Props for a Back-to-the-Future Time Machine

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Markus

Well-Known Member
About 18 months ago, I saw some YouTube videos of people building a Flux Capacitor. This is such an iconic movie prop. It reminded me of those great movies and it started my obsession with Back-to-the-Future related props and items. This community was extremely helpful with the incredible number of BTTF paper props - well worth going through the 128 pages of that thread!
During that time, I also built six of the props for the Time Machine. I always took pictures of my progress but it took me a while to sort and compile them. At this point, I would like to share my BTTF prop builts. They are all built on a budget. So, I am never aiming at 99.9% accuracy. My goal is always to find inexpensive ways to achieve a maximum effect. I am happy if an average fan recognizes a prop.
In the next weeks, I will post some details for all of these props.
 

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Markus

Well-Known Member
Flux Capacitor

The original movie prop is built in a Stahlin J1210HPL electrical enclosure box. Versions of this can still be purchased, but they cost more than $100 which is beyond what I planned to pay for the whole prop. I am building mine from 3/16" plywood (which I also use for all my other Time Machine props) cut with a laser cutter. The front window is made from 3/32" acrylics, surrounded by a gasket.
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Here are most of the parts that I'm using
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The get the correct font for the labels, requires the correct choice of the label maker.
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On the inside, the original movie prop used old Torr TVS-1 relays. I reproduce these using the metal pieces from power plugs, test tubes, and copper wire which are assembled on the acrylic blocks of 3/8" width.
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The LEDs and the electronics are mounted from the back side.
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It is operated by an Arduino Pro Mini, and the sounds come from a DFPlayer Mini module.
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The LEDs below the Y-shaped acrylics (those for 'regular' operation) are warm white, while the surrounding LEDs (which flash at 88mph) are cold white. On the side, it has two push buttons where you can select the mode of operation (four modes with different levels of activity) and four volume levels).
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It randomly chooses different patterns for the LEDs and sometimes, it switches to high activity, flashing the cold-white LEDs on the sides. The LED patterns are accompanied by various electro-buzz sounds, from soft hum (in regular operation) to extreme buzz (when fluxing).
More details are provided on my blog page.
 

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Markus

Well-Known Member
There's budget, then there's buuuudget... ;) What I wouldn't give for some of his tools/equipment! :)
Are you referring to the laser cutter? :) It's not mine. But I can use it. And it really extended my options quite a bit. Cutting the acrylic blocks would hardly have been possible without it.
 

xl97

Master Member
I (too?) have a personal laser cutter.. :) (sitting right behind as I type).. LOL.

doesnt get used enough IMO...
 

Markus

Well-Known Member
Time Circuits

After the Flux Capacitor, the Time Circuits were the most outstanding piece in the DeLorean. Mounted in the front, they display the current date and time (in green), and also the next and previous time of departure (in red and yellow).

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However, the original prop looks pretty complex, electronics-wise. A little googling confirms that even the availability of alphanumeric displays (in the left column, for the month) is rather limited, and it is not trivial to match their colors with the colors of the 7-segment displays for day, year and time as nicely documented on this page. But then I saw the blog on the Adafruit page, and this changed my thinking. (A) Yes, it does not have the alphanumeric displays for the months. (B) Something about this version strikes me as really ugly - just too simplified and not close enough to the original. But: (C) This version simply uses nine 4-digit 7-segment I2C displays (instead of 39 individual one-digit pieces). This makes everything much simpler on the electronics side. Furthermore, I found similar displays at Aliexpress that are using the TM1637 chip for about $1 a piece.
I concluded that I would never be able to build a true replica, as the alphanumeric displays were too expensive for me. But I also thought that I could make my replica look much better than the Adafruit version, simply by improving on the enclosure, by making these stacked as in the original prop.
That was my starting point, and I ordered nine of the TM1637-based 0.56" 4-digit 7-segment displays, a DS3231 RTC clock module, a DFPlayer mini mp3-player module, and an Arduino Mega clone. The Mega is needed to connect the nine displays (with 2 pins per display). In addition, I ordered a 12-button keypad. I already had the necessary resistors and LEDs.

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The first step was to design the enclosure (to be made of 3/16" plywood using a laser cutter), loosely based on the size of the original prop, but with modifications to fit my displays.
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First, the 3mm LEDs for "AM"/"PM" are glued into the enclosure, then the 4-digit modules are screwed in.
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The 12-button keypad is connected to a few resistors that act as voltage dividers. The effect is that each each button produces a different voltage which is read by a single Arduino analog pin. This idea (analog readout for multiple buttons) is described in detail on my blog.
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When everything is in place, the keypad is screwed to the main unit.
One of the most relevant elements to achieve the final look, is the beautiful typography. I recreated the labels in the "scribus" open-source desktop publishing software, using the Microgramma Bold Extended font, and printed the result on glossy 4"x6" photo paper.
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And the result looks like this:
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Something is still missing, as I plan to have this device in my car.
And here is my big problem. I must confess that I do not own a DeLorean (yes, it's sad).
So, this piece will have to settle for a Toyota.
For this purpose, I made a car-holder, by iterating the shape until it fit into the Toyota.
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And this is then the final unit, operating in my car:
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It is the only clock in our household that automatically switches to/from daylight saving time! Other functions of the Time Circuits: The middle row always displays the current date/time. The top and bottom rows contain random date/time combinations that are seen in the BTTF trilogy, plus birth dates of some of the actors. After a random time interval (few minutes), a new random date/time is displayed in the top row, and the previous content is copied into the bottom row.
The keypad works as follows:
  • Entering a single digit number plays a song from the movie ("Power of Love", "Back in Time", "Earth Angel", "Johnny B Goode", the ZZ Top song, or some orchestral pieces)
  • Double digit numbers are not yet used - in a future update, I plan to use these to play some of my and my family's favourite songs.
  • Four-digit numbers are interpreted as years. When a four-digit number is entered, and new date/time entry appears in the top row, where the month/day and time is taken from the previous entry. And the previous entry is copied into the bottom row.
  • Eight digit numbers are interpreted as month/day/year. The rest is like in the previous case.
  • Twelve-digit numbers are interpreted as month/day/year/hour/minute and displayed in the top row.
If an entry is not valid (invalid number of keys, or invalid values), a buzzing sound is played.
More details are posted on my blog page.
 

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Markus

Well-Known Member
Speedometer
The digital speedometer is sitting on the dashboard to display prominently when the DeLorean reaches 88mph, and something serious happens.
Initially, I just wanted to have a simple non-functioning prop, counting from zero to 88, and, after a little pause, back to zero. And that's how I started. However, when this version was finished, I read about the Neo-6M GPS module which can very easily be interface to the Arduino. Fortunately, there was still some space left in the enclosure, plus some Arduino pins were still available, to upgrade the device to a fully functioning GPS speedometer.
As for the other builts in this series, the enclosure is made of 3/16" plywood with a laser cutter, based on the size of the original device, but slightly adjusted to fit my 0.8" seven-segment LED displays.
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The pieces are glued and painted (with Rustoleum, gloss, almond) , and it instantly resembles the original prop.
The electronics is based on an Arduino pro mini (ATmega168, 16MHz, 5V), two red 0.8" 7-segment LED displays (common anode), two shift registers TPIC6B595 (which can sink 100mA per pin, so no further transistors are needed), plus sixteen 220 Ohm resistors (8 for each display: 7 segments + decimal point).
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The Neo-6M GPS module was added after these pictures were taken, and placed in the space on the left on the last picture above. While I found many postings on the web of people having trouble, the Neo-6M module worked really well for me. And I even connected it via soft-serial (the hardware serial was already planned to be used for communication with the other devices) which people do not recommend - but I never had any problems.

Of course, one essential element for all BTTF props is the typography. In this case, the labels from the DYMO 1540 Office Mate II label maker (which I bought for the Flux Capacitor labels). And this is the result:
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It can be switched from mph to km/h and even to m/s (the good old S.I. units). The km/h mode is really helpful, so one can realistically make it display "88" while driving safely (88km/h = 55mph). It is working well in my car
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and also on my bicycle.
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Again, more details are posted on my blog.
 

Markus

Well-Known Member
With the Time Circuits and the Speedometer done, the last remaining piece for the front of my Time Machine are the Analog Gauges. The simple board that sits in the glove compartment on the passenger side of the DeLorean, with its beautiful old analog instruments. Some people spend much time and money for finding some of the original gauges which have been used e.g. in older Geiger Mueller counters. I do not intend to spend so much money, so I have to come up with a different solution. And I start with the cheapest voltmeters that I could find.
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These were made for 30V, so I short their internal resistors and replace them with smaller ones, so my Arduino's 5V PWM signal will be able to move the needles to the max positions. I take them apart, discard the front pieces and the labels, redo the labels in scribus and print these as glossy 4" x 6" photos.
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Like for all my other BTTF props, the enclosure is made with a laser cutter from 3/16" plywood plus some acrylics for the windows.
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Everything is then assembled and painted.
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Small holes are drilled into the bottom areas for mounting some LEDs (5mm straw hat LEDs that have a wider opening angle)
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The electronics is based on an Arduino pro mini, and mounted on a small PCB.

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Since my device will not sit inside the DeLorean's glove compartment, I need a full enclosure with a back side.
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Then, the last pieces are mounted...
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... and the final unit looks like this

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or powered up:
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More details are posted on my blog.
 

Markus

Well-Known Member
TFC Switch
So far, my Time Machine consists of a Flux Capacitor, the Time Circuits, the Speedometer, and the Analog Gauges. Now it needs the center piece to turn them on and off. This is the task for the TFC switch - in the bottom left corner in this picture:
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The original prop was built in a Radio Shack 8" x 6" x 3" project box, on which a Dayton Drum Switch was mounted, and its original lever was replaced by a "Lynx 3-in-1 battery brush". Since all of these are still available, one could easily build a rather precise replica of this prop (however, the Drum Switch alone is >$100). But my goal is to build the TFC switch from scratch. Again, using a laser cutter and 3/16" plywood, plus 1/8" acrylics, and a few wooden dowels.

I am starting with the Drum Switch.
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Here is something that I never did before: bending acrylics with a heat gun.
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It started pretty good ...
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... but here it went bad. The acrylics was bent weirdly and it cracked at one of the screw holes. Later, I redid this, and the second result was much better.
Now, I turn to the enclosure. I got all the switches and lamps from Aliexpress. While lamps in the original prop have beautiful jewel lenses (which you can still get ... but not cheap), I used two LED lamps of similar size with simple, but good-looking plastic covers.
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The labels for one side are made with the Dymo label maker (as for the Flux Capacitor) and those for the other side from 4" x 6" photo prints (as for the Time Circuits).
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To use this unit as a real switch, I add two micro switches which are closed by a lever that is mounted to a wooden dowel in the center of the Drum Switch.
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The electronics is based on an Arduino Pro Mini. This reads all the switches, operates the lamps, and sends the status via serial to all connected devices.
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After the poor acrylic plate was replaced by the improved, second attempt, this is the final TFC switch:
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Again, more details are posted on my blog
 

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Markus

Well-Known Member
Status Indicator Display (SID)

The "SID panel" (Status Indicator Display) sits in the DeLorean behind the drivers seat (right from the Flux Capacitor). It does not have any obvious function, but it looks cool in the scene when Marty approaches 88mph and you can see behind him, more and more of the 200 LEDs in this panel lighting up: One row (= ten) red LEDs, siz rows of yellow LEDs, and thirteen rows of green LEDs. In the original prop, each LED is mounted behind a plastic lens. However, these cost about $0.50 a piece - compare this to $4 for all 200 LEDs. So, I decided to do without the lenses.

Again, I am using a laser cutter and 3/16" plywood for the enclosure.
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The 200 LEDs are distributed over three 9cm x 15cm PCBs, and soldered as a matrix.
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The electronics is based on an Arduino Pro Mini (ATmega 328). The LED matrix is accessed by a decimal counter (CD4017) for the 10 columns (together with two MIC2981 drivers), and three chained shift registers (TPIC6B595, which can sink larger currents than the 74HC595) for the 20 rows.
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The activity of the SID is probabilistic. The up and down motion of the individual LEDs columns is, however, not independent. If, for a given column, the two neighbors are higher, this increases the probability for this column to rise. Also, if a column was rising before, the probability is higher for this column to continue to rise in the next step. When a column has reached its max or min value, it will sit there for a while (the time is, again, random) and then change it direction.
When connected to the TFC switch (which, again, is connected to the Speedometer), the before mentioned probabilities are speed-dependent, such that the overall activity also changes with the speed. At zero speed, the columns are typically only moving up to the 5th row, while at 88 on average more than half of the columns will go all the way up, into the red.
In standalone mode (when not connected to the TFC) a speed of 40mph is assumed.
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After spending too much time on BTTF forums, I concluded that I had to add some corrugated pipe, help by P-clamps, to guide the serial/power cable coming from the TFC switch.
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And here is the final unit operating in my car (... not a Delorean ...).
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The colors of the LEDs look much better in reality - it's hard to capture this on a photo.
More details are posted on my blog.
 

Flybak

New Member
This all is amazing! I've never seen anyone hand fabricate so many components in a time machine! Definitely one-of-a-kind! Very skillful! I'm a big fan!
 

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