick-like freeze-dried consistency survives warm temperatures unchanged, and the toothsome snap of its texture quickly melts into sugary goo on your palate. Definitely one of the highlights of my Space Camp experience. Also check out the Astronaut Strawberries, presumably all veggie.


Antique Style Edison Reproduction Light Bulbs (House of Antique Hardware, $13.49)

Reproduction Edison Light Bulbs (Craft Home, $14.95)

While staying at the historic Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, I was struck by the Edison carbon filament light bulbs in every guest room. It wasn’t a time warp back to the Victorian era; these bulbs are still manufactured and are available online. The distinctively-shaped glass envelopes contain an oversize, warmly glowing filament that’s arguably less eco-friendly than a compact fluorescent, but hey, it contains no mercury (presumably) and casts nostalgic illumination just the way it might have appeared in the early days of electric lighting. They are made to be used in a standard light socket.

The 40-Watt Antique Style Edison bulb is particularly charming, with a distinctive shape reminiscent of a vacuum tube with its tapering pointy tip. Inside is an over-sized, arch-shaped carbon filament that emits a dim, reddish glow. These are suggested for bare fixtures and sconces, as you would not want to hide the best part behind a lampshade. The Balafire flicker bulb from House of Antique Hardware ($13.99) looks particularly interesting, with a large carbon filament that creates its own motion as it oscillates inside the bulb.


ICEBLOX Ice Cube Trays (Martin Žampach, $11)


Ice Invaders Ice Tray (Perpetual Kid, $7.49)

Okay, so maybe an ice cold beverage isn’t the first thing you reach for during the winter holidays. But that wont stop these gifts from bringing chuckles once the outdoors thaw, or when the adult beverages come out. The clever ICEBLOX silicone tray molds ice into the familiar tetrominoes that once flirted behind your closed eyelids after long puzzle game sessions. And with the Ice Invaders ice tray, defeating wave after wave of alien enemies has never been easier. Perhaps its time to create a namesake mixed drink in honor of Tetris – using exactly four ingredients of course, of which one must be Russian.


HangUP Coat Hooks (Surface Tension, ~ $66)

The picture says it all. Surface Tension’s adorable 4UP coat hook is made from four retro arcade joysticks, with a deadly cute 4UP push button. I imagine there’s an “extra life” waiting for the first person who mods the button to play arcade music as you walk out the door. The HangUP comes in walnut (shown) or black finish.

Photo from


Al-Jazarí: The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (Published by Springer in 1973, priced from $70-$168)

According to Wikipedia, “Al-Jazari was a prominent Arab polymath: an Islamic scholar, inventor, mechanical engineer, craftsman, artist, mathematician, and astronomer from Diyarbakir, Turkey, who lived during the Islamic Golden Age (Middle Ages).” Clearly, he comes with great credentials. In 1206 he wrote a book titled The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which describes 50 of his inventions with detailed hand illustrations. What did Al-Jazari invent? All sorts of interesting water powered machines, civil engineering mechanisms, complex humanoid automatons, and even a totally medieval programmable drum machine! This guy should have started a design firm with Leonardo da Vinci… but da Vinci wouldn’t be born until two centuries later.

Springer published a hardbound English translation of Al-Jazari’s book in 1973. Although it’s somewhat rare, multiple copies are currently available on Amazon. This would be an inspiring gift for the book collecting maker or craftsperson on your list.

The photo above is a page from a 1315 edition of Al-Jazari’s book, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers (Chronicle Books, $23.10)

Anyone interested in the history of computing will appreciate this book’s vivid color photos of early computing machines from the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Thirty-five vintage computer systems are described, with gorgeous interior and exterior photos that capture the spirit of their design and the intricate handiwork that fashioned them. From Altair to Univac, Apple I to PDP-4, Core Memory is an inspiring look at the milestones of 20th century computing.


EX-150 Electronic Experimental Kit (Gakken, $149.95)

The game-like blocks of analog components encapsulated in smoky green plastic will be enough to charm anyone who’s spent an evening fiddling with a clumsy electronic breadboard. The EX-150’s educational potential is shaded slightly by its abstract game-like interface, but the literature includes 150 guided projects including plenty of noisemakers (yay!). Your recipient will appreciate the excellently styled plastic enclosure, with its ghetto-blaster handle and built-in speaker. It’s as if Gakken intended it for the DIY experimenter on-the-go, in the car, in the hotel, coffee shop, etc. Actually, my grandparents gave me one of the originals for Christmas in the 80s when I was barely old enough to use a soldering iron. If I could find my EX-150 now, you know I’d attach a guitar strap to it and build a jammin’ synthesizer.


Firesteel Scout (Light My Fire, $11.95)


FireSteel Bunker (, $16.94)

Any soul who enjoys camping, or just sitting around a backyard fire pit, will appreciate this useful bit of fire starting technology patented by Carl Auer von Welsbach in 1903 – the pyrophoric rare earth metal alloy known as firesteel. Essentially a larger sized hunk of ferrocerium (the magic material that gives a Bic lighter its sparks), it just needs stroking with a steel scraper (Firesteel Scout’s scraper is attached with a lanyard), or a knife, to get the tinder started with a shower of sparks. Maybe not the best gift for the little magicians on your list, but kids will probably be fascinated to watch it in use.

Larger diameter firesteels are available if your recipient really likes making sparks; up to 1/2″ diameter x 5′ long, such as the FireSteel Bunker. A scraper ($0.59-$1.39) should be ordered with this product.

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The Kirlian Aura Camera (, $895)

I suspect many photographers have seen the cool photos made with Kirlian photography and wanted to experiment with it, but haven’t the foggiest idea how it works. In practice, it involves placing the object to be photographed in proximity with a sheet of unexposed film and energizing it with several thousand volts. The electric field exposes the film, which is then developed and printed in a lab. Whoa sez you, nobody I know has a photo lab. No problem, offers the T4000 Kirlian Aura Camera kit, which produces artful results in about 30 seconds using Polaroid instant color print film (Type 669, 3.25″ x 4.25″). This would be great for inspiring a beginning aura-photographer, as it includes both the camera and a high frequency voltage generator. This equipment involves a high voltage generator and would be best used by adults or under adult supervision. Note that the literature included with this kit will require a degree of humor for metaphysical concepts.

The T4000 kit includes one pack of Polaroid 669 film. This type has been discontinued by Polaroid, so its price is going up. East Coast Photo suggests that Fuji FP100-C ($12.99 for 10 exposures) can be used in place of Polaroid 669, so I assume it works fine in the Kirlian Aura Camera, and therefore a fresh film supply should be available for the near future.

About the author:


Eric Archer is an electronics designer, manufacturer, musician, and experimentalist from Austin, Texas. In 2009, Eric helped initiate a series of DIY workshops called Handmade Music Austin, contributing open designs for minimal analog drum machines and teaching PCB assembly to classes of 20+ beginning DIYers. Recently, Eric designed interactive electronics for exhibits at Childrens’ Museum of Houston and Austin Children’s Museum.


In the Maker Shed:


Want more? Stop by the Maker Shed. We’ve got all sorts of great holiday gift ideas, Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, science kits, smart stuff for kids, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, box sets, books, robots, kits from Japan and more.

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Becky Stern is a Content Creator at Autodesk/Instructables, and part time faculty at New York’s School of Visual Arts Products of Design grad program. Making and sharing are her two biggest passions, and she's created hundreds of free online DIY tutorials and videos, mostly about technology and its intersection with crafts. Find her @bekathwia on YouTube/Twitter/Instagram.

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