Retrotechtacular: The Voder from Bell Labs

voder

This is the under-the-hood view of the keyboard for the Voder (Voice Operating Demonstrator), the first electronic device capable of generating continuous human speech. It accomplishes this feat through a series of keys that generate the syllables, plosives, and affricatives normally produced by the human larynx and shaped by the throat and tongue. This week’s film is a picture montage paired with the audio from the demonstration of the Voder at the 1939 World’s Fair.

The Voder was created by one [Homer Dudley] at Bell Laboratories. He did so in conjunction with the Vocoder, which analyzes human-generated speech for encrypted transfer and re-synthesizes it on the other end. [Dudley] spent over 40 years researching speech at Bell Laboratories. His development of both the Voder and the Vocoder were instrumental in the SIGSALY project which aimed to deliver encrypted voice communication to the theatres of WWII.

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Retrotechtacular: We Heard You Like Tubes, So Here’s a Film About Tube Tubes from the Webtubes

EF80

This lovely little number is the EF80 pentode thermionic valve, or vacuum tube, made by Mullard beginning in 1950. They were used in radio and radar applications, but most of them wound up in VHF television sets. This week’s Retrotechtacular takes a close look at the assembly of and on-site materials production for the EF80 in particular.

The film begins with slow and careful hand assembly of an EF80. The cathode is inserted into a mica disc, and a series of three grids are placed over the cathode. The semicircular anode sits around the outermost grid. Another mica disc is placed on top which does triple duty as a spacer, a base for the getter/plate assembly, and a firewall against the getter flash.The dark lining of the upper part of the tube is the residue of the vaporized getter, which is heated after the first stage of air removal.

Before the vacuuming begins, the inner assembly is mounted on a glass base with nine pins that have been pre-bent to meet the inner assembly wires. The heater, dissipating shield, and a meshy cylinder are added, and then the getter on its plate. A tube is slipped over the assembly and fused to the base in a jig, forming an airtight seal. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: We Heard You Like Tubes, So Here’s a Film About Tube Tubes from the Webtubes”

Retrotechtacular: Designing and Building RCA Televisions

waveformWhile it’s almost cliché to say they don’t make things like they used to, this week’s Retrotechtacular offers fairly conclusive proof that, at the very least, they used to put more time and effort into manufacturing consumer electronics. Gather your homemade wisecrackin’ robots and settle in front of this 1959 film entitled “The Reasons Why”, a rah-rah film created for new employees of the RCA Victor television division.

It may open with a jingle, but things quickly turn serious. Quality is no laughing matter for the men and women devoted to bringing you the best television set for your money. This type of unmatched excellence begins with tireless R&D into improving sound and picture quality. Every transformer is tested at five times the rated voltage, and every capacitor at two times the rating. Every switch undergoes a series of mechanical tests, including a pressured steam bath to ensure they will hold up even if you drag your set out to the porch some unbearably hot deep South August night.

hot august nights

Cabinet design is just as important—what’s the use in housing a chassis and kinescope that’ll last for 60 years in some cheap box? Woods from all over the world are carefully considered for their beauty and durability. A television set is, after all, the centerpiece of the American family room furniture group. These carefully selected woods are baked in a series of ovens to prove they’ll stand up to hours of continuous use.

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Retrotechtacular: We’re Gonna Have Manual Transmissions the Way My Old Man Told Me!

archimedesSimple machines are wonderful in their own right and serve as the cornerstones of many technological advances. This is certainly true for the humble lever and the role it plays in manual transmissions as evidenced in this week’s Retrotechtacular installment, the Chevrolet Motor Company’s 1936 film, “Spinning Levers”.

This educational gem happens to be a Jam Handy production. For you MST3K fans out there, he’s the guy behind shorts like Hired! from the episodes Bride of the Monster and the inimitable Manos: The Hands of Fate. Hilarity aside, “Spinning Levers” is a remarkably educational nine-ish minutes of slickly produced film that explains, well, how a manual transmission works. More specifically, it explains the 3-speed-plus-reverse transmissions of the early automobile era.

It begins with a nod to Archimedes’ assertion that a lever can move the world, explaining that the longer the lever, the better the magic. In a slightly different configuration, a lever can become a crank or even a double crank. Continuous motion of a lever or series of levers affords the most power for the least work, and this is illustrated with some top-drawer stop motion animation of two meshing paddle wheels.

gearsNext, we are shown how engine power is transferred to the rear wheels: it travels from a gear on the engine shaft to a gear on the drive shaft through gears on the countershaft. At low speeds, we let the smallest gear on the countershaft turn the largest gear on the drive shaft. When the engine is turning 90 RPM, the rear wheel turns at 30 RPM. At high speeds using high gears, the power goes directly from the engine shaft to the drive shaft and the RPM on both is equal. The film goes on to explain how the gearbox handles reverse, and the vast improvements to transmission life made possible through synchromesh gearing.

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Retrotechtacular: AT&T’s Hello Machine

1ESSHow many Ma Bell employees does it take to build an ESS mainframe? This week, Retrotechtacular takes you into the more poetic recesses of the AT&T Archive to answer that very question. This wordless 1974 gem is an 11-minute exploration of the construction and testing of a Western Electric 1ESS. It begins with circuit board population and ends with lots of testing.

 

 

tree

The film is really quite groovy, especially the extreme closeups of wire wrapping and relay construction. The soundtrack is a string-heavy suite that moves you through the phases of bringing up the 1ESS while drawing parallels to the wires of communication. You may lose count of the punch down blocks and miles of cables, but there are surprisingly few mustaches.

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Retrotechtacular: Build Yourself An Airplane

retrotechtacular-cub-j-3-piper

Planes these days are super complicated – think about the recent flaming-lithium battery issues in the B787 that may or may not have been solved – but it wasn’t always this way. Here’s a great example. The manufacture of a Piper J-3 Cub shows simple and efficient mechanical design brought to life in a multitude of steps all performed without automation.

The build starts with the frame. Pipes are nibbled into specialized fish mouths for a tight fit before being strapped to a jig and tack welded. With the fuselage in one piece the frame is removed for each joint to be fully welded and subsequently inspected. Cables are run through the frame to connect control surfaces to the cockpit. Continuing through to wing assembly we were especially surprised to see hand hammering of nails to secure the wood ribs to metal spars. How many nails do you think that worker pounded in a career? The entire aircraft is covered in fabric, an engine is added, and it’s into the wild blue yonder.

The look back at manufacturing techniques is interesting – do you think the large model shown in the video would be built these days, or would they just use a CAD rendering?

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Retrotechtacular: Kodak Built World’s First DSLR… Using a Canon Camera Body

worlds-first-dslr

It has been far too long since we’ve seen an installment of Retrotechtacular, and this is a great one to start back with. It’s always a treat to get the story from the horse’s mouth. How about the tale of the world’s first Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera? [Jame McGarvey] shared the story of how he developed the device in 1987.

That’s it shown above. It’s not surprising to see that the only real modification to the camera itself is the back cover. The difference between an SLR and a DSLR is really just the D, which was accomplished by adding a CCD in place of the film.

The entire story is a treat, but there are a couple of nuggets the we enjoyed most. The possibly-clandestine purpose of this device is intriguing. It was specifically designed to pass as a film camera which explains the ribbon cable connecting the CCD module to the control box which would be stored in a camera bag. It is also delightful to hear that the customer who tasked Eastman Kodak with developing the system preferred Canon camera bodies. So this Kodak DSLR indeed used a Canon F-1 body.

Once you get done looking this one over you will also enjoy learning how a CCD actually works.

[Thanks Ben]

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.