Retrotechtacular: Making Porcelain Insulators

Here is a silent film produced by General Electric that depicts the making of many kinds of porcelain insulators for power lines. Skilled craftsmen molded, shaped, and carved these vital components of the electrical grid by hand before glazing and firing them.

Porcelain insulators of this time period were made from china clay, ball clay, flint, and feldspar. In the dry process, ingredients are pulverized and screened to a fine powder and then pressed into molds, often with Play-Doh Fun Factory-type effects. Once molded, they are trimmed by hand to remove fins and flashing. The pieces are then spray-glazed while spinning on a vertical lathe.

Other types of insulators are produced through the wet process. The clay is mixed in a pug mill, which is a forgiving machine that takes scrap material of all shapes, sizes, and moisture levels and squeezes out wet, workable material in a big log. Chunks of log are formed on a pottery wheel or pressed into a mold. Once they are nearly dry, the pieces get their final shape at the hands of a master. They are then glazed and fired in a giant, high-temperature kiln.

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Retrotechtacular: Automatic For The People

Throughout their long history, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) have made forays into many areas of automation. And as the American cultural landscape of the 1950s and ’60s shifted toward fast, cheap, and convenient foodstuffs available for consumption inside of spacious, finned automobiles, AMF was there with AMFare, an (almost) completely automated system for taking orders, preparing food, and calculating bills.

AMF named the system “ORBIS” after its two main functions, ordering and billing. But ORBIS was not completely autonomous. A human operator received orders from a table-side telephones inside the restaurant and intercoms used by drive-in customers, and entered them on an enormous console. Orders were routed to several machines to prepare the food, cook it, and package it in various ways. We witness the odyssey of the burger in complete detail, from punching out perfect patties to their final, plastic-wrapped form.

Surprisingly, the AMFare selection wasn’t limited to delicious burgers, fries, and milkshakes. It could crank out sixteen different menu items, and do so pretty quickly. In the space of one hour, AMFare could produce more than 400 burgers, over 350 orders of fries, or about 700 milkshakes. Even so, collating the orders required human intervention. We imagine that the awful task of cleaning all that expensive Rube Goldberg-esque machinery did, too.

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Pendulum MIDI Controller Really Swings

Once in a while, we see a project that makes us want to stop whatever we’re doing and build our own version of it. This time, it’s Modulum, a pendulum-based MIDI controller. It’s exactly what it sounds like. The swinging pendulum acts as a low-frequency oscillator. In the demo video configuration, you can hear it add a watery, dreamlike quality, sort of like a lap steel guitar on LSD.

The pendulum’s motion is detected by four pieces of stretchy, conductive cord. These are wired to an Arduino Nano in a voltage divider fashion. [Evan and Kirk] used the Maxuino library to determine x and y mapping of possible pendular positions as well as perform the necessary MIDI processing. Get your groove on after the break, and check out some of the many other fantastic MIDI controllers we’ve had the pleasure of covering.

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Retrotechtacular: Cover Your CONUS with OTH-B Radar

If you’re a ham, you already know that the ionosphere is a great backboard for bouncing HF signals around the globe.  It’s also useful for over-the-horizon backscatter (OTH-B (PDF)) radar applications, which the United States Air Force’s Rome Laboratory experimented with during the Cold War.

During the trial program, transmit and receive sites were set up ninety miles apart inside the great state of Maine. The 1/2 mile-long transmit antenna was made up of four arrays of twelve dipole elements and operated at 1MW. An antenna back screen and ground screen further expanded the signal’s range. Transmission was most often controlled by computers within the transmit building, but it could also be manually powered and adjusted.

The receive site had 50-ft. antenna elements stretching 3900 feet, and a gigantic ground screen covering nearly eight acres. Signals transmitted from the dipole array at the transmit site bounced off of the ionosphere and down to the receive site. Because of step-scanning, the system was capable of covering a 180° arc. OTH-B radar systems across the continental United States were relegated to storage at the end of the Cold War, but could be brought back into service given enough time and money.

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Dual Pet Food Dispenser is Doubly Convenient

Does your dog or cat wake you up every morning, demanding to be fed? Maybe you feed Sparky in the evenings instead. But doesn’t that limit your spontaneity? It sure limited [Jorge]’s after-work plans. He has two dogs that eat the same type of food, but in different quantities. This was a big factor in the design and execution of his dual pet food dispenser.

[Jorge] started by modeling his requirements in 3D. Dispensing takes place in two stages as food moves from the storage hopper to the bowls. A 12V printer motor turns the 3D-printed auger, which transports the nuggets to the staging area. Here, a servo controls a ramp in a see-saw motion, sending the food sliding sideways into one bowl or the other.

The dispenser is designed around a PIC18F2420. Although this micro was [Jorge] ‘s second choice, it ticks all the boxes in the design. His acrylic enclosure features four push buttons for navigation and selection through the 16×2 LCD. [Jorge] has an issue with the food getting stuck in the first stage. A friend suggested that he use vibration to agitate the food, but that didn’t work. [Jorge] ultimately added a stirring shaft with spokes that helps keep the morsels moving. Take the tour after the break.

If you want to dispense single doses of food on a timer, check out this automatic cat feeder made from scavenged parts.

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Retrotechtacular: Hand-Synthesized Sound

When you think of early sound synthesis, what technologies come to mind? The Hammond Organ?  Or perhaps its predecessor, Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium? In the early 1920s and 30s, many Bauhaus artists were using paper and film to synthesize musical instruments.

A few of them experimented with the optical film soundtrack itself, drawing waveforms directly upon it. [Evgeny Sholpo] created an optical synthesizer he called the Variophone. It used cardboard disks with intricate cutout patterns that resembled spinning, sonic snowflakes.

During the early 1930s, an artist named [Nikolai Voinov] created short animated films that incorporated the cut paper sound technique. [Voinov]’s soundtrack looked like combs of varying fineness. For his animated figures, [Voinov] cut and pieced together characters from paper and made them move in time to his handmade paper soundtrack.

In [Voinov]’s “Dance of the Crow”, an animated crow struts his stuff from right to left and back again while working his beak in sync with the music. The overall effect is like a chiptunes concertina issuing forth from a crow-shaped pair of bellows. It’s really not to be missed.

Thanks for the tip, [Leo]!

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

Retrotechtacular: Firepower For Freedom

As the United States were settled, its leaders found that they needed firepower to preserve freedom. This became especially apparent during the military engagements of the era, so a number of specialized facilities were founded to manage the research, development, manufacture, and dissemination of different types of munitions.

Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey was the place for both nuclear and conventional weapon development. The men and women working in this facility created anti-personnel devices, including a flexible, adhesive charge called Flex-X that could be affixed to almost anything. This demolition charge could be layered for increased power, and could even detonate underwater. Picatinny also developed new rocket engines, propellants, and liquid propulsion for projectiles.

In Pennsylvania, a small-arms ammunition plant called Frankford Arsenal developed a duplex rifle cartridge. That is, a lead projectile fires on target, and a second one sitting behind it in the cartridge shoots at an angle, landing an inch or so near the lead bullet. Frankford workers also ground precision optics for target sighting and centering, and developed a case-less cartridge. Propellants geared for a wide variety of uses also came out of Frankford. These propellants were employed to deliver nerve agent antidotes, inflate life rafts quickly, and eject pilots from sketchy situations.

The Edgewood Arsenal in Baltimore specializes in the research and development, manufacture, and supply of chemical weapons. They are particularly adept at fire suppression. Edgewood research has provided civilian benefits as well, such as an anthrax vaccine. In addition, Fort Detrick, Maryland contains a biological R&D wing where vital antidotes and vaccines are developed.

All of this R&D and manufacture was orchestrated by the Ammunition Procurement and Supply Agency (APSA) located near Joliet, IL. In addition to reviewing all contractor bids with equal consideration, APSA controlled distribution, maintaining inventory on large computers that could crunch numbers like nobody’s business.

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