Christmas Lights History

It all got started I guess way back when my brother and I were young kids. We got the idea (along with my dad) that we could cut pumpkins out of wood, leaving holes in the shape of the eyes and the mouth. We then made a cardboard enclosure behind each of these holes and stuck a colored Christmas light into the container. They were the old individual blinking kind and the whole thing looked pretty neat once all three lights started blinking randomly.

Well time passed and my brother and I found ourselves in college rooming together in the dorm. One day my brother came back from classes and said, "Hey, our window is right over the cafeteria entrance! Let's make a Christmas display!" Now instead of just a normal "lights in the window, spray snow around the edge of the window" kind of thing, he wanted something animated. So ignoring our homework we brainstormed and came up with an angel that flaps it's wings. Then since I understood electronics a bit more and he was more of a "get things done" kind of person, he made the angel and I designed the electronics for it.

It really looked kind of neat when we were done. We took some old 10 AWG copper wire and formed an angel about 6 feet high. Then we formed two sets of wings, one in the high position and one in an outstretched position. Then we took three sets of mini-lights and, using electrical tape, attached them to the wire. The body was blue and the wings were white:

While that was going on, I remembered my dad had an old motor driven device with three plastic cams on it that would trigger three microswitches - one for each cam. He had used it in his 1964 Chevy Impala for the turn signals. Each turn signal in the back of the car had three lights. He rigged it up so when you turned the signal on, each light would come on sequentially towards the direction you wanted to turn. (I believe this was factory installed on some cars but not in the one my dad had). Anyway, since I didn't have the time, my brother ran to Radio Shack and got two 120VAC relays. Since we only had two "frames" for animation (wings high, wings low), I had to figure out how to use three microswitches. I remember doodling one day in some accounting class and remembering the binary numbering system. 00 - 01 - 10 - 11. That was it! 00 would be the time when none of the microswitches were turned on, then 01, 10, and finally 11. It took all my brain power at the time to wire things together and now I realize I probably could've done it with one SPDT relay. But when we got it working and put in on a timer, it looked cool! And we received a lot of good comments about it. Here's a picture:

After I left college my brother had two other, more extensive Christmas displays. If I ever find the pictures, I'll post them. However, his control mechanisms were kind of dangerous. They were a motor driving a tin can with copper wires resting on top of it. The can was wired hot and when the wires resting on top of the can touched the can, the light set hooked to the wire would light. When you didn't want the lights to come on, you put tape on the can. It was kind of like those music boxes with the drum in them that have notches standing out on the top of the drum. As the drum turns, those notches raise metal prongs resting against the drum. When they snap back to the drum they make a sound - each one a different note. Thus the "program" on the drum determines the song you hear. He placed tape on the tin can just like the raised notches on the music box's drum. Thus as the can would turn, the wires would touch the can and light the lights until tape would rotate around and separate the wire from the can. This made for an easy way to "program" the display, but the sparks generated from the wires touching and not touching the can meant that someone had to be there watching the device for the display to be on.

Meanwhile, I wanted an easier, faster, safer way to control things. My dad kept mentioning solid-state circuitry and even came up with a few sample circuits. Since I use computers every day (received my college degree in computers) I instantly saw that if I could interface the computer with the circuits my dad had come up with, I would be in business. So I made some custom software, figured everything out (short way of saying years passed....), and here we are today!

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Last modified on 02/01/01