Retrotechtacular: The Modern Telephone

We take recorded telephone messages for granted in these days of smartphones and VOIP. Our voicemail lives on an anonymous server in a data centre in the cloud somewhere, in a flash memory chip on our DECT base station, or if we’re of a retro persuasion, on a micro-cassette. Wherever we go, we now know our calls will not go unanswered.

Today’s subject takes us back to a time when automatically recording a phone call was the last word in high technology, with British Pathé newsreel piece from 1959 entitled “Modern Telephone”. Its subject is the Ansafone J10, one of the first telephone answering machines available on the British market. After featuring a fantastic home-made Meccano answering machine with turntable recording created by a doctor, it takes us to the Ansafone factory where the twin tape mechanisms of the commercial model are assembled and tested. Finally we get to see it in use on the desk of a bona fide Captain of Industry, probably about the only sort of person who could afford an Ansafone in 1959.

Part of the film’s charm comes not from the technology but from the glimpse it gives us of 1950s Britain sanitised for the newsreel. The clipped tones, leather armchairs and bookshelves, the coal fire and the engineer in a three-piece suit. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Take a look at the film below after the break, and never take your recorded calls for granted again.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Modern Telephone”

One Man Spends 53 Years And Builds A Cathedral

Is it a hack? We think it’s definitely a hack. It’s just a hack that’s so grand and audacious it’s hard to even think of it as a hack. [Don Justo Martinez] single-handedly (aside from the help of an occasional nephew, which doesn’t count) built a Cathedral over 53 years in Madrid Spain.

Born in 1925, [Don Justo] found himself dying of tuberculosis soon after leaving a life of farming and becoming a Benedictine monk. He became so ill he was forced to leave his order and prayed for healing. He promised that he would erect a church in the name of the Lady of the Pillar if he lived.

He lived, and he built. He built out of whatever he could find. The broken bricks from the local factory became his cut stone. Discarded glass and metal all went into the work. The column forms are old oil drums. As Linus Torvalds said of the Linux project, (paraphrase) “Start to build it and they will come.” Once people saw the madman work, they began to donate materials to the Cathedral.

An untold number of very difficult man hours has gone into the structure. It makes the complaining  in the comments about the 100 hours spent on St. Optimus of Prime look as petty as it was.  It makes most arguments about time spent look silly. It’s labor and dedication on a scale that just isn’t often seen in any age.

In the tradition of cathedrals, [Don Justo] is likely to pass away before his church is finished. His only request is that he be the first to be placed in its crypts. His great hope is that others will continue the work after him. If you’d like to know more and see some pictures there is a website with more information.

Motorcycling Like It’s 1905 With A Home Made Engine

The modern motorcycle represents the pinnacle of over a century of refinement in design and manufacture of its every component. A modest outlay will secure you a machine capable of three figure speeds with impeccable handling, breathtaking acceleration and stopping power, that somehow seems also to possess bulletproof reliability that will take it to a hundred thousand miles of faithful transport.

At the dawn of the internal combustion engine age it was a different matter. Machines were little more than bicycles with rudimentary engines attached, brakes and tyres were barely capable of doing the job demanded of them, and the early motorcyclists were a hardy and daring breed.

You might think that this article would now head into retrotechtacular territory with a nostalgic look at an early motorcycle, but instead its subject has a much more recent origin. We happened upon [Buddfab]’s contemporary build of a 1905-era motorcycle, and we think it’s a bike you’d all like to see.

The bike itself is a faithful reproduction of a typical Edwardian machine. It has a modified bicycle frame with a belt drive and springer front forks. That’s all very impressive, but the engine is a masterpiece, crafting a more modern parts bin into something resembling a 1905 original. He’s taken the cylinder, piston, and half a cylinder head from an aircooled VW flat four and mated it with the crankshaft of a 125cc Honda, welding the two connecting rods together to join German and Japanese parts. With a custom-made crankcase, Lucas points, and the carburetor from a British Seagull outboard motor it both looks and sounds like an original, though we’d expect it to be significantly more reliable.

You can see videos of both bike and engine below the break, as he takes it for a spin through American suburbia. Sadly we’ll never see it passed to the definitive writer on early motorcycles for an expert view, but it would fool us completely.

Continue reading “Motorcycling Like It’s 1905 With A Home Made Engine”

Tearing Apart The Nintendo PlayStation

The mid 90s were a weird time for video game hardware. There were devices that could play videos from compact disks. Those never caught on. Virtual reality was the next big thing. That never caught on. The Sony PlayStation was originally an add-on for the Super Nintendo. That never caught on, but a few prototype units were produced. One of these prototype ‘Nintendo Playstations’ was shipped to a company that went into bankruptcy. Eventually, the assets of this company were put up for auction, and this unbelievably rare game console was bought by [Terry Diebold] for $75.

[Terry] allowed [Ben Heck] tear into this piece of videogame history, and he has the video proof that this was a collaboration between Sony and Nintendo.

Continue reading “Tearing Apart The Nintendo PlayStation”

45-Year Old Nixie Calculator Turned UDP Server

In this beautiful and well-documented reverse engineering feat of strength, [Eric Cohen] reverse-engineered a 1971 Singer calculator to gain control of the fabulous Nixie tubes inside. Where a lesser hacker would have simply pulled the tubes out and put them in a more modern housing, [Eric] kept it all intact.

Not even content to gut the box and toss some modern brains inside, he snooped out the calculator’s internal wiring, interfaced a Raspberry Pi to it, and overrode the calculator’s (860 Hz) bus system. With the Pi on the inside, controlling the Nixie tubes, he did what any of us would do: set up a UDP server and write an Android app for his phone to push ASCII data over to the former calculator. When it’s not running in its default clock mode, naturally.

nixie-internals

All of this is extraordinarily well documented both on his website, in a slide presentation (PDF), and in video (embedded below). Our hats are tipped to the amazing attention to detail and fantastic documentation.

Now where is that Singer EC1117 calculator from 1971 that we’ve been saving for just such an occasion?

Continue reading “45-Year Old Nixie Calculator Turned UDP Server”

Riding Shotgun In The Apollo 12 Lunar Lander

Last week we had a walk through of the Lunar Module’s source code with Don Eyles, who wrote the landing programs. Now you can take a rather thrilling ride to see Don’s code in action.

Below is an annotated video of the Apollo 12 landing, in real-time. It’s worth setting aside a quarter-hour to check it out. In an age where everyone is carrying around an HD (or way better) camera in their pocket, following along with radio broadcasts, still images, and small slivers of video might not sound that awesome. But it is!

p63-apollo-12-codeThe video takes us from Powered Descent Initiation through touchdown on the Moon with Pete Conrad and Alan Bean. As the audio plays out the video has annotations which explain what is going on and that translate the jargon used by the team. With the recently celebrated push to publish the source code you can even follow along as the video displays which program is running at that time. Just search for the program code and you’ll find it, like this screenshot of the P63 routine. The code comments are more than enough to get the gist of it all.

If you enjoy this, the description of the YouTube video below includes links to similar videos for Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17.

[Thanks to Paul Becker for sending along this video]

Expanding Horizons With The Ion Propelled Lifter

Like many people, going through university followed an intense career building period was a dry spell in terms of making things. Of course things settled down and I finally broke that dry spell to work on what I called “non-conventional propulsion”.

I wanted to stay away from the term “anti-gravity” because I was enough of a science nut to know that such a thing was dubious. But I also suspected that there might be science principles yet to be discovered. I was willing to give it a try anyway, and did for a few years. It was also my introduction to the world of high voltage… DC. Everything came out null though, meaning that any effects could be accounted for by some form of ionization or Coulomb force. At no time did I get anything to actually fly, though there was a lot of spinning things on rotors or weight changes on scales and balances due to ion propulsion.

So when a video appeared in 2001 from a small company called Transdimensional Technologies of a triangle shaped, aluminum foil and wire thing called a lifter that actually propelled itself off the table, I immediately had to make one. I’d had enough background by then to be confident that it was flying using ion propulsion. And in fact, given my background I was able to put an enhancement in my first version that others came up with only later.

For those who’ve never seen a lifter, it’s extremely simple. Think of it as a very leaky capacitor. One electrode is an aluminum foil skirt, in the shape of a triangle. Spaced apart from that around an inch or so away, usually using 1/6″ balsa wood sticks, is a very thin bare wire (think 30AWG) also shaped as a triangle. High voltage is applied between the foil skirt and the wire. The result is that a downward jet of air is created around and through the middle of the triangle and the lifter flies up off the table. But that is just the barest explanation of how it works. We must go deeper!

Continue reading “Expanding Horizons With The Ion Propelled Lifter”