Retrotechtacular: [Walt] Builds A Family Fallout Shelter

In the 1950s it seemed likely that the Cold War could at any minute take a turn for the worse, and we might all be consumed in the fiery conflagration of nuclear war. Fortunately neither the leaders on our side of the fence nor those on the other were the dangerous unpredictable lunatics their opponent’s propaganda might have portrayed them as, and instead we continued on our way uneasily gazing at each other over the Iron Curtain.

For civilian America, the Government created a series of promotional efforts to prepare them for the effects of nuclear war and equip them with the means to survive. Some of them like the infamous “Duck and cover” film seem quaint and woefully inadequate when viewed with several decades hindsight, but others tried hard to equip the 1950s American with what looked like the real means to survive.

Our film below the break today is part of one such effort. The Family Fallout Shelter was a booklet produced in 1959 by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, and it described in detail the construction of a series of fallout shelters of differing designs.  There was a concrete underground shelter, a partially buried twin-wall shelter with infill, and the one shown in the film, a basement fallout shelter made from concrete blocks. Our narrator and protagonist is [Walt], a capable bespectacled middle-aged man in a check shirt who takes us through the shelter’s construction.

We start with him giving some friends a tour of the finished shelter, and we see its cozy furnished interior with bunk beds and all mod cons. We’re told it would make a useful extra spare bedroom, or a darkroom. Then we flash back to construction as [Walt] takes us through all the steps required to build your own basement shelter. As he says, it’s a project that could be attempted by almost anyone, and what follows is a pretty good introduction to basic bricklaying. We can’t help being concerned about the security of those unmortared roof blocks in the face of a Tsar Bomba, but fortunately they were never put to the test. We do find it amusing that this is presented by the National Concrete Masonry Association — how better to boost sales than get the populace to build extra brick walls in every home?

The film and booklet provide a fascinating window into some of the culture surrounding preparations for nuclear war in the early Cold War era. The ideas that it would be survivable, and that two weeks in a home-made fallout shelter would be sufficient to ensure that civilians would be safe are in stark contrast to the then-secret deep shelters and long-term survival plans that the governments of the time created for themselves. It would be interesting to know how many of these home shelters were built, and how many survive. Did you ever spend a night in a basement spare bedroom with a blast wall?

We’ll leave you with the film’s closing words from the Director of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.

No home in America is modern without a family fallout shelter. This is the nuclear age.

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Hacking When It Counts: Spy Radios

World War II can be thought of as the first electronic war. Radio technology was firmly established commercially by the late 1930s and poised to make huge contributions to the prosecution of the war on all sides. Radio was rapidly adopted into the battlefield, which led to advancements in miniaturization and ruggedization of previously bulky and fragile vacuum tube gear. Radios were soon being used for everything from coordinating battlefield units to detonating anti-aircraft artillery shells.

But it was not just the battlefields of WWII that benefitted from radio technology. From apartments in Berlin to farmhouses in France, covert agents toiled away over sophisticated transceivers, keying in coded messages and listening for instructions. Spy radios were key clandestine assets, both during the war and later during the Cold War. Continue reading “Hacking When It Counts: Spy Radios”

Building a Satellite-Tracking System With Cold War Tech

The things Hackaday readers come up with and post over on Hackaday.io never cease to amaze us. If you’ve never checked it out, be careful — you can easily spend hours (or weeks) of your life just skimming through the projects that have been logged there. Many of the builds use modern development tools like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, but every so often we come across a project that takes a more difficult road.

That’s the case with [Keplermatik’s] Cold War-era satellite-tracking project, also aptly named Keplermatik. This a build that’s still in progress, which just means you’ve got the privilege of following along as it progresses! What makes this project so special? Aside from the fact that it’s purpose is to track satellites, we think the sole use of vintage tech is a very cool and very ambitious goal.

IV-22 VFD displays will be used for the "Soviet" side of the console
IV-22 VFD displays will be used for the “Soviet” side of the console

[Keplermatik] plans to split the satellite-tracking console into two sides: an American-tech side for tracking the satellite’s position, and a Soviet-tech side for tuning the radio and positioning the antenna. The idea is that he’ll get to use vintage technology from both sides of the Iron Curtain. That should lead to some very interesting lessons about how these kinds of systems were designed by each side during the Cold War.

The build is still in its adolescence, but is definitely worth following along with. But, if you’re craving more Soviet tech and need it right now, be sure to check out this post on Russian Cold War vacuum tubes.

 

Stolen Tech: The Soviet Shuttle

The US Space Shuttle program is dead and buried. The orbiters can now be found in their permanent homes in the Air and Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center, and the California Science Center. The launch pads used by the shuttles over a career of 135 launches are being repurposed for vehicles from SpaceX and the Space Launch System. Yes, some of the hardware and technology will be reused for NASA’s next generation of heavy launch vehicles, but the orbiter – a beautiful brick of a space plane – is forever grounded.

The Space Shuttle was a product of the cold war, and although the orbiters themselves were never purely military craft, the choices made during the design of the Space Shuttle were heavily influenced by the US Air Force. The Soviet Union was keenly aware the United States was building a ‘space bomber’ and quickly began development of their own manned spaceplane.

While this Soviet Shuttle would not be as successful as its American counterpart — the single completed craft would only fly once, unmanned — the story of this spaceplane is one of the greatest tales of espionage ever told. And it ends with a spaceship that was arguably even more capable than its American twin.

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Stolen Tech: The Soviet Superfortress

Boeing’s B-17 was the most numerous heavy bomber of World War II, and its reputation of being nigh indestructible in the face of Messerschmidts and flak cannons is stuff of legend. The first flight of the B-17 was in 1935, and a decade later at the close of World War II, the B-17 would begin to show its age. It could only carry 6,000 pounds of ordnance; the first atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, weighed 9,700 pounds and 10,300 pounds, respectively. The Avro Lancaster notwithstanding, a new aircraft would be needed for the Allied invasion of Japan. This aircraft would be the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

On paper, the B-29 nearly holds its own against all but the most modern bombers of aviation history. Yes, the B-29 is slow, but that’s only because jet engines were in their infancy in 1944. This bomber was a forgotten super weapon of World War II, and everyone – Japan, German, Great Britain and the USSR – wanted their own. Only the Soviets would go as far to build their own B-29, reverse engineering the technology from crashed and ditched American bombers.

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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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Swans, Pigs, and the CIA: An Unlikely Radio Story

Shortwave radio is boring, right? Maybe not. You never know what intrigue and excitement you might intercept. We recently covered secret number stations, and while no one knows for sure exactly what their purpose is, it is almost surely involving cloaks and daggers. However, there’s been some more obvious espionage radio, like Radio Swan.

The swan didn’t refer to the animal, but rather an island just off of Honduras that, until 1972, was disputed between Honduras and the United States. The island got its name–reportedly–because it was used as a base for a pirate named Swan in the 17th century. This island also had a long history of use by the United States government. The Department of Agriculture used it to quarantine imported beef and a variety of government departments had weather stations there.

You might wonder why the United States claimed a tiny island so far away from its shores. It turns out, it was all about guano. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 allowed the president to designate otherwise unclaimed territory as part of the United States for the purpose of collecting guano which, in addition to being bird excrement, is also important because it contains phosphates used in fertilizer and gunpowder. (Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.)

However, the most famous occupant of Swan Island was Radio Swan which broadcast on the AM radio band and shortwave. The station was owned by the Gibraltar Steamship Company with offices on Fifth Avenue in New York. Oddly, though, the company didn’t actually have any steamships. What it did have was some radio transmitters that had been used by Radio Free Europe and brought to the island by the United States Navy. Did I mention that the Gibraltar Steamship Company was actually a front for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)?

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