Retrotechtacular: Fantastic Backyard Inventions of Yore

News corporation [British Pathé] created many newsreels and documentaries throughout their 60-year history. Recently, the company released scores of films from their archives and put them on the internet. Here is a delightful collection of short films they created that highlight strange and wonderful inventions in various fields, including transportation and communication.

One of the standout inventions is the Dynasphere, a mono-wheeled vehicle that probably deserves its own week in the Retrotechtacular spotlight. There are a couple of pedal-powered planes that may have inspired the Gossamer Condor, and a hover scooter that resembles an air hockey striker and doubles as a leaf blower. In another film, a man drives a Vespa to the banks of the Thames and parks it. He pulls a fin down from each side of the scooter, turning it into a seafaring craft. When he snaps his fingers, a cute girl appears from somewhere just outside the frame. She climbs on the back, and they take off across the water.

The average running time of these films is about two minutes. Some of them are much shorter, prompting many questions. Fortunately, most of the video descriptions have links with more information about these marvelous inventions. Almost all of the inventors in these films show a complete disregard for safety, but nearly everyone involved seems to be having the time of their lives.

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Retrotechtacular: Coopering Guinness Barrels by Hand

For almost exactly 200 years, the Guinness brewery in Dublin, Ireland employed extremely skilled craftsmen to shape and construct wooden casks by hand. These men were called coopers, and plying their trade required several years of apprenticeship. The cooperage was a kind of closed society as many of the positions were passed down through generations of families. With the rise of aluminium and then stainless steel barrels in the late 1950s, the master coopers of Guinness became a dying breed.

Almost every step of the coopering process shown in this film is done without any kind of precise measurement. A master cooper like [Dick Flanagan] here needs only his eyes and his practiced judgment. His barrels start out as oak planks called ‘staves’ that have been drying in racks for at least two years. A cooper selects the staves that strike his fancy and he saws off the ends. This seems to be the only part of the process where a power tool is used.

The cooper shapes each stave by hand with axe and adze so that its ends are tapered just so. Once he has shaped enough of them to make a barrel, he arranges them in a cylinder around the inside of a metal band known as a hoop. The bound staves are steamed for half an hour to make them pliable enough for shaping.

After steaming, the splayed end of the staves are bound with wire rope to pull them close enough together that a hoop can be fitted over them. The inside of the cask is then charred with burning oak shavings, a process that seals the wood and removes its acidity. After this, the ends are sanded and the bunghole is drilled.

For each barrel, the cooper crafts a custom set of hoops. These are installed after the outside of the barrel has been shaved smooth. Finally, the heads that cap each end of the cask are made from more oak staves held together with dowel rods. This is the only time the cooper uses a tool to measure anything, and he does so to achieve the proper circumference on the heads. He bevels the edges so the heads will fit into bored-out grooves in the cask walls. Once they’re seated, the keg is ready for dark, rich stout.

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Retrotechtacular: The J-57 Afterburner Engine

The J-57 afterburner engine appeared in many airplanes of notable make, including the F-101, -102, and -103. This USAF training film shows the parts of the J-57, explains the complex process by which the engine produces thrust, and describes some maintenance and troubleshooting procedures.

The name of this game is high performance. Precision thrust requires careful rigging of the engine’s fuel control linkage through a process called trimming. Here, the engine fuel control is adjusted with regard to several different RPM readings as prescribed in the manual.

One of the worst things that can happen to a J-57 is known as overtemping. This refers to high EGT, or exhaust gas temperature. If EGT is too high, the air-fuel ratio is not ideal. Troubleshooting a case of high EGT should begin with a check of the lines and the anti-icing valve. If the lines are good and the valve is closed, the instruments should be checked for accuracy. If they’re okay, then it’s time for a pre-trimming inspection.

In addition to EGT, engine performance is judged by RPM and PP7, the turbine discharge pressure. If RPM and PP7 are within spec and the EGT is still high, the engine must be pulled. It should be inspected for leaks and hot spots, and the seals should be examined thoroughly for cracks and burns. The cause for high EGT may be just one thing, or it could be several small problems. This film encourages the user to RTFM, which we think is great advice in general.

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Retrotechtacular: The Omega Navigational System

In 1971, the United States Navy launched the Omega navigational system for submarines and surface ships. The system used radio frequencies and phase difference calculations to determine global position. A network of eight (VLF) transmitter sites spread around the globe made up the system, which required the cooperation of six other nations.

Omega’s fix accuracy was somewhere between one and two nautical miles. Her eight transmitter stations were positioned around the Earth such that any single point on the planet could receive a usable signal from at least five stations. All of the transmitters were synchronized to a Cesium clock and emitted signals on a time-shared schedule.

LOP-thumbA ship’s receiving equipment performed navigation by comparing the phase difference between detected signals. This calculation was based around “lanes” that served to divvy up the distance between stations into equal divisions. A grid of these lanes formed by eight stations’ worth of overlapping signals provides intersecting lines of position (LOP) that give the sailor his fix.

In order for the lane numbers to have meaning, the sailor has to dial in his starting lane number in port based on the maps. He would then select the pair of stations nearest him, which were designated with the letters A to H. He would consult the skywave correction tables and make small adjustments for atmospheric conditions and other variances. Finally, he would set his lane number manually and set sail.

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Retrotechtacular: Building Hammond Organ Tones

Here’s a short film made by the Hammond Organ Company with the intent to educate and persuade potential consumers. Right away we are assured that Hammond organs are the cream of the crop for two simple reasons: the tone generator that gives them that unique Hammond sound, and the great care taken at every step of their construction.

Hammond organs have ninety-one individual electromagnetic tone wheel assemblies. Each of these generate a specific frequency based on the waviness of a spinning disk’s edge and the speed at which it is rotated in front of an electromagnet. By using the drawbars to stack up harmonics, an organist can build lush walls of sound.

No cost is spared in Hammond’s tireless pursuit of excellence. All transformers are wound in-house and then sealed in wax to make them impervious to moisture. Each tone wheel is cut to exacting tolerances, cross-checked, and verified by an audio specialist. The assembly and fine tuning of the tone generators is so carefully performed that Hammond alleges they’ll never need tuning again.

This level of attention isn’t limited to the guts of the instrument. No, the cabinetry department is just as meticulous. Only the highest-quality lumber is carefully dried, cut, sanded, and lacquered by hand, then rubbed to a high shine. Before it leaves the shop, every Hammond organ is subject to rigorous inspection and a performance test in a soundproofed room.

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Retrotechtacular: Don’t Balk at Pitch-Up in the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo

The McDonnell aircraft corporation’s F-101 Voodoo was a lean, mean, supersonic machine capable of going from tarmac to 40,000 feet in about two minutes. But for all its innovation and engineering, the Voodoo had a common problem of pitch-up. That is, the swept-back wings of the Voodoo created a tendency for the plane to nose upward very sharply, negating the pilot’s control.

McDonnell assures Voodoo pilots that this problem is easily overcome with a cool head and a solid foundation of know-how about the issue. This training film is meant to provide that foundation, exploring the causes of pitch-up and the prescribed methods for recovery with and without deployment of the drag chute.

The drag chute is always the recommended route to help correct the craft. This is especially true for a full-scale pitch-up situation. Recovery is possible without the drag chute, however. The altitude lost in recovery is proportional to the altitude at the time that pitch-up occurs. That is, the lower the altitude of the craft when pitch-up occurs, the less altitude is lost in getting back to straight and level flight.

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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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