Retrotechtacular: Automatic For The People

Throughout their long history, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) have made forays into many areas of automation. And as the American cultural landscape of the 1950s and ’60s shifted toward fast, cheap, and convenient foodstuffs available for consumption inside of spacious, finned automobiles, AMF was there with AMFare, an (almost) completely automated system for taking orders, preparing food, and calculating bills.

AMF named the system “ORBIS” after its two main functions, ordering and billing. But ORBIS was not completely autonomous. A human operator received orders from a table-side telephones inside the restaurant and intercoms used by drive-in customers, and entered them on an enormous console. Orders were routed to several machines to prepare the food, cook it, and package it in various ways. We witness the odyssey of the burger in complete detail, from punching out perfect patties to their final, plastic-wrapped form.

Surprisingly, the AMFare selection wasn’t limited to delicious burgers, fries, and milkshakes. It could crank out sixteen different menu items, and do so pretty quickly. In the space of one hour, AMFare could produce more than 400 burgers, over 350 orders of fries, or about 700 milkshakes. Even so, collating the orders required human intervention. We imagine that the awful task of cleaning all that expensive Rube Goldberg-esque machinery did, too.

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Retrotechtacular: Cover Your CONUS with OTH-B Radar

If you’re a ham, you already know that the ionosphere is a great backboard for bouncing HF signals around the globe.  It’s also useful for over-the-horizon backscatter (OTH-B (PDF)) radar applications, which the United States Air Force’s Rome Laboratory experimented with during the Cold War.

During the trial program, transmit and receive sites were set up ninety miles apart inside the great state of Maine. The 1/2 mile-long transmit antenna was made up of four arrays of twelve dipole elements and operated at 1MW. An antenna back screen and ground screen further expanded the signal’s range. Transmission was most often controlled by computers within the transmit building, but it could also be manually powered and adjusted.

The receive site had 50-ft. antenna elements stretching 3900 feet, and a gigantic ground screen covering nearly eight acres. Signals transmitted from the dipole array at the transmit site bounced off of the ionosphere and down to the receive site. Because of step-scanning, the system was capable of covering a 180° arc. OTH-B radar systems across the continental United States were relegated to storage at the end of the Cold War, but could be brought back into service given enough time and money.

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Retrotechtacular: Hand-Synthesized Sound

When you think of early sound synthesis, what technologies come to mind? The Hammond Organ?  Or perhaps its predecessor, Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium? In the early 1920s and 30s, many Bauhaus artists were using paper and film to synthesize musical instruments.

A few of them experimented with the optical film soundtrack itself, drawing waveforms directly upon it. [Evgeny Sholpo] created an optical synthesizer he called the Variophone. It used cardboard disks with intricate cutout patterns that resembled spinning, sonic snowflakes.

During the early 1930s, an artist named [Nikolai Voinov] created short animated films that incorporated the cut paper sound technique. [Voinov]’s soundtrack looked like combs of varying fineness. For his animated figures, [Voinov] cut and pieced together characters from paper and made them move in time to his handmade paper soundtrack.

In [Voinov]’s “Dance of the Crow”, an animated crow struts his stuff from right to left and back again while working his beak in sync with the music. The overall effect is like a chiptunes concertina issuing forth from a crow-shaped pair of bellows. It’s really not to be missed.

Thanks for the tip, [Leo]!

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.

Retrotechtacular: Firepower For Freedom

As the United States were settled, its leaders found that they needed firepower to preserve freedom. This became especially apparent during the military engagements of the era, so a number of specialized facilities were founded to manage the research, development, manufacture, and dissemination of different types of munitions.

Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey was the place for both nuclear and conventional weapon development. The men and women working in this facility created anti-personnel devices, including a flexible, adhesive charge called Flex-X that could be affixed to almost anything. This demolition charge could be layered for increased power, and could even detonate underwater. Picatinny also developed new rocket engines, propellants, and liquid propulsion for projectiles.

In Pennsylvania, a small-arms ammunition plant called Frankford Arsenal developed a duplex rifle cartridge. That is, a lead projectile fires on target, and a second one sitting behind it in the cartridge shoots at an angle, landing an inch or so near the lead bullet. Frankford workers also ground precision optics for target sighting and centering, and developed a case-less cartridge. Propellants geared for a wide variety of uses also came out of Frankford. These propellants were employed to deliver nerve agent antidotes, inflate life rafts quickly, and eject pilots from sketchy situations.

The Edgewood Arsenal in Baltimore specializes in the research and development, manufacture, and supply of chemical weapons. They are particularly adept at fire suppression. Edgewood research has provided civilian benefits as well, such as an anthrax vaccine. In addition, Fort Detrick, Maryland contains a biological R&D wing where vital antidotes and vaccines are developed.

All of this R&D and manufacture was orchestrated by the Ammunition Procurement and Supply Agency (APSA) located near Joliet, IL. In addition to reviewing all contractor bids with equal consideration, APSA controlled distribution, maintaining inventory on large computers that could crunch numbers like nobody’s business.

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Retrotechtacular: Gone Fission

This week’s film begins as abruptly as the Atomic Age itself, though it wasn’t produced by General Electric until 1952. No time is wasted in getting to the point of the thing, which is to explain the frightening force of nuclear physics clearly and simply through friendly animations.

[Dr. Atom] from the Bohr Modeling Agency describes what’s going on in his head—the elementary physics of protons, neutrons, and electrons. He explains that atoms can be categorized into families, with uranium weighing in as the heaviest element at the time. While most atoms are stable, some, like radium, are radioactive. This evidently means it stays up all night doing the Charleston and throwing off neutrons and protons in the process of jumping between atomic families. [Dr. Atom] calls this behavior natural transmutation.

Artificial transmutation became a thing in the 1930s after scientists converted nitrogen into oxygen. After a couple of celebratory beers, they decided to fire a neutron at a uranium nucleus just to see what happened. The result is known as nuclear fission. This experiment revealed more about the binding force present in nuclei and the chain reaction of atomic explosions that takes place. It seemed only natural to weaponize this technology. But under the right conditions, a reactor pile made from graphite blocks interspersed with U-235 and -238 rods is a powerful and effective source of energy. Furthermore, radioactive isotopes have advanced the fields of agriculture, industry, medicine, and biochemistry.

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Hanging Out With Someone Who Walked On The Moon

Lunar dune buggy rides, piloting the most powerful machine made by humankind, stuck thrusters, landing, eating, sleeping, and working on the moon. It does not get any more exciting than the Apollo program! I was recently given the opportunity to sit in on the MIT course, Engineering Apollo: the Moon Project as a Complex System where I met David Scott who landed on the moon as commander of Apollo 15. I not only sat in on a long Q and A session I also was able to spend time with David after class. It is not every day you that you meet someone who has landed on the moon, below are my notes from this experience.

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Retrotechtacular: The Spirit of Radio

Many of us still tune in to terrestrial radio for one reason or another, be it baseball games, talk radio, or classic rock. But do you know how the sound is transmitted to your receiver? This week, our spotlight shines upon a short film produced by KYW Radio that serves as a cheerful introduction to the mysteries of amplitude modulation (AM) radio transmission as they were in 1940.

Sound vibrations enter a microphone and are converted to electrical current, or an audio waveform. The wave is amplified and sent several miles away to the transmitting station. During this trip, the signal loses power and so is amplified at the transmitting station in several stages. This audio wave can’t be transmitted by itself, though; it needs to catch a ride on a high-frequency carrier wave. This wave is generated on-site with a huge crystal oscillator, then subjected to its own series of amplifications prior to broadcast.

The final step is the amplitude modulation itself. Here, the changing amplitude of the original audio wave is used to modulate that of the high-frequency carrier wave. Now the signal is ready to be sent to the tower. Any receiver tuned in to the carrier frequency and in range of the signal will capture the carrier wave. Within the reciever, these currents are converted back to the vibrations that our ears know and love.

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