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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Retrotectacular: The Science of Derailing Trains

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Look closely above and you’ll see there’s a section of track missing. There are actually two, a section from each side has been plucked out with a pair of eight-ounce plastic explosive charges — and yet the train keeps barreling onward. The World War II era reel is demonstrating some military testing of the effect of damaged tracks on a train. The amount of missing track the train can stand up to came as quite a surprise for us!

The test setup itself is neat. An old derelict locomotive is used. It, as well as a number of trailing cars, is pushed by a functioning engine from behind. Once up to about 26 MPH the pusher stops and the rest keep going. There are many tests, starting with just a few inches of track missing from one side. This gap is increased, then gaps are added both sides, then the two sides are offset. Even a 5-foot gap is crossed easily by the locomotive. The weak link turns out to be the empty cars. We suppose their mass is small enough that they can’t rely on inertia to keep them on the straight path.

If you don’t appreciate the destructive nature of this Retrotechtacular installment, you can still get your train fix. There is another offering which shows off the modernization of a signaling system.

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Retrotechtacular: The Cryotron Computer

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Have you ever heard of a Cryotron Computer before? Of course not. Silicon killed the radio star: this is a story of competing technologies back in the day. The hand above holds the two competitors, the bulkiest one is obviously the vacuum tube, and the three-legged device is what became a household name. But to the right of that tube is another technological marvel that can also be combined into computing machines: the cryotron.

[Dudley Allen Buck] and his contributions to early computing are a tale of the possible alternate universe that could have been cryotrons instead of silicon transistors. Early on we find that the theory points to exotic superconductive materials, but we were delighted to find that in the conception and testing stages [Buck] was hacking. He made his first experimental electronic switches using dissimilar metals and dunking them in liquid helium. The devices were copper wire wrapped around a tantalum wire. The tantalum is the circuit path, the copper wire acts as the switch via a magnetic field that alters the resistance of the tantalum.

The name comes from the low temperature bath necessary to make the switches work properly. Miniaturization was the key as it always is; the example above is a relatively small example of the wire-wound version of the Cryotron, but the end goal was a process very familiar to us today. [Buck] was searching for the thin film fabrication techniques that would let him shoe horn 75,000 or more into one single computing platform. Guess who came knocking on his door during this period of his career? The NSA. The story gets even more interesting from there, but lest we rewrite the article we leave you with this: the technology may beat out silicon in the end. Currently it’s one of the cool kids on the block for those companies racing to the quantum computing finish line.

[Thanks Frederick]

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: The Magic of Making Cars in the ’30s

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We usually shy away from calling things ‘magic’ in our features because, you know… science. But in the case of this Chevrolet manufacturing reel from 1936 the presentation is nothing short of an industrialized version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Well, not in the sense of mischief, but in that there is almost no explanation and the way the footage is laced together you get the strong feeling that, at the time, this type of industrialization was magic; a modern marvel. The techniques and skills of each worked passed down from a master to an apprentice but virtually unknown to the general public.

The clip, which is also embedded below, starts off in the machine shop where mold makers are getting ready to go into assembly line production. From there it’s off to the foundry for part casting and then into the stamping plant where white-hot (perhaps red-hot, but black and white film) metal is shaped by man-mangling presses. The image above follows the cast, stamped, and machined parts onto the assembly line. We like seeing a room full of pistons being QA checked by hand using a width gauge and micrometer.  The film continues through to the finished vehicle and we think you’ll agree there’s more than enough voyeuristic video here to overcome that lack of narration.

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Retrotechtacular: Breaking Atoms to Break the Ice

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This documentary from 1959 gives a satisfyingly thorough look inside a nuclear powered icebreaking ship called Lenin. This actually set a couple of world’s-firsts: it was the first nuclear powered surface vessel and the first civilian vessel to be powered thusly.

The ship was built to clear shipping paths to the northern ports of Russia. Testing of both ice and models of the ship design point to the ability to break ice layers that are two meters thick. This requires a lot of power as ice-breakers generally use their hull shape and gravity to break the ice by driving up onto it to bend the ice to the breaking point. The Lenin achieved this power using its nuclear reactor to heat steam which drove electric generators. The energy produced drove three screws to power the vessel.

Of course this was back in the day when control panels were substantial, which you can get a peek at starting half-way through the twenty-minute film. This includes a demonstration of the ship’s network of radiation sensors which alert the control room, and sound a local alarm when they are triggered. During it’s 30-year operational life the vessel had a couple of accidents stemming from refueling operations. You can find more on that over at the Wikipedia page, but stick with us after the jump to see the vintage reel.

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