At Home With Josh Part 4: High-Resolution Terminal Restoration

In my previous installment I tested the Lambda’s fans and the power supply and powered things up for the first time. A few of the fans were non-functional even after cleaning and lubricating and so an eBay order was placed. While waiting for those fans to arrive, I started taking a look at the Lambda’s monitor, referred to in the documentation variously as “High-Resolution Terminals” or “High-Resolution Monitors.” Whatever they’re called, they were in need of a bit of sprucing up:

LMI Lambda monitors, mid-cleaning
If you look closely you can see the scarring on the picture tube’s face.

I cleaned the exterior with a bit of Simple Green and some liberally applied Magic Eraser to get some of the grungier parts off. Exposure to the elements had left some interesting etchings on the anti-glare coating on the CRT; I’m not sure if they ate it away or if they just deposited a thin layer of something on the surface– either way light scrubbing with the Magic Eraser either removed the deposits or removed the rest of the anti-glare coating to match, it’s difficult to say. Eventually the external dirt and grime were removed and the monitors looked much better.

Shiny Happy Monitor

One of the two monitors has a CRT with “cataracts” (also referred to as “CRT Rot”) in the corners. This is a problem that plagues older televisions and monitors and is caused by degradation of the thin PVA glue layer between the front of the CRT glass and the implosion-protection lens. Over time, the PVA breaks down causing small spots to appear. The cataracts here are relatively minor; on an ADM-3A terminal I recently repaired the PVA breakdown was so extreme it had started leaking out onto the circuit boards and was an absolute bear to clean up (fortunately it’s organic so it washes off with water, but not without a fight.)

Close-up of CRT cataracts

On some CRTs this can be repaired, typically by carefully separating the implosion lens from the rest of the CRT, cleaning all the PVA residue and reassembling. (Here’s an interesting write-up of one such process for old TV picture tubes.) On the Lambda’s CRTs, this is made much more difficult — there is a metal band around the tube with a “lip” that extends around the front of the tube, helping to hold the whole assembly in place. This band is glued in place with a potting compound making removal of this band extremely difficult; and due to the lip the implosion lens cannot be removed without removing this band. Fortunately the cataracts on this tube are not bad enough to warrant attempting to do this — I’m happy to put up with it — and the other monitor’s tube is free of cataracts, so far.

Inspecting the Internals

Much like with the rest of the Lambda system, we have to give the internals a thorough inspection. One of these monitors was left on top of the Lambda in the garage; the other (the one with the cataracts) was on the floor near the door and was exposed a slightly more harsh environment as a result. However, they both cleaned up very nicely on the outside so my expectation was that internally they’d be similar as well.

The interior of the monitor with the back covers removed.

Looking at the interior from the rear (as in the above photos) reveals a relatively clean monitor — though you can see some obvious rust in places like the ground strap going across the bell of the picture tube. The interior of the other monitor is very similar in terms of condition. On the left side is the monitor’s power supply, on the right is the deflection board which scans the CRT’s electron beam across the screen to form a raster, and in the middle is the “neck board”, so called because it plugs into the neck of the CRT. It supplies power to the CRT’s heaters and takes the incoming video signal from the Lambda and feeds it to the tube appropriately.

Safety First, People:

It’s important to note at this time that safety is important when working on CRTs: they tend to make use of extremely high voltages (5-10KV in monochrome tubes, up to 25KV in color sets) and you can get zapped if you’re not careful. Picture tubes can build up a charge even while sitting unplugged and unused; so even though this tube hasn’t been powered up in a couple of decades it still has the potential to bite. Discharging of the tube before working on it is a good idea, as is working with one hand behind your back (to avoid causing current flow across your heart, should you grab ground with one hand and 20KV with the other, inadvertently.)

The CRT envelope is made of glass and contains a powerful vacuum; if the glass breaks the tube can potentially implode — sending glass shards everywhere. While modern tubes (like the ones in the Lambda) have implosion protection measures in place, it never hurts to be careful around large tubes like this: watch your hands, watch your tools and make sure they don’t strike the neck of the tube where the glass is thinnest and the most likely to take damage.

The Inspection Continues:

Looking closer at the power supply you can get a better idea of the cleanup necessary here — everything is covered in a layer of dirt and shingle detritus from when the garage’s roof was replaced. Just as with the Lambda’s chassis and power supplies, I’m looking for out-of-place things and broken or damaged components. All three of these boards contain socketed chips, so checking the sockets and the ICs in them for corrosion is important. I’m also keeping my eyes open for damaged capacitors. Monitors can be hard on capacitors, especially high-resolution monitors like this one. Monitors don’t typically have fans so they tend to run hot, and heat leads to shorter lifespans of internal components.

And sure enough I found my first victims on the power supply board.

RIFA film capacitors, top view.
Exploded RIFA, from the side

These are film capacitors, used as AC line-filters in the power supply. Or at least they were film capacitors — as you can see the casings have cracked and split and have turned a deep brown in places (they’re normally golden-yellow colored). These were manufactured by RIFA, and are absolutely notorious for failing in this way, and when they do fail they emit an unforgettable odor, though not an entirely bad one (we’ll get to those smells later). Kinda like burning paper. Which is not a coincidence because these are made of metallized paper. As they age, moisture seeps in and eventually causes a short-circuit resulting in smoke, but not usually fire. (There was this one time at the museum when one of these died in action and set off the smoke detectors and the fire department came. That was a fun day…)

Even if they haven’t already clearly failed as these have, they should be replaced as a matter of course, because they will fail if you don’t. Probably within the first thirty minutes of being powered up.

Original RIFA next to its brand-new replacement.

Moving along onto the deflection board: There are a few socketed chips, and the sockets don’t look so hot. These sockets have deeply recessed pins and my suspicion is that as a result they hold onto moisture longer, increasing the chances of corrosion. As you can see in the picture below, some of the pins show the original gold-plating, while others are green or grey. It’s likely that these sockets will provide poor contact with the IC, so I replaced it with a spare I had on-hand, a nice turned-pin socket from Mill-Max:

On this same board I found the first instance in this restoration of a visibly-bad electrolytic capacitor:

That capacitor is supposed to be a uniform silver in color. It is browned and blackened likely due to heat while in operation due to its proximity to that transformer, and it might have been a slightly under-specced part as well. Instant candidate for replacement, no questions asked.

On the neck board we find another kind of capacitor that can often cause issues; look closely at the four blue raindrop-shaped components in the below picture:

One of these things is not like the others.

Well, they’re all supposed to be blue, but the second one from the left is black and sure enough it’s a dead short, rather than a capacitor. These are tantalum capacitors and they have a tendency to explode in a tiny little fireball when they go bad — and they can scorch other components when they do so. And the smell they make is decidedly unpleasant. Given the state of the black one it seemed prudent to replace all four just to be on the safe side. Takes a long time to get that odor out of an already stuffy basement, I’m not taking any chances.

There is one further board in these monitors, called the “headboard” — it lives in the monitor stand and breaks out the signals on the cable from the Lambda into keyboard, mouse, and video. It also includes a tiny speaker and three controls for brightness, contrast, and volume:

Ugh. Just, ugh.

The one in the monitor that had been sitting on top of the Lambda was just a bit dusty, but the one that’d been on the floor… yow. Some serious insect activity in here over the years, and everything was pretty well covered in… insect stuff. I took the board out of the housing and scrubbed the base-plate down in the utility sink. I went over the PCB with a soapy toothbrush and Q-Tips to get as much gunk off as possible. It cleaned up pretty well!

Ahh, much better.

Having assessed the condition of the boards (and having gone through and cleaned everything as thoroughly as possible), I made the decision to do a complete “re-cap” of the three main boards in both monitors: a replacement of all of the electrolytic capacitors and the problematic-looking tantalums. I placed an order for replacement parts (I tend to use Mouser or Digi-Key for this sort of thing) and 3-5 days later a box of capacitors arrived on my doorstep.

Replaced tantalum capacitors on the neck board

At this point it’s a straightforward matter: desolder the old components, and solder in the new ones, one at a time. I have a Hakko desoldering iron (just like the ones we use at work) and a Weller soldering station that have served me well over the years. I didn’t take any pictures of the actual desoldering/resoldering process because I only have two hands and I don’t own a tripod… I’m lame.

All the replaced capacitors from the power supply board, next to the re-capped supply. On a really ugly benchtop.

With everything reassembled in the first monitor, the only thing left to do was to put it on the bench, plug it in, cross my fingers, and turn it on. I wasn’t entirely sure it would do anything without being hooked up to a running Lambda with functioning video hardware: some monitors of this era won’t light up unless they’re getting sync pulses from their video input (Sun-3 monochrome workstation monitors for example). Others will display a “free-running” blank raster instead. Turns out the Lambda console is one of these latter:

I got very lucky and things appeared to be working as perfectly as could be determined without a valid video signal to feed it. I let it burn in on the bench for a half an hour and no issues arose. If you’ve accidentally put an electrolytic capacitor in backwards, you’ll know within the first few minutes, if not sooner… (another fun smell you don’t want in your house.)

The next day I took on the second console, going through exactly the same steps — like deja vu all over again. However, I wasn’t as lucky with this one; no smoke or fire but also no action on the display at all, and no faint chatter of the yoke indicating deflection, no static on the face of the tube indicating the presence of high voltage. The neck of the picture tube lit up, however — so at least a few things were functional. The voltages coming out of the power supply (it generates +48V and +32V) were in the right ballpark at +45 and +33. There is a potentiometer on the power supply to adjust these voltages, so I gave it a small tweak to get closer to +48V and at that point I heard the HV kick into gear, but I don’t understand why — the voltages were a little off but not enough to prevent the deflection board from running, and I’d only tweaked it up to +46V anyway. This seems like a sign of a bad connection: a loose wire, dirty connector, or maybe a cold solder joint. At this point I had high voltages and could hear evidence of deflection but there was nothing on the display, no free-running raster like on the first monitor.

I powered it down and took a closer look at everything; cleaned the various cables and connectors on the power supply and inspected my soldering job — still nothing jumped out at me as being obviously wrong. But I put it back together and it was still working as before, deflection running and high voltages being generated, though I was still getting nothing on the display at all. At this point I needed a break and decided to shelve the second monitor for the time being. One working display was enough to use with the Lambda (assuming I ever did get it to do anything) and at that point I’d return to debugging the other.

In my next write-up I’ll see if I can get the Lambda to load and run diagnostics from the world’s slowest 9-track tape drive, after dealing with a minor setback. The anticipation, you can hardly stand it!