Retrotechtacular: ERNIE

Wherever you may live in the world, who do you wish to smile upon you and deliver good fortune? You may be surprised to discover that for a significant number of Brits this role is taken by someone called [Ernie].

What, [Jim Henson]’s Ernie from Sesame Street‘s famous duo Bert and Ernie? Sadly not, because the owner of a [Rubber Duckie] can’t offer you the chance of a million quid every month. Instead, [Ernie] is a computer that has been anthropomorphised in the national imagination. More properly referred to as E.R.N.I.E, for Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, he is the machine that picks the winning bond numbers for the Premium Bonds, a lottery investment scheme  run by the British Government.

Brits have been able to buy £1 bonds, up to 50,000 of them today, since the 1950s, and every month they are entered into a drawing from which ERNIE picks the winners. The top two prizes are a million pounds, but for most bond holders the best they can hope for is the occasional £25 cheque. Premium Bonds are often bought for young children so a lot of Brits will have a few, often completely forgotten. Prizes never expire, so if you are the holder of old bonds you should consider asking National Savings and Investments whether anything is owed to you.

The Great Grandfather of Premium Bond Drawings

The original 1957 ERNIE, now in the collection of the Science Museum, London. Geni [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The original 1957 ERNIE, now in the collection of the Science Museum, London. Geni [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The current ERNIE is the fourth-generation model, but our attention today is on its 1950s ancestor. In a way it’s the most interesting of the machines because it has an unusual pedigree, being a creation of the Post Office Research Station, at Dollis Hill, London. As such it came from the lab of the Colossus engineer [Tommy Flowers], and is described as being a descendant of the now-famous but then still top-secret first digital computer used by the World War Two codebreakers. It’s thus a fascinating study for the student of computer history as well as for its role in British postwar social history, because it represents the only glimpse (had they known it at the time) that the British public had of the technology that had helped them so much a decade earlier.

A significant effort was made to ensure that the draw was truly random, and the solution employed by [Flowers] and his team was thoroughly tested before each draw. The thermionic noise generated across a neon tube was sampled, and this random voltage delivered the truly random numbers used to generate the winning bond numbers. The machine’s construction is extremely reminiscent of its wartime predecessor, however it is as well to bear in mind that it owes this to the standard racking and paint used in British telephone exchanges of the day. Gone though are the octal tubes, and in their place are their more familiar miniature successors.

We have two films for you showing this incarnation of ERNIE in action. The first is a National Savings promotional film which explains ERNIE’s purpose, while the second shows us the Minister of the time starting the first draw. Believe it or not, this was a cause of major national excitement at the time.

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Retrotechtacular: The Best Pendulum Clock

Would you believe a pendulum clock that can keep time accurately to within one second per year? If you answered “yes”, you’ve either never tried to regulate a pendulum clock yourself, or you already know about the Shortt Clock. Getting an electromechanical device to behave so well, ticking accurately to within 0.03 parts per million, is no mean feat, and the Shortt clock was the first timekeeping device that actually behaves more regularly than the Earth itself. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Best Pendulum Clock”

Retrotechtacular: The Mother Of All (British) Demos

One of the most famous lectures in the history of technology was delivered by [Douglas Engelbart] in December 1968, at a San Francisco conference. In it he described for the first time most of what we take for granted in our desktop computers and networking today, several years before even the first microprocessor made it to market. It is revered not only because it was the first airing of these ideas, but because it was the event that inspired and influenced many of those who developed them and brought them to market. You may have heard of it by its poplar name: the Mother of All Demos.

This was an exciting time to be a technologist, as it must have been obvious that we lay on the brink of an age of ubiquitous computing. [Engelbart] was by no means alone in looking to the future and trying to imagine the impact that the new developments would have in the decades to come. On the other side of the Atlantic, at the British Post Office Telephone research centre at Dollis Hill, London, his British counterparts were no less active with their crystal ball gazing. In 1969 they produced our film for today, entitled complete with misplaced apostrophe “Telecommunications Services For The 1990’s” , and for our 2017 viewpoint it provides a quaint but fascinating glimpse of what almost might have been.

You can have any phone you want, as long as it's state-owned! A GPO 746 telephone from the early 1970s.
You can have any phone you want, as long as it’s state-owned! A GPO 746 telephone from the early 1970s.

Until the 1980s, the vast majority of British telephone services were a tightly regulated state monopoly run as part of the Post Office. There were only a few models of telephone available in the GPO catalogue, all of which were fixed installations with none of the phone sockets we take for granted today. Accessories such as autodiallers or answering machines were eye-wateringly expensive luxuries you’d only have found in offices, and since the fax machine was unheard of the height of data transfer technology was the telex. Thus in what later generations would call consumer information technology there really was only one player, so when they made pronouncements on the future they were a good indication of what you were likely to see in your home.

The film starts with a couple having a conversation, she in her bedroom and he in a phone box. Forgotten little touches such as a queue for a phone box or the then-cutting-edge-design Trimphone she’s using evoke the era, and the conversation leaves us hanging with the promise that their conversation would be better with video. After the intro sequence we dive straight into how the GPO thought their future network would look, a co-axial backbone with local circuits as a ring.

The real future-gazing starts with an office phone call to an Australian, at which we’re introduced to their concept of video calling with a colour CRT in a plastic unit that could almost be lifted from the set of The Jetsons. The presenter then goes on to describe a mass information service which we might recognise as something like our WWW, before showing us the terminal in more detail. Alongside the screen is a mock-up of a desktop console with keypad, cassette-based answerphone recorder, and a subscriber identity card slot for billing purposes. Period touches are a brief burst of the old harsh dial tone of a Strowger exchange, and mention of a New Penny, the newly-Decimalised currency. We’re then shown the system transmitting a fax image, of which a hard copy is taken by exposing a photographic plate to the screen.

Perhaps the most interesting sequence shows their idea of how an online information system would look. Bank statements and mortgage information are retrieved, though all with the use of a numeric keypad rather than [Englebart]’s mouse. Finally we see the system being used in a home office, a situation shown as farcical because the worker is continually harassed by his children.

Scorecard

This was the cutting edge in 1980, at least for people who hadn't seen France's Minitel. Fair use, via Wikimedia Commons.
This was the cutting edge in 1980, at least for people who hadn’t seen France’s Minitel. Fair use, via Wikimedia Commons.

So nearly five decades later, what did they get right and how much did they miss? The area you might expect them to be most accurate is oddly the one in which they failed most. The BT telecommunications backbone is now fibre-optic, and for the vast majority of us the last mile or two is still the copper pair it would have been a hundred years ago. In terms of the services though we have all of the ones they show us even if not in the form they envisaged. Fax and answering machines were everyday items by the 1980s, and though it didn’t gain much traction at the time we had video calling as a feature of most offices by the 1990s. We might however have expected them to anticipate a fax machine with a printer, after all it was hardly new technology.  Meanwhile the online service they show us is visibly an ancestor of Prestel, which they launched for the late 1970s and which failed to gain significant traction due to its expense.

Another area they miss is wireless. We briefly see a pager, but even though they had a VHF radio telephone service and the ancestors of our modern cellular services were on the drawing board on the other side of the Atlantic at the time, they completely miss a future involving mobile phones.

The full film is below the break. It’s a charming period production, and the wooden quality of the action shows us that while the GPO engineers might have been telephone experts, they certainly weren’t actors.

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Retrotechtacular: Social Hacking is Nothing New

If you watch enough mainstream TV and movies, you might think that hacking into someone’s account requires a huge monitor, special software, and intricate hand gestures. The reality is way more boring. Because people tend to choose bad passwords, if you have time, you can task a computer with quietly brute-forcing the password. Then again, not everyone has a bad password and many systems will enforce a timeout after failed attempts or require two-factor authentication, so the brute force approach isn’t what it used to be.

Turns out the easiest way to get someone’s password is to ask them for it. Sure, a lot of people will say no, but you’d be surprised how many people will tell you. That number goes up dramatically when you make them think you are with the IT department or their Internet provider. That’s an example of social engineering. You can define that many ways, but in this case it boils down to getting people to give you what you want based on making them believe you are something you aren’t.

Everything Old…

We think of social engineering as something new, but really–like most cybercrime–it is just the movement of old-fashioned crime to the digital world. What got me thinking about this is a service from Amazon called “Mechanical Turk.”

That struck me as odd when I first heard it because for product marketing it is pretty bad unless you are selling turkey jerky or something. If you tell me “Amazon Simple Storage Service” I can probably guess what that might be. But what’s Mechanical Turk?

Mechanical Turk

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Retrotechtacular: Rocket Sleds

If you need to test rockets, missiles, or ejection-seat systems, your first instinct would be to shoot them up in the air and see what happens. But if you want data, film footage, or the ability to simply walk away from a test, you might consider running your experiment on a rocket sled.

The Holloman High Speed Test Track is a 15 km long stretch of meticulously straight railroad track located in the middle of the New Mexico desert, and bristling with measurement equipment. Today’s Retrotechtacular video (embedded below) gives you the guided tour. And by the way, the elderly colonel who narrates? He doesn’t just run the joint — he was one of the human test subjects put on a rocket sled to test the effects of high acceleration on humans. You can see him survive a run around 1:00 in. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Rocket Sleds”

Retrotechtacular: The Aerolux Light Corporation

The humble incandescent lightbulb is an invention just about anyone born in the 20th Century is more than familiar with. But it’s not the be all and end all of lighting technology – there are neon lights, compact fluorescent bulbs, and even LEDs are finally being adopted for interior lighting. But with the endless march forward, there are vintage throwbacks to the past – how many hipster cafes have you been to lately with great big industrial-looking filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling?

Even when switched off, they have a striking appearance.

However, that’s not all history has to give us. These gas discharge bulbs from yesteryear are absolute works of art.

The bulbs contain delicate floral sculptures in metal, coated with phosphor, and the bulbs are filled with neon or argon gas. Applying mains voltage to the electrodes inside the bulb causes the phospor to fluoresce, creating a glowing flower that is hauntingly beautiful.

These bulbs were manufactured by the Aerolux Light Company, from the 1930s to the 1970s. Once upon a time, they could be had for as little as 20 cents a bulb – nowadays you’re likely to pay over $50 on eBay or Etsy. The bulbs work by the glow discharge effect, not at all dissimilar to garden variety neon lamps.

While it’s not easy, it is possible to make your own vacuum tubes. Maybe it’s time to order some phospor powder and a tank of neon and get to work? Be sure to document your attempt on Hackaday.io.

Thanks to [Itay Ramot] for the tip!

 

 

Retrotechtacular: The Incredible Machine

They just don’t write promotional film scripts like they used to: “These men are design engineers. They are about to engage a new breed of computer, called Graphic 1, in a dialogue that will test the ingenuity of both men and machine.”

This video (embedded below) from Bell Labs in 1968 demonstrates the state of the art in “computer graphics” as the narrator calls it, with obvious quotation marks in his inflection. The movie ranges from circuit layout, to animations, to voice synthesis, hitting the high points of the technology at the time. The soundtrack, produced on their computers, naturally, is pure Jetsons.

Highlights are the singing “Daisy Bell” at 9:05, which inspired Stanley Kubrick to play a glitchy version of the track as Dave is pulling Hal 9000’s brains out, symbolically regressing backwards through a history of computer voice synthesis which at that point in time was the present. (Whoah!)
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