Retrotechtacular: The Future’s So Bright, We’re Gonna Need Photochromic Windowpanes

This is a day in the life of the Shaw family in the summer of 1999 as the Philco-Ford Corporation imagined it from the space-age optimism of 1967. It begins with Karen Shaw and her son, James. They’re at the beach, building a sand castle model of their modular, hexagonal house and discussing life. Ominous music plays as they return in flowing caftans to their car, a Ford Seatte-ite XXI with its doors carelessly left open. You might recognize Karen as Marj Dusay, who would later beam aboard the USS Enterprise and remove Spock’s brain.

The father, Mike Shaw, is an astrophysicist working to colonize Mars and to breed giant, hardy peaches in his spare time. He’s played by iconic American game show host Wink Martindale. Oddly enough, Wink’s first gig was hosting a Memphis-based children’s show called Mars Patrol. He went on to fame with classics such as Tic Tac Dough, Card Sharks, Password Plus, and Trivial Pursuit.

Mike calls up some pictures of the parent trees he’s using on a screen that’s connected to the family computer. While many of today’s families have such a device, this beast is almost sentient. We learn throughout the film that it micromanages the family within an inch of their lives by keeping tabs on their physiology, activities, financial matters, and in James’ case, education.

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Retrotechtacular: The First Atlas Launch

As the Cold War conflict expanded in the 1950s, the Soviet Union dry-tested a hydrogen bomb and defense tactics became a top priority for the United States. Seeking to create a long-range nuclear missile option, the Air Force contracted Convair Astronautics to deliver SM-65 Atlas, the first in series of ICBMs. In the spotlight this week is a sort of video progress report which shows the first launch from Cape Canaveral’s LC-14 on June 11, 1957.

After the angle of attack probe is unsheathed, everyone moves out of the way. The launch is being monitored by base central control, but the swingin’ spot to spectate is the blockhouse. They have a periscope and everything. As the countdown continues, liquid oxygen pipelines whistle and wail into the idyllic Florida afternoon with the urgency of a thousand teakettles. Cameras and tracking equipment are readied, and the blockhouse’s blast door is sealed up tight.

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Retrotechtacular: The Diesel Story

The diesel engine was, like many things, born of necessity. The main engine types of the day—hot bulb oil, steam, coal gas, and gasoline—were not so thermally efficient or ideal for doing heavy-duty work like driving large-scale electrical generators.  But how did the diesel engine come about? Settle in and watch the 1952 documentary “The Diesel Story“, produced by Shell Oil.

The diesel engine is founded on the principle of internal combustion. Throughout the Industrial Age, technology was developing at breakneck pace. While steam power was a great boon to many burgeoning industries, engineers wanted to get away from using boilers. The atmospheric gas engine fit the bill, but it simply wasn’t powerful enough to replace the steam engine.

hot bulb oil engineBy 1877, [Nikolaus Otto] had completed work on his coal gas engine built on four-stroke theory. This was the first really useful internal combustion engine and the precursor of modern four-stroke engines. It was eventually adapted for transportation with gasoline fuel. In 1890, the hot bulb oil engine was developed under the name Hornsby-Akroyd and primarily used in stationary power plants. Their flywheels had to be started manually, but once the engine was going, the bulb that drove combustion required no further heating.

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Retrotechtacular: The CURTA Mechanical Calculator

The CURTA mechanical calculator literally saved its inventor’s life. [Curt Herzstark] had been working on the calculator in the 1930s until the Nazis forced him to focus on building other tools for the German army. He was taken by the Nazis in 1943 and ended up in Buchenwald concentration camp. There, he told the officers about his plans for the CURTA. They were impressed and interested enough to let him continue work on it so they could present it as a gift to the Führer.

This four-banger pepper mill can also perform square root calculation with some finessing. To add two numbers together, each must be entered on the digit setting sliders and sent to the result counter around the top by moving the crank clockwise for one full rotation. Subtraction is as easy as pulling out the crank until the red indicator appears. The CURTA performs subtraction using nine’s complement arithmetic. Multiplication and division are possible through successive additions and subtractions and use of the powers of ten carriage, which is the top knurled portion.

Operation of the CURTA is based on [Gottfried Leibniz]’s stepped cylinder design. A cylinder with cogs of increasing lengths drives a toothed gear up and down a shaft. [Herzstark]’s design interleaves a normal set of cogs for addition with a nine’s complement set. When the crank is pulled out to reveal the red subtraction indicator, the drum is switching between the two sets.

Several helper mechanisms are in place to enhance the interface. The user is prevented from ever turning the crank counter-clockwise. The crank mechanism provides tactile feedback at the end of each full rotation. There is also a lock that disallows switching between addition and subtraction while turning the crank—switching is only possible with the crank in the home position. There is a turns counter on the top which can be set to increment or decrement.

You may recall seeing Hackaday alum [Jeremy Cook]’s 2012 post about the CURTA which we linked to. A great deal of information about the CURTA and a couple of different simulators are available at curta.org. Make the jump to see an in-depth demonstration of the inner workings of a CURTA Type I using the YACS CURTA simulator.

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Retrotechtacular: There’s More Than One Way to Escape a Submarine

And this 1953 United States Navy training film describes two ways to do so: collective escape via rescue chamber, and individual escape using SEAs.

The film first follows a fellow named [Baxter] and his men in the aft torpedo room.  His sub has failed to surface as scheduled. There are no officers present at the time of distress, so [Baxter, Torpedoman First] is in charge. His first directive is that [Johnson] extinguish his Chesterfield. There’ll be time enough for smoking on the rescue ship, [Johnson].

[Baxter] releases a marker buoy because it is daytime and the weather is fair. Had other conditions prevailed, [Baxter] would send up flares and bang on the hull to provide a sonic beacon for rescuers. Next, he checks the forward compartments. If they are clear, he leaves the hatches open to give his men more air. He checks the air purity and engages [Brooklyn] to pull down some COabsorbent.

[Baxter] and his men will be okay for a while. They have plenty of drinking water, food, juice, supplemental oxygen, and COabsorbent. Their best move is to take it easy and wait for the rescue chamber. That way, they’ll avoid drowning, exposure, and COpoisoning.

Elsewhere in the forward torpedo chamber, there’s a chlorine leak and it can’t be stopped. These nameless sailors have to work quickly to escape the noxious gas. First, they pass around the SEAs and turn them into respirators. Soda lime will filter out the chlorine gas from their lungs and eyes. They too will release a marker buoy, but the first order of business is to move to the escape trunk.

Communicating through gestures, the lead man assigns three men to break out the life raft. The men move to the trunk with the buoy, raft, ascending line, and a divers’ knife. They also take a battle lantern, hand tools, and spare SEAs, but leave their shoes behind. After equalizing the pressure in the trunk, they can get going on their escape. They open the hatch, float the buoy, and tie it off. Now the raft can be floated up the buoy line. Since they are 100 feet down, they send a man every ten seconds up the buoy line and he is to move approximately one foot per second. First man to surface inflates the raft, and Bob’s your uncle. Now, they just have to prevent sunburn and tell stories until the rescue ship finds them.

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Retrotechtacular: Time For Coffee

If you ask us, it’s almost always a good time for coffee. In the spotlight this week is an educational/promotional film made by A&P, who started in the 1800s as with a chain of shops offering coffee and tea. By the 1950s, they were operating full self-serve grocery stores with a trail of shuttered mom and pop operations in their wake.

This is the story of coffee as it goes from the nursery to the field to the shelves of your local A&P. It covers the growing, cultivation, and distribution of coffee from South American crops that at the time covered more than one million square miles of Brazil alone.

Coffee trees leave the nursery at two years old and are planted in nutrient-rich red soil. Two to three years later, they bear their first crop. Coffee blossoms appear first, and the fruit ripens over the next 8-9 months. Skilled workers pick the berries by hand. We are told that the average tree produces one pound of roasted coffee per year.

sun dried beansThe day’s harvest is collected, weighed, and bagged for further production. The fruits are crushed to remove each bean from its red jacket. Then, the beans are washed and spread out in the sun for 8-10 days. They are frequently rotated so they dry evenly. The dried coffee is packed in bags and sent into the city.

bag stabbingAt a warehouse, the coffee is inspected, sorted, and graded. Bags are stamped with the coffee’s country of origin and intended destination before going to the seaport. A very important step happens here. As each bag walks by on the shoulders of a worker, another guy stabs it to get a sample of the beans. The on-site A&P officials take over at this point and do their own inspections, sending samples to the US. Here, the coffees are roasted and taste tested for both strength and flavor from a giant lazy Susan full of porcelain cups. taste testing

The film takes a brief detour to tell us that the great cities of Latin America were built upon the labors of coffee exportation. We see a montage of vistas, skylines, and shorelines, which bring it back to the subject of shipping the coffee to various ports of call. At the dock, bags are tumbled onto large nets to be loaded on the ship. As coffee is susceptible to moisture, special care is taken to avoid the ill effects of traveling out of the tropics.

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Retrotechtacular: Turn On the Magic of Colored Light

title cardChances are, you take color for granted. Whether or not you give it much thought, color is key to distinguishing your surroundings. It helps you identify fire, brown recluse spiders, and the right resistor for the job.

In the spotlight this week is a 1950s educational film called “This is Color“. It also happens to be a delightful time capsule of consumer packaging from the atomic age. This film was made by the Interchemical Corporation, an industrial research lab and manufacturer of printing inks. As the narrator explains, consistent replication of pigments is an essential part of mass production. In order to conjure a particular pigment in the first place, one must first understand the nature of color and the physical properties of visible light.

electromagnetic spectrumEach color that makes up the spectrum of visible rays has a particular wavelength. The five principal colors—red, yellow, green, blue, and violet—make possible thousands of shades and hues, but are only a small slice of the electromagnetic spectrum.

When light encounters a transparent material more dense than air, such as water or glass, it has to change direction and is bent by the surface. This is known as refraction. A straw placed in a glass of water will appear bent below the surface because the air and the water have different refractive indices. That is, the air and water will bend or refract different percentages of the light that permeates them. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Turn On the Magic of Colored Light”