Hacking Retro Tech Gets Me Through the Good Times and the Bad

Raspberry Pi Technology
Hacking Retro Tech Gets Me Through the Good Times and the Bad

My passion is converting vintage technology into new creations using modern components, especially the Raspberry Pi. I recently published the latest in my “Upcycled Retro Technology” series, the AlexaPhone, which is a 1970s trimphone that I’ve converted to use Amazon’s Alexa voice service, powered by a Raspberry Pi. You just lift the handset, speak your query, hang up and Alexa reads out her response. It was a really fun project and built mostly from stuff I had lying around – a unique but a straightforward re-make!

raspberry pi phone

This and my other Upcycled Retro Technology projects are all documented on Instructables. I just love the positivity of the Instructables community. I’ve always had a passion for vintage electronics, and making these old clunkers live again with new tech really inspires me. I remember vividly the excitement of our first family VCR, and my hours programming the Vic20 and ZX81 as a child, and it feels like those glory days of computing are here again as more kids are getting into coding, mainly thanks to the Raspberry Pi.

My proudest moment so far was presenting my “1981 Raspberry Pi VCR” as a show & tell at the Pi Birthday party last year – a kid came up to the table really excited, telling his Dad he’d seen the project on YouTube, and it started a discussion between us about how these gadgets used to work in the old days and how far technology has come in a short time, comparing USB storage to VHS tapes and so on. That’s what keeps me going really, I want more of those conversations to happen. Later that day I demonstrated the VCR to and had an inspiring conversation with your own Dale Dougherty, which was the icing on the Pi birthday cake for me as a maker.

rpi vcr

There’s another drive that inspires me though, and that’s making as a kind of well-being exercise. My Pi VCR project proved popular when I published it last year, but I held back the story behind why it was a 6 month labour of love, and why it ultimately succeeded. I had barely begun the teardown of the original VCR when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the following months, most of which were very dark, having even just a few spare minutes each day to achieve something positive and quietly contemplate (some days my only objective was “solder 2 wires”) was an incredible help to me. I have no idea how but one day I’d like to join or organize some sort of support for people going through similar challenges, maybe get struggling guys together, do the cathartic making and then sell what we make to feed into a charity.

Anyway, every dark time brings with it dark humour, and in the times when my wife was pretty much bed-bound she was a perfect captive audience for me to explain what components and mechanisms I’d been working on, whether the VCR would ever work – there was literally no escape for her. On one of these occasions I was debating the merits of spray painting it black versus brown and she suggested I should do it red. It was her one and only contribution in all of history – turns out she was right, the red made it more eye-catching and Pi-coloured, and I don’t think it would have gotten a second glance otherwise. I should listen more to my wife.

That’s how it was for a while, the VCR eventually got finished and I wrote up the Instructable, I was literally on the last paragraph when I got the news that my father had died that morning. His health had deteriorated, but I’d been unable to visit him because of caring at home. He was my inspiration to get into making in the first place, a woodwork teacher who would always make something himself rather than buy it, and would never give up on something broken until he’d had it apart to satisfy himself it was truly beyond repair. All I could do that morning was finish the final paragraph and hit Publish. I think he’d have liked that.

This all happened last January. Since then my wife has made a great recovery and following a house move I now have a much bigger (and actually organized) workshop. I feel like the dark times are behind us, we’re back in business, and I’m more inspired than ever to build those pieces that help keep alive the technology of my childhood and remind my own kids of how far we’ve all come.

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Martin Mander

I love the design and ambition of vintage technology, and the usability and potential of new - my passion is bringing the two together.

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