Retrotechtacular: Examining Music in 1950’s Russia

If you had told 12-year-old me that one day I would be able to listen to pretty much any song I wanted to on demand and also pull up the lyrics as fast as I could type the artist’s name and part of the title into a text box, I would have a) really hoped you weren’t kidding and b) would have wanted to grow up even faster than I already did.

The availability of music today, especially in any place with first world Internet access is really kind of astounding. While the technology to make this possible has come about only recently, the freedom of music listening has been fairly wide open in the US. The closest we’ve come to governmental censorship is the parental advisory sticker, and those are just warnings. The only thing that really stands between kids’ ears and the music they want to listen to is parental awareness and/or consent.

However, the landscape of musical freedom and discovery has been quite different in other corners of the world, especially during the early years of rock ‘n roll. While American teens roller skated and sock-hopped to the new and feverish sounds of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, the kids in Soviet Russia were stuck in a kind of sonic isolation. Stalin’s government had a choke hold on the influx of culture and greatly restricted the music that went out over the airwaves. They viewed Western and other music as a threat, and considered the musicians to be enemies of the USSR.

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Retrotechtacular: TV Troubleshooting

As technology advances, finding the culprit in a malfunctioning device has become somewhat more difficult. As an example, troubleshooting an AM radio is pretty straightforward. There are two basic strategies. First, you can inject a signal in until you can hear it. Then you work backwards to find the stage that is bad. The other way is to trace a signal using a signal tracer or an oscilloscope. When the signal is gone, you’ve found the bad stage. Of course, you still need to figure out what’s wrong with the stage, but that’s usually one or two transistors (or tubes) and a handful of components.

A common signal injector was often a square wave generator that would generate audio frequencies and radio frequency harmonics. It was common to inject at the volume control (easy to find) to determine if the problem was in the RF or audio sections first. If you heard a buzz, you worked backwards into the RF stages. No buzz indicated an audio section problem.

A signal tracer was nothing more than an audio amplifier with a diode demodulator. Starting at the volume control was still a good idea. If you heard radio stations through the signal tracer, the RF section was fine. Television knocked radio off of its pedestal as the primary form of information and entertainment in most households, and thus the TV repair industry was created.

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Retrotechtacular: MONIAC

There is an argument to be made that whichever hue of political buffoons ends up in Number 10 Downing Street, the White House, the Élysée Palace, or wherever the President, Prime Minister or despot lives in your country, eventually they will send the economy down the drain.

Fortunately, there is a machine for that. MONIAC is an analogue computer with water as its medium, designed to simulate a national economy for students. Invented in 1949 by the New Zealand economist [WIlliam Phillips], it is a large wooden board with a series of tanks interconnected by pipes and valves. Different sections of the economy are represented by the water tanks, and the pipes and valves model the flow of money between them. Spending is downhill gravitational water flow, while taxation is represented by a pump which returns money to the treasury at the top. It was designed to represent the British economy in the late 1940s as [Philips] was a student at the London School of Economics when he created it. Using the machine allowed students and economists for the first time to simulate the effects of real economic decisions in government, in real time.

So if you have a MONIAC, you can learn all about spectacularly mismanaging the economy, and then in a real sense flush the economy down the drain afterwards. The video below shows Cambridge University’s restored MONIAC in operation, and should explain the device’s workings in detail.
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Retrotechtacular: Rein-Operated Tractors

It’s not unusual for new technologies to preserve vestiges of those that preceded them. If an industry has an inertia of doing things in a particular way then it makes commercial sense for any upstarts to build upon those established practices rather than fail to be adopted. Thus for example some industrial PLCs with very modern internals can present interfaces that hark back to their relay-based ancestors, or deep within your mobile phone there may still be AT commands being issued that would be familiar from an early 1980s modem.

Just occasionally though an attempt to marry a new technology to an old one becomes an instant anachronism, something that probably made sense at the time but through the lens of history seems just a bit crazy. And so we come to the subject of this piece, the rein-operated agricultural tractor.

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Retrotechtacular: Hallicrafters Goes To War

When the USA entered World War Two, they lacked a powerful mobile communications unit. To plug this gap they engaged Hallicrafters, prewar manufacturers of amateur radio transmitters and receivers, who adapted and ruggedized one of their existing products for the application.

The resulting transmitter was something of a success, with production running into many thousands of units. Hallicrafters were justifiably proud of it, so commissioned a short two-part film on its development which is the subject of this article.

The transmitter itself was a very high quality device for the era, but even with the film’s brief insight into operating back in the AM era the radio aspect is not what should capture your interest. Instead of the radio it is the in-depth tour of an electronics manufacturing plant in the war years that makes this film, from the development process of a military product from a civilian one through all the stages of production to the units finally being fitted to Chevrolet K-51 panel vans and shipped to the front. Chassis-based electronics requiring electric hoists to move from bench to bench are a world away from today’s surface-mount micro-circuitry.

So sit back and enjoy the film, both parts are below the break.

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Retrotechtacular: Blacksmithing To The Stars!

When most of us think of forge work, the image that comes to our mind is likely to be a rather traditional one, of the village blacksmith’s shop, roaring coke-fired hearths, and an anvil ringing to the beat of hand-wielded hammers. Iron and steel, worked through the sweat of the human brow.

Precision metalwork probably doesn’t figure in there, yet there is another type of forging used to create some of the most highly stressed components on rockets, missiles, and aircraft as well as the more mundane ironwork of your garden fence. Drop forging allows reproducible shapes to be forged while maintaining tight control over the metallurgical properties of the finished product, exactly what is required for such high-performance applications.

The video below is a promotional film about drop forging in the aeronautical industry from the late 1950s, made for and about Wyman Gordon, still specialists in the field. With the charming optimism of the period and a very catchy title it goes into the detail of the plant, development, and quality control of a range of parts for the missiles and rockets of the day, and along the way shows the cutting edge of machine tooling in the days before CNC. A whole Periodic Table of metals are forged with an expertise probably not seen in many other places in the world.

There are also some sights you’d never see in today’s safety culture, for example a running press with men darting in to adjust the position of a forging while it is still moving. It’s not a short video, but definitely worth watching all the way through.

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Retrotechtacular: Eidophor, an Unknown Widely Used Projector

If you own a video projector, be it a module small enough to fit in a mobile phone or one designed for a cinema screen, the chances are it will have a DLP at its heart. An array of microscopic mirrors on an integrated circuit, the current state of the art in video projection technology.

Perhaps you own an older video projector, or maybe a cheaper new one. If so the chances are it’ll have a small LCD screen doing its work, taking the place of the Kodachrome in something very similar to your grandparents’ slide projector or their grandparents’ magic lantern.

eidophore-patent-image-600pxLCD technology was invented in the 1970s, while DLP was invented at the end of the 1980s. So how did the video projectors that were such a staple of televised spectaculars in the preceding decades work? For that matter, how did NASA project their status displays on the huge screen at Mission Control? Certainly not with CRT technology, even the brightest CRT projectors weren’t up to filling a cinema-sized screen.

The answer came from the Eidophor (Greek: ‘eido’ and ‘phor’, ‘image’ and ‘bearer’), a device invented in the years before World War II by the Swiss physicist Dr. Fritz Fischer and granted a US patent in 1945. It featured a complex vacuum device in which an electron gun painted the video frames as a raster on an oil-covered mirror in the light path of a fairly conventional projector. High-voltage electric charges have the effect of deforming the surface of mineral oils, and it was this effect that was exploited to vary the effectiveness of the mirror as the raster was drawn. An unfortunate side-effect of tracing an oil surface with an electron beam is that a charge will build up on the oil surface, so the entire oil-covered mirror assembly had to rotate within its vacuum enclosure and pass under an electrode which removed any charge build-up.

Eidophor [by Topquark2 CC-BY-SA 3.0]
The resulting machine as seen in this 1952 issue of Popular Science was very large, complex, and expensive to run, but delivered by far the brightest and sharpest projected video available. In a literal sense they painted the backdrop to our culture, as they found a home not only in NASA’s control room but in television studios and at large televised events. This Shirley Bassey performance from the 1960s for example, or the spectacular video light show on this rather poor quality VHS YouTube clip from Seville Expo 1992.

You will probably be unaware of the exact date you last saw an eidophor performance. Quince Imaging tell us their last one was used at the TWA Dome in St Louis in July 2000. Eidophores may have become more compact over the decades but they remained costly to run, and through the 1990s they were suplanted by DLP devices that did substantially the same job with a lot less fuss.

It is not often that a search in the Hackaday archives for a technology returns no results, but the eidophor is one of those cases. Perhaps that is a fitting epitaph for a device that created its own show but never starred in it, that it is only its spectacular performances that live on.