“Peppermint Winter” by Owl City, from Ben Jordan’s 2012 Christmas light display.

WINDHAM — It wasn’t the love of holiday lights or warm childhood memories that inspired Ben Jordan to turn his house into a Christmas display.

“We’d gone for a ride in New Hampshire to look at the lights, and there was a baseball field where people set up their displays,” Jordan of Windham said. “It wasn’t timed to music, but there were jumping deer and things like that. I wanted to do something like it, but more interesting. I didn’t want to just set up a couple lights.”

In the end, Jordan said, it was a technical challenge, and he could tackle it in a little different way.

“I just knew I could do much better,” he said.

Jordan, who works in research and development at Auburn’s Refurb Supplies, is naturally drawn to electronics. As a child, he took apart the family’s record player, reassembling the electric motor outside of the case.

“I was too scared to plug it in, so I got my dad to do it, and it blew out a fuse in the house,” he said. “I’d crossed the wires and just shorted the thing out. But it didn’t deter me any.”

He’s also a guy that’s never pushed a lawnmower across his lawn — not in the eight years he’s lived at his Briarwood Lane house. He uses a remote-controlled electric lawn mower for that task.

At Halloween, the mower doubles as a remote-controlled robot that alternately fascinates and terrifies trick-or-treaters.

So automating a Christmas display seemed like a pretty simple task. You can buy controllers that make the process a snap just about anywhere on the Internet.

But that was too easy for Jordan.

“There were some already-made light controllers and different things,” Jordan said. “There was a do-it-yourself controller, but it used a computer card. You had to have the card for a couple of hundred bucks, and then each circuit was like $7 per switch. I wanted come up with a different way of doing it that wasn’t so expensive.”

First, he created a computer program that linked his choice of holiday music to lights on a computer screen. Then he used household dimmer switches combined with light-sensitive circuits to build an array that attached to the computer screen. Lit-up areas on the computer screen triggered the photo-sensitive switches, telling specific Christmas light circuits in his yard to light up or turn off.

“I came up with the idea in July and started testing it — and I didn’t even know if it was going to work,” he said.

Once he had the interface built, it was just a matter of programming the music. He started with “Wizards in Winter” by Mannheim Steamroller and has added new songs each year. It’s all controlled by the computer, which is also connected to an FM transmitter he’d made years before. Visitors just roll up, tune their radios to 90.5 on their FM dials and bask in the dazzle.

“That first year, I had the lights up right after Thanksgiving, but I didn’t have the hardware done, or the software or the songs programmed. I did not get it turned on until Christmas Eve.”

Today, his homemade array controls 96 different circuits of lights — with room to expand up to 300. They control lights around windows, on trees of all sizes and arcing bows in the yard. 

It hasn’t been without its setbacks. The computer controlling the lights sits in a dark corner of the basement, running the show. When he discovered that turning on a light in the room caused all of the yard lights to fire at once, he covered the computer and the array with a light-blocking bag. Today, he’s refined it so he just needs a black board to keep household light from interfering with this system.

“And I tell people to stay away from the computer,” he said.

He’s kept it a modest secret before, with a few signs in the neighborhood directing spectators to his show. But he loves it when people show up.

“That first year I’d set it up, I didn’t have any signs out so really nobody knew it was there,” he said. “I kept looking out the windows to see if anyone was watching but nobody was. So we were in watching a movie, and all of a sudden, I heard this thumping noise. I looked out, and someone pulled up, and they had all their doors open and the stereo turned all the way up. It was pretty awesome.”


Do you know a creative person with a technological bent? We’d love to talk to them. Contact Staff Writer Scott Taylor at [email protected], on Twitter as Orange_me or call 207-689-2846.

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