A number of weeks ago, while first exploring the LEIGHTRONIX warehouse, I noticed something I hadn’t really paid much attention to before, something amidst the usual foray of high-end test equipment and tradeshow paraphernalia. Inside a large, locked security cage in the corner of the warehouse is a wondrous collection of equipment and memorabilia from LEIGHTRONIX past, some of which are older than more than a few of our employees.
After poking around the cage, I pushed for an article on its contents. My initial idea was a really cut and dry piece: catalog and document some of the items in the cage and move on. However, once David Leighton, President and CEO of LEIGHTRONIX, began walking me through everything, it became readily apparent that there is a much larger story here. These items, relics of earlier times in the technology business, create a timeline of objects documenting the company’s beginnings and evolution over the years. There is a lot more here than old boxes of wire and circuit boards.
Conception to Realization
David took a few minutes out of his day and walked me over to the security cage affectionately known as the LEIGHTRONIX Museum and the beginnings of what would someday become a display case. Objects in here serve no functional purpose anymore, yet everything looks so well maintained, as though they were used yesterday. It is apparent the upkeep of the museum, while unnecessary for daily operations, has fallen under the same level of cleanliness and orderliness as the rest of the warehouse. Every item in the museum seems to sit where it belongs; every coiled cord and hand-drawn schematic resting in its own, proper place. I was amazed at the variety of items in the museum and their survival over so many moves as the result of company expansion.
One side of the cage is almost entirely reserved for old products, stacked high on a multi-tiered shelf. At the very top, sitting far off to the corner, is an interesting amalgamation of wires, buttons, integrated circuits, and even some wood and steel. It’s hard to imagine that this piece of equipment (looking to be part grocery store shelf, part calculator keypad) was once a functioning piece of video control system hardware. I pulled the object off the shelf and promptly poked my finger on a series of strange metal prongs; what I would find out later were wire-wrap posts. Resting it on the table, David revealed to me the significance of the item, potentially making it one of the more important fixtures of the LEIGHTRONIX Museum.
The very first products the company started producing weren’t actually distributed under the LEIGHTRONIX name. David explained to me that his company had manufactured a significant amount of technology for several other larger companies. An example of this is the Panasonic IFP-45 (circled in red within the old advertisement above), a machine control interface that allowed Panasonic professional video tape machines (yes, videotape) to be controlled by a variety of Sony edit controllers. These interfaces were designed and manufactured by LEIGHTRONIX, then sold by and shipped as Panasonic products. LEIGHTRONIX sold thousands and thousands of such interfaces.
I discovered that the large metal/wooden box described above is actually a prototype of the company’s very first product sold under the LEIGHTRONIX name: the TCD. TCD stands for “Time Coincidence Detector.” While not necessarily a very sexy model name it eventually became synonymous with LEIGHTRONIX and changed the way thousands of broadcast stations would manage automated video playback and switching for years to come.
The first model of TCD was the TCD-CT, a control track counting system that could be programmed to sense the coincidence between a stored timecode value and the current control track position in order to trigger things like GPI outputs and production switcher special effects. Its next version was the TCD-TC, the SMPTE timecode version of the TCD-CT (I know, pretty confusing letter swap). Although LEIGHTRONIX sold a handful of the TCD-CT and TC models, it wasn’t until the TCD-RT was released that the TCD line burst onto the marketplace. The TCD-RT was an easy-to-use, microprocessor-based event controller meant to revolutionize workflows of broadcasters everywhere. It absolutely put the LEIGHTRONIX name on the map and eventually transitioned to the next phase of automation: the wildly successful MINI-T-IR.
Getting to that initial production, however, required a lot of legwork, especially for a tech company in the eighties. It all started with a schematic hand-drawn by David himself. Before the age of CAD design, schematics had to be fully conceptualized and drawn by hand. From there, a rough prototype is designed. In the case of the TCD-RT, this prototype came in the form of the wooden marvel described above.
One of the things David immediately brought to my attention in regards to the prototype was the method of circuit board construction. Underneath the TCD-RT prototype is a series of those spikes I noted before with wire coiled around them. According to David, initial prototypes (for LEIGHTRONIX and pretty much everyone else prototyping then) were connected using special wire and these spikes. The technique is referred to as “wire wrapping” and was very popular in the 60s-90s. Each spike is actually more of a rectangle with sharp metal sides. When the wire is wrapped around the spike, a connection is made as the sides cut into the wire’s insulation. This painstaking technique was done on hundreds if not thousands of tiny spikes until the resulting board was complete.
Tools of the Trade
I really wanted to end this first museum post on some eye candy. Luckily, there is more than enough content tucked away in the museum to fulfill that need. After walking me through the immense undertaking of drafting a new product, David showed off a couple of his early acquisitions for the business, marking the initial growth of LEIGHTRONIX.
As the company grew it became clear that LEIGHTRONIX needed much more in the way of digital storage. Back then the good old floppy disk primarily fulfilled this need, but the capacity of floppies maxed out at around 1.5MB. As technical information and other documents started piling up, a bold move needed to be made. The answer came in the form of the NNC Model 80W (featured on this month’s newsletter), or more importantly, its 10MB (yes, megabytes, not gigabytes) hard drive. Weighing in at nearly 20 pounds, the Shugart 1004 hard drive is a monster. It was suitable for the needs of the company at the time, but compared to today’s standards, a common smartphone has about 1600 times the storage space of this heaping monstrosity, while coming in at a fraction of the weight.
In addition to storage, the need for portable computation power was becoming a necessity as David et al found themselves flying across the country for meetings, system installations, and tradeshows. This eventually led to the purchase of the Zenith ZFL-181-92. Using MS-DOS for an operating system (synonymous with computers of the eighties and early nineties), this beauty is a powerhouse of computing ability, with a whopping 8mhz of speed and 640kb RAM. Add in the pop-up 3.5” floppy disk drive (action sadly not pictured) and there’s everything needed to complete a wide variety of exciting tasks, such as edit a text document in WordStar, or stare at some code. The computer was awe-inspiring at the time of its purchase, but like the aforementioned hard drive, sorely lacking in this day and age. With that said, this old Zenith played an integral role in the business on the move and surely earned David some curious looks on business flights as cutting-edge technology so often does.
Beyond these initial forays of LEIGHTRONIX into the emerging technological world in the eighties and nineties, there is so much more tucked away in the crevices of the LEIGHTRONIX Museum: old photographs of employees, spelling out a specific and significant culture; documents outlining notable custom solutions for huge organizations; products forming a timeline of evolution in the broadcast industry. I want to share all of these things in time. Each month until the contents of the museum have been exhausted, I will do my best to report on these topics. A hugely interesting biography lined out in objects and products sits before us. Though it will be a lot of work, I hope you’re as excited as I am to go through it.
Kyle handles a number of communication-based responsibilities at LEIGHTRONIX from social media to proofing manuals. He holds an MA in English from Northern Arizona University and has years of experience teaching college writing and technical communication.
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