Russian Rocket Tech Comes In From the Cold

Decades after the end of the space race, an American rocket took off from Cape Canaveral. This was a routine launch to send a communications satellite into orbit, but the situation was an historic first. The rocket in question was driven by a powerful Russian engine unlike any ever built in the States. Although this particular engine was new, the design dated back to the space age.

By the early 1960s, the Russians were leaps and bounds ahead of the United States in terms of space exploration. They had already launched Sputnik and sent Yuri Gagarin to orbit the Earth. All in all, the Russians seemed poised to send a man to the moon. Russian technology had the Americans worried enough to spy on them with satellites, and the images that came back revealed something spectacular. Out in the Kazakh desert, the Russians were building an enormous causeway and two launch pads. As it turns out, the US had every reason to be worried.

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Retrotechtacular: The Theremin Terpsitone

Léon Theremin built his eponymous instrument in 1920 under Soviet sponsorship to study proximity sensors. He later applied the idea of generating sounds using the human body’s capacitance to other physical forms like the theremin cello and the theremin keyboard. One of these was the terpsitone, which is kind of like a full-body theremin. It was built about twelve years after the theremin and named after Terpsichore, one of the nine muses of dance and chorus from Greek mythology.

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Retrotechtacular: Electronic Publishing in the 1930s

We are living in the age of citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle. Reports about almost anything newsworthy can be had from many perspectives, both vetted and amateur. Just a few decades ago, people relied on daily newspapers, radio, and word of mouth for their news. On the brink of the television age, several radio stations in the United States participated in an experiment to broadcast news over radio waves. But this was no ordinary transmission. At the other end, a new type of receiver printed out news stories, line drawings, and pictures on a long roll of paper.

Radio facsimile newspaper technology was introduced to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair at two different booths. One belonged to an inventor named William Finch, and one to RCA. Finch had recently made a name for himself with his talking newspaper, which embedded audio into a standard newspaper in the form of wavy lines along the edges that were read by a special device.

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First Edition of German Computer Mag is a Blast from the Past

Every once in a while we get nostalgic for the old days of computing. Here, we’re getting nostalgic for a past that wasn’t even our own, but will probably bring a smile to all the German hackers out there. c’t magazine has its first issue available on their website (PDF, via FTP), and it’s worth checking out even if you can’t read a word of German.

ct-adIt’s dated November/December 1983, and you’re definitely hopping in the WABAC machine here. The cover image is a terminal computer project that you’re encouraged to build for yourself, and the magazine is filled with those characteristic early-computer-era ads, many of them for the physical keyboards that you’d need to make such a device. Later on, c’t would provide plans for a complete DIY PC with plotter, one of which we saw still running at the 2015 Berlin Vintage Computer Festival.

The issue is chock-full of code for you to type out into your own computer at home. If you didn’t have a computer, there are of course reviews of all of the popular models of the day; the TRS-80 Model 100 gets good marks. And if you need to buy a BASIC interpreter, there’s an article comparing Microsoft’s MBASIC with CBM’s CBASIC. A battle royale!

ct_mag_computer_bandOther hot topics include modifications to make your ZX81’s video output sharper, the hassle of having to insert a coded dongle into your computer to run some software (an early anti-piracy method), and even a computer-music band that had (at least) a Commodore 64 and a CBM machine in their groovy arsenal.

It’s no secret that we like old computers, and their associated magazines. Whether you prefer your PDP-11’s physical or virtual, we’ve got you covered here. And if your nostalgia leans more Anglophone, check out this Byte magazine cover re-shoot.

Retrotechtacular: A Desktop Computer from 1965

About eight years before the Xerox built the Alto at PARC and over a decade before the Apple ][ premiered, Italian business equipment manufacturer Olivetti produced a bona fide desktop personal computer. When Olivetti debuted this typewriter-sized marvel in 1965 at a business convention in New York City, people were in absolute awe that this tiny, self-contained unit could perform the same types of functions as the hulking room-sized mainframes of the time. Some were sure that it was simply a small input device for a much bigger machine hiding behind the curtain.

But the revolutionary Olivetti Programma 101 was no joke. It performed standard four-banger operations and could handle square root and absolute value calculations. The Olivetti had 16 jump instructions as well as 16 conditional jump instructions, which put it firmly in state machine territory. Programs could be printed on a roll of paper or stored long-term on long magnetic cards.

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Retrotechtacular: A Mechanical UART

We’ve heard it said that no one invented the old mechanical Teletype. One fell from the sky near Skokie, Illinois and people just duplicated them. It is true these old machines were similar to a modern terminal. They sent and received serial data using a printer instead of a screen. But inside, they were mechanical Rube Goldbergs, not full of the electronic circuits you’d think of today.

Teletype was the best-known name, but there were other mechanical monster terminals out there. [Carsten] recently took some pictures of his 99 pound Olivetti mechanical terminal. According to him, there’s only one electronic component within: a bistable solenoid that reads the data. Everything else is mechanical and driven with a motor that keeps everything at the right baud rate (110 baud).

Like the Teletype, it is a miracle these things were able to work as well as they did. Lacking a microcontroller, the terminals could respond to an identity request by spinning a little wheel that had teeth removed to indicate which letters to send (TeleType used a similar scheme). Things that are simple using today’s electronics (like preventing two keys pressed at once from being a problem) turned out to be massive design challenges for these old metal monsters.

Turns out that when [Carsten] last fired the terminal up, a capacitor finally gave up its magic smoke. He plans to fix it, though, and as long as it isn’t a mechanical problem, we bet he will.

We’ve talked about Teletypes a few times in the past, including using them for text messaging and even Twitter.

Retrotechtacular: Cold War-Era Hardware Keyloggers

As Cold War tensions increased throughout the 1970s, the Soviets pulled out all the stops when it came to digging up information from US diplomats. This NSA memo from 2012 explains how several IBM Selectric typewriters used in the Moscow and Leningrad offices were successfully bugged with electromechanical devices that could possibly have been the world’s first keyloggers.

The Selectric prints with a ball that is spun and tilted to select the desired character. Two mechanical arms control the ball’s spin and tilt, and the keylogger read out the position of those arms. Thus, each character on the Selectric’s type element ball has its own signature. The sensing part of the keylogging mechanism was buried in part of the typewriter chassis, a metal bar that spans the width of the machine, and were so well hidden that they could only have been detected by complete dissassembly or x-ray.

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