Christmas Light Display
I started my Christmas light display in 1982 with a project I called the Electric Christmas Tree. At the time, I was an instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, teaching digital electronics. In my interviews with the media I flip-flop between saying I started this on-going project to illustrate digital techniques to my students, and to show off for my kids. Both stories are true.
After getting a good response from my first attempt, and realizing how much fun I had designing it, I built the Snowflake display the next year. I moved from the acreage where I had those two displays, into the city. Although I had less space to display anything, I managed to squeeze everything in, and even added a new display, a star. My rule in the beginning was to have all lights moving, but in order to jazz up the display a bit I started adding static lights and decorations. When I moved to another city into an apartment, I could only use the snowflakes and some simpler displays. I was on the 17th floor of the building, but my apartment faced downtown and bigger apartments, so I really had lots of spectators.
From a 300 light Christmas Tree in 1982, I expanded the display to over 6000 lights in 2002. My philosophy is more is not always better, and thus have kept in reserve, the 10,000 extra lights I had in my basement. In 2002 my system comprised of 3 computers, 12 relays, 6 power supplies, 6 strobe lights, 5800 lights, 12 micro-controllers, 14 motors. I added the meteor in 2002.
Due to the duty cycle of the lights (flashing on and off), my power bill was $1.50 extra per day, or $45 for the entire month the lights are on. An old PC ran a timer program and Power Point presentation and when the time counted down to zero, an output pulse from the computer turned on 10 relays that applied power to the entire display, whether I was there or not. All the computers were set to "boot" automatically. At 10:30 PM the same computer turned off the relays, and got ready for the next cycle starting at 6:30 PM the next day. On the monitor for the power point presentation I mounted a wireless camera with microphone so I could catch people's reactions and watch for vandals.
2002 was the last year I had the full display, anticipating a move across the country where I had to leave much of my equipment behind either sold or disposed of. At my new location I set up only the Snowflakes. Santa Playground is intended to be a "portable display" that I can take around to schools and community groups and is a work in progress.