Retrotechtacular: A Mechanical UART

We’ve heard it said that no one invented the old mechanical Teletype. One fell from the sky near Skokie, Illinois and people just duplicated them. It is true these old machines were similar to a modern terminal. They sent and received serial data using a printer instead of a screen. But inside, they were mechanical Rube Goldbergs, not full of the electronic circuits you’d think of today.

Teletype was the best-known name, but there were other mechanical monster terminals out there. [Carsten] recently took some pictures of his 99 pound Olivetti mechanical terminal. According to him, there’s only one electronic component within: a bistable solenoid that reads the data. Everything else is mechanical and driven with a motor that keeps everything at the right baud rate (110 baud).

Like the Teletype, it is a miracle these things were able to work as well as they did. Lacking a microcontroller, the terminals could respond to an identity request by spinning a little wheel that had teeth removed to indicate which letters to send (TeleType used a similar scheme). Things that are simple using today’s electronics (like preventing two keys pressed at once from being a problem) turned out to be massive design challenges for these old metal monsters.

Turns out that when [Carsten] last fired the terminal up, a capacitor finally gave up its magic smoke. He plans to fix it, though, and as long as it isn’t a mechanical problem, we bet he will.

We’ve talked about Teletypes a few times in the past, including using them for text messaging and even Twitter.

Retrotechtacular: Cold War-Era Hardware Keyloggers

As Cold War tensions increased throughout the 1970s, the Soviets pulled out all the stops when it came to digging up information from US diplomats. This NSA memo from 2012 explains how several IBM Selectric typewriters used in the Moscow and Leningrad offices were successfully bugged with electromechanical devices that could possibly have been the world’s first keyloggers.

The Selectric prints with a ball that is spun and tilted to select the desired character. Two mechanical arms control the ball’s spin and tilt, and the keylogger read out the position of those arms. Thus, each character on the Selectric’s type element ball has its own signature. The sensing part of the keylogging mechanism was buried in part of the typewriter chassis, a metal bar that spans the width of the machine, and were so well hidden that they could only have been detected by complete dissassembly or x-ray.

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Retrotechtacular: New York City’s Secret Computer

Over 750,000 people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal each day. Located in the heart of the city, it’s one of the largest train stations in the world. Its historic significance dates back to 1913, when it opened its doors to the public. At the time, few were aware of the secret computer that sat deep in a sub basement below the hustle and bustle of the city’s busy travelers. Its existence was kept secret all the way into the 1980’s.

Westinghouse had designed a system that would allow authorities to locate a stuck train in a tunnel. There were cords stretched the length of the tunnels. If a train stalled, the operator could reach out and yank on the cord. This would set off an alarm that would alert everyone of the stuck train. The problem being that even though they knew a train was down, they did not know exactly where. And that’s where the computer come in. Westinghouse designed it to calculate where the train was, and write its location on some ticker tape.

So this is the part of the post where we tell you how the computer established where exactly the train breakdown occurred. Although the storyteller in the video is admirably enthusiastic about telling the story, our depth of detail on the engineering that went into this seems nowhere to be found. Let us know in the comments below if you have a source of more information. Or just post your own conjecture on how you would have done it with the early 20th century tech.

The invention of the two way radio made the whole thing obsolete not long after is was built. Never-the-less, it remains intact to this day.

Thanks to [Greg] for the tip!

Retrotechtacular: Weston Electrical Instruments

A ‘meter is one of the most important tools on any electronics bench. After you’ve exhausted your five senses trying to figure out what’s happening in a circuit, firing up the old ‘meter is usually the next step. Meters are largely digital nowadays, but their analog ancestors are still widely available. We have a chemist and inventor named [Edward Weston] to thank for the portability and ubiquity of DC measuring equipment.

After immigrating to the United States from England with the degree in medicine his parents wanted him to earn, [Edward Weston] asserted that he was more interested in chemistry. His career began in electroplating, where he soon realized that he needed a reliable, constant current source to do quality plating. This intense interest in power generation led him to develop a saturated cadmium cell, which is known as the Weston cell. Its chemistry produces a voltage stable enough to be used for meter calibration. The Weston cell is also good for making EMF determinations.

Within a few years, he co-founded the Weston Electrical Instrument Corporation. The company produced several types of meters along with transformers and transducers known for their portability and accuracy. In 1920, [Weston & Co.] created this 1920 educational film in cooperation with the United States Navy as part of a series on the principles of electricity.

The viewer is invited to consider the importance of measurement to civilization, most notably those fundamental measurements of length, mass, and time. [Weston] positions his electrical measuring instruments at this level, touting them as the international favorite. We get the full tour of a Weston meter, from the magnet treated for permanence to the specially designed pole pieces that correctly distribute lines of magnetic force. What education film about electromagnetism would be complete without an iron filings demonstration? This one definitely delivers.

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Retrotechtacular: So You Want to Be a Weldor

Welding is one of those things that takes minutes to learn and years to master. It requires coordination, strength, and a good pair of eyes. This vocational guidance video from the early 1940s touches on these points and more for those considering careers in welding. The narrator jumps right in, discussing welding types, equipment operation, and employment opportunities in both the welding field itself and other fields that use welding techniques.

Oxy-acetylene welding is one of the oldest methods of fusing metal. A flame fueled by a specific mixture of pure oxygen and acetylene gas heats the metal welding rod and the work piece to plasticity, which allows them to join together. An oxy-acetylene setup can also be used to cut metal, though a special cutting torch with a kind of oxygen turbo boost lever is required. The work piece is heated to red-hot at the point along the edge where the cut will start. The oxygen-rich flame will cut right through the piece.

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Retrotechtacular: Häfla Hammerforge Healed

Visit any renaissance fair across the United States this fall and you’ll undoubtedly find a blacksmith. He’ll be sweating away in a tent, pounding on a piece of glowing steel set against an anvil. While the practice of the single blacksmith endures today, high-production ‘works of days past required increasing amounts of muscle. The more tireless the muscle, the better. The manual efforts of the blacksmith were replaced by huge hammers, and the blacksmith needed only to turn the piece between impressions and maintain a healthy respect for the awesome crushing power of the machine.

Last week, blacksmith enthusiasts completed restoration work on the Häfla hammer in Finspang, Sweden. The 333 year old hydraulic hammer hadn’t been used since 1924, when operations ceased at the Häfla Hammerforge. The ‘works was built in 1682 and used the German method of forging, which had been introduced to Sweden in the 1500s. Steel production was revolutionized in the 1800s by the Bessemer process, which resulted in a much stronger product. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Häfla Hammerforge Healed”

Retrotechtacular: The Hammond Novachord

Just when we thought we’d heard of all the cool early synthesizers, a tipster rattled our jar with news that someone completely restored a Novachord. These spinet piano-shaped prototypical synthesizers were made by Hammond for only four years. About a thousand of them were built before sales sagged and parts became scarce in 1942. It is estimated that only 200 or so are still around today.

The Novachord’s sounds are generated by a bank of twelve monostable vacuum tube oscillators. Each one is tuned to a pitch of the chromatic scale in what is called divide-down architecture. [Hammond] and his co-creators [John Hanert] and [C.N. Williams] used the property of dividing a frequency in half to generate the same tone, but one octave lower. This design means that all 72 notes can be played at the same time. Adjustable formant filters shape the often otherworldly sounds, which are then passed through flexible tube-based envelopes.

[Phil] knew it would be a big job to restore a Novachord in any condition. Thousands of passive components all had to be replaced. The cabinet bore all the hallmarks of a well-used parlor instrument—water rings from cocktails, scratches, and cigarette burns galore. [Phil] says that woodworking really isn’t his thing, but he did an outstanding job nonetheless of sanding every nook and cranny and applying several coats of stain. There are tons of drool-inducing pictures on his project site, and several clips of [Phil] really putting it through its paces.

Thanks for the tip, [Mike]!

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.