You can click on the pictures on this page for a larger version.
During the Christmas season of 1998, the
idea popped into my head to make a sign that spelled out Merry Christmas
letter-by-letter. After searching around and finding that an appropriate
lighting controller would be quite expensive to purchase, I approached my friend
and former roommate Mike Bechtold, who's 'into' hardware and he started working
on a design for a standalone computerized controller. After a long break
during the summer months, we really started seriously working on it again in
about October 1999, hoping to have it ready for Christmas.
my concept of the sign grew in proportions. I was originally thinking of a
relatively small sign, but once I realized the potential of the
controller, I expanded the concept. We decided to create a huge sign and
hang it between the two trees that were approximately 40 feet apart. Each
letter is on a plastic panel about 14 inches wide by 24 inches high. The
panels themselves are spaced a couple of inches apart, so this makes for a big
sign! Cathy and I drilled holes for each bulb through the plastic, and hot
glued the bulbs down sideways so that the panels would be easier to store (very
time consuming!). We used red and green garland to accent the letters,
and strung them up on four nylon ropes.
Mike and I had some last-minute glitches with the controller, so we were only able to get a basic sequence working with it (the letters would turn on one by one, then off one by one). We decided to leave it at that for 1999 in order to get something on display, and finish it for 2000. We were also only using 14 of the possible 16 'channels' of the controller-- one for each letter in "Merry Christmas"
For Christmas 2000, we finished the implementation. It now goes through a series of different sequences, not only spelling the letters, but chasing through the individual words, flashing the words in different ways, etc. Also, I used the 'extra' two channels on the controller to control new lights I added in each tree which holds up the sign. The tree lights were now also able to flash in patterns relating to the sequences
For Christmas 2001, we replaced the multicolor lights in the trees suspending the sign with solid-color lights. This made the entire display look more colorful and distinct from the rest of the displays in the yard, and started us down a new display aesthetic to use more solid-color lights in our displays. For Christmas 2002, the sign found a new home hung between two different trees at our new property. For 2004, we started controlling the two trees directly with Light-O-Rama. The Santa and snowman which flanked the Merry Christmas sign were now flashed the way the two trees used to, controlled by this dedicated controller. And in 2006, the sign was augmented by a string of 12 large mesh bulbs, all computer controlled.
The Christmas 2007 season marked the last year that we used the original dedicated controller documented above. It served us well for nine seasons, but the fact that everything around the sign was synchronized to music, whereas the sign itself was not, was starting to become a liability. Also, the controller had a quirk that about once a season, the microcontroller decides to go bezerk, and we needed to hook a laptop up to it (not an easy prospect, once it's deployed outside) and reprogram the it. For 2008, we retired this controller (at least for now) and will be using a standard LOR controller, like we use throughout the display, to control the sign. In addition to allowing us to synchronize the sign to the music, it gives us the ability to fade each letter individually, which will allow for many new effects to be used on it.