Retro-Tech Hobbyists and Hardware Hackers?
Who are these people?

Generic, referece-citing, distinguished partial scribblings of others, from WP, plus some electronic interlocutions:

A Retro-Tech Hardware Hacker might:

  • play with a range of hardware covering the timespan from the beginning of time to present.
  • feel free to mix silicon and vacuum tube technology.
  • feel free to mix analog and digital technology.
  • feel free to use Millivolts and Kilovolts together in the same piece of equipment.
  • be a technician able to identify a single failed component in an equipment, and replace just that, including selecting substitutions, and then calibrate/align the gear.
    - The above, without access to the service documents.
  • workaround unwanted hardware and software features, using hardware.
  • add new features to existing designs.
  • be an engineer, able to imagine and design equipment that works when built.
  • be a mechanic, able to build the physical object desired, often partially sourced from cast-off components.
    - all of the above, expressly regarding test equipment.
    - all of the above, expressly regarding gear that is unaffordable or does not exist on the market.
  • be a real inventor with patents.
  • generate many intellectual properties and trade secrets that do not become patents but are otherwise valuable.
  • experiment at home, frequently late into the night, just as his/her neighbor the software hacker likely does.
  • use moving parts, optics, acoustics, electricity, nuclear spin, physical pressure, and photons/rays.

    Judging by lines, it looks like the emphasis is on hardware hacking, but the dimension of time adds so much volume to the individual's universe of skills that the first line in the above list is equal to all of the remainder.

    That list is a tall order, but it is meant neither to demand all of the proficiencies, nor to be a complete list of them. It's just a list of some things a Retro-Tech Hobbyist and Hardware Hacker may do.

    Retro-Tech simply means an embracing of previous technical arts, used where appropriate or amusing, as a hobby. It is a huge expansion of the modern art of Hardware Hacking, and therefore can amplify the extremely rewarding, entertaining, and useful aspects of same.

    The following section can illuminate hardware hackery, as it is generally described by software hackers, and provide a hardware perspective. This is all opinion. No one is required to agree.

    Hardware hackers are those who modify hardware (not limited to computers) to expand capabilities; this group blurs into the culture of hobbyist inventors and professional electronics engineering. A sample of such modification includes the addition of TCP/IP Internet capabilities to a number of vending machines and coffee makers during the late 1980s and early 1990s.[1][2]

    Hackers who have the ability to write circuit-level code, device drivers, firmware, low-level networking, (and even more impressively, using these techniques to make devices do things outside of their spec sheets), are typically in very high regard among hacker communities. This is primarily due to the difficulty and enormous complexity of this type of work, and the electrical engineering knowledge required to do so.

    Hardware hacking can consist of either making new hardware, or simply modifying existing hardware (known as "modding"). Hardware hackers perform novel and perhaps dangerous modifications to hardware, to make it suit their needs or simply to test the limits of what can be done with certain hardware.

    {In the same way that Software Hackers often consider hardware to be a bland tool or necessary evil, the Hardware Hacker has no special wish for software when hardware will do, but will certainly use a programmable silicon and microcontrollers where needed. Great teams are made with a Software Hacker and a Hardware Hacker. At work we would call them the programmer and the engineer. Retro Tech Hobyists are Hardware Hackers who tend to eschew the overt introduction of programmable silicon into their hobby designs, preferring hardwired logic such as gates, diodes, transistor flip flops and 555 timers, vacuum tubes, relays, and sequencing matrixes, in addition to a variety of analog controls such as voltage and current servos, mundane regulators, comparators, amplifiers, choppers, phase shifters, analog delays, and mechanical or optical feedback, all which may be controlled by analog or digital input signals or panel switches and controls. The wider range of components allows for certain functional optimizations not possible with 'all modern' hardware, and there is little concern for production requirements, because it is for the personal joy that the hobby is undertaken.

    The Hardware Hacker's world is analog and digital together and may include a microcontroller. A Retro Tech Hobyist is a Hardware Hacker who makes his analog and digital controls, and the rest of the equipment, the old way. A control system, the 'CPU' of a Retro Tech Hobyist, can become schematically quite complex with dozens of devices and voltage levels, and therefore physicaly large compared to an arduino badge, and it will usually be as reliable and bug-free. And firmware-free, for the hardware is the software! "Programming" is done by rewiring, adding diodes or contacts, changing component values, etc.

    There is no need to 'test limits of destruction', when the game is to create something that has to last, for a somewhat serious purpose such as ham radio or making a device curve tracer from parts found in the 'junk box'.

    The mods, canonically, need not be dangerous. Novel is great! However, making limits-pushing mods that the uninitiated may consider dangerous to the hardware or to bystanders, while understanding the hazards involved and generally taking precautions as deemed appropriate by learning, common sense, and understanding of personal responsibility, tends to give the perception of danger a higher visibility.

    Examples of activities that might be considered hardware hacks: Replacing the 160 Volt power supply of a 6" spark Tesla coil with a larger home-made one having a 2000 volt power supply, and using a large transmitting tube as the oscillator for same, obtaining 20" sparks. The hacker is not in danger, but tourists are advised to keep clear and keep their hands safely in their pockets.. The same can be said, in a simpler sense, for temporarily converting a 3-phase 208V inverter welder to 240V single phase in order to make a quick or convenient weld where 3-phase power is not available. Another suggestion is to add a mode to a TV set, using components sourced from a pile of old electronics junk, to make it function as a spectrum monitor for the TV reception bands, or converting it to a large screen oscilloscope for visualizing the output of a home stereo system. Which has more hack value? Only the hacker knows for sure.}

    While using hacker to refer to someone who enjoys playful cleverness is most often applied to computer programmers, it is sometimes used for people who apply the same attitude to other fields.[7]

    {There is only one paragraph in the above reference really devoted to hardware, and a few other mentions. The jargon file is mostly about the software world. Software hacking is very popular and publicly seen. Hardware Hackers are rarer and less known, but they often have the skills of both technician and engineer. An interest in one or the other is a great beginning from which to develop.

    Going further to the fullness of Hardware Hacking, there are included other disciplines such as mechanical, pneumatic/hydraulic, optical, and indeed anything that is not software. Electronics doesn't do anything by itself except make sparks and hold the smoke in.

    The above is intended to encourage experimentation with a wide variety of electronics hardware, including retro, and feel confident to mix technologies. Many software courses and books are available, less so for hardware. A good point is that both skills together provide greater benefits than their sum.

    According to the Jargon File,[8] the word hacker was used in a similar sense among radio amateurs in the 1950s, predating the software hacking community.

    Are you now or have you ever been?

    Exhortation: Develop as many skills as possible. Hands-on is always the best way!