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.

 

 

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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

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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

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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.

Retrotechtacular: Once Upon A Punched Card

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Ah, the heady days of the early 60s, where companies gave their salesmen exquisitely produced documentaries, filled with incidental music written by the best composers of the era, and a voice actor that is so unabashedly ordinary you would swear you’ve heard him a hundred times before. It’s a lot better than any PowerPoint presentation anyone could come up, and lucky for us, these 16mm films are preserved on YouTube for everyone to enjoy. This one was sent out to IBM sales reps pushing a strange technology called a ‘punched card’, a system so efficient it will save your company tens of thousands of dollars in just a few short years.

Like most explanations of what a punched card does, this IBM documercial begins with the history of the Jacquard loom that used punched cards for storing patterns for textile weaving. In a rare bit of historical context befitting IBM, this film also covers the 1880 US census, an important part in the evolution of punched cards being used not as instructions for a loom, but data that could be tabulated and calculated.

The United States takes a census every ten years. The tenth census of 1880 took so long to compile into the data – seven years – it was feared the next census of 1890 wouldn’t be complete until the turn of the century. This problem was solved by [Herman Hollerith] and his system of encoding census data onto punched cards for tabulation. [Hollerith] would later go on to found the Tabulating Machine Company that would later merge with two other companies to form IBM. Isn’t it great that IBM chose to include that little nugget in their film.

As a point of interest, the film does contain a short pitch for IBM punched card writers, sorters, and calculators – the backbone of IBM’s medium to large size business sales. At the time this film was produced (1964) IBM was ready to announce the System/360, what would become the de facto mainframe for businesses of all sizes.  Yes, the /360 also used punched cards, but we wonder how many angry phone calls the sales reps received months after showing this film.

Retrotechtacular: Forging Of Chain By Smiths

drop-forgingAh, the days when men were men and people died of asbestos related illnesses in their 30s. Let this video take you back to the ancient times when chains were forged by hand, destructively tested using wooden capstans, and sent off to furnish the ships of the line, way back in the year 1940.

The video is something of an advertisement for the Netherton iron works, located in the English midlands. Founded sometime in the mid 19th century, it appears the tooling and machinery didn’t change much the hundred years before this was filmed.

The chain begins as a gigantic mass of wrought iron bars brought in from a forge. These bars are stockpiled, then sent through chain shears that cut them into manageable lengths a foot or so long. The next scene would probably look the same in 1940 as 1840, with gangs of men taking one of the bars, heating it in a forge, beating it on an anvil, and threading it through the last link in the chain they worked on. This isn’t the satisfying machinations of industrial automata you’d see on How It’s Made. No, this is hard manual labor.

Whether through simple quality control or an edict from the crown, the completed chains are tested, or more specifically, proofed. Yard long samples are tested to their failure point, and entire chains are proofed to their carrying capacity in 15 fathom ( 90 feet) long lengths. These chains are then examined link by link, stamped and certified, and sent off to mines, factories, tramp steamers, and battleships.

Although the Netherton iron works no longer exists, it did boast a few claims to fame in its day. It manufactured the anchors and chain for both the Titanic and Lusitania. Of course, such a large-scale production of wrought chain in such an archaic method would be impossible today; today, every wrought iron foundry has been shuttered for decades. If you’ve ever wondered how such massive things were made with a minimal amount of machinery, though, there you go.

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Retrotechtacular: ROTOPARK is a Futuristic Parking Structure from 40 Years Ago

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Pictured above is a functioning model of an automated underground parking structure which was built and used, but obviously it never caught on widely. That makes us a bit sad, as it removes the need to find an empty parking spot every time you use the garage; and having a robot park your car for you seems very future-y.

The gist of the ROTOPARK system is a carousel and elevator system for parking cars. just drive into a single-stall garage at ground level, take your ticket, and walk out the people-hole. The garage stall floor is a sled which moves down an elevator (shown as blue stalls on the left half of the image) to be stored away in the rotating carousels of cars.

Obviously mechanical failure is a huge issue here. What if the elevator breaks? Also, at times of high traffic we think getting your vehicle back out of the system would be quite a bit slower than the “static” parking garages we’re used to. Oh well, maybe some day. Check out the classic marketing video after the break which shows off the concept, construction, and use of the system.

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