Retrotechtacular: Automata

automatonWriter

For a moment, suspend your worldview and adopt Descartes’s mechanistic interpretation that living beings are essentially complex machines: a collection of inherently unrelated parts that move and collide. Automata, then, represented the pinnacle of accomplishment in a mechanistic universe, requiring considerable skill to construct. Most of their inventors, such as Pierre Jaquet-Droz, were clockmakers or watchmakers, and automata like the 240-year-old boy writer are packed with moving parts to automate motion.

Jaquet-Droz’s writer is particularly impressive considering all its moving parts—nearly six thousand of them—fit entirely within the boy’s body, and that one can “program” the text that the boy composes. It may sound like a bit of a stretch to claim that these clockwork amusements were precursors to the computer, but they influenced inventors and engineers for centuries.

You’ve likely heard of the other famous automaton: The Turk, (which was actually a hoax, housing an operator inside its base). The Turk, however, managed to inspire Charles Babbage to pursue building a mechanical device capable of performing mathematical functions: the Difference Engine.

Watch some of Jaquet-Droz’s other clockwork masterpieces in a video after the break. Magicians like Robert-Houdin were responsible for building a number of automata, so we recommend you keep the mystical atmosphere flowing by checking out another magician’s performance oddities.

[Read more...]

Replace batteries with USB power

[Mark Bog] thought it was a waste to use batteries for his desktop touch pad. Quite frankly we agree that if you can avoid using disposable cells you should. He ditched the dual AA batteries inside of his Magic Trackpad and built a battery-sized adapter to feed it some juice. It consists of a dowel of similar diameter with a screw in each end. He scavenged a USB cord, connecting hot and ground wires to the corresponding pole of the adapter. Now his Trackpad is USB powered and never in need of a battery replacement or even a recharge.

We’re not familiar with the inner workings of Apple’s Magic Trackpad. We assume there’s a voltage regulator inside and we hope it doesn’t have a problem working with the 5V regulated power coming in from the adapter. If you’ve got the skinny on the hardware we’d love to hear about it in the comments. One last thing: because the forum linked above requires a login to view the images in the post, we’ve embedded the rest of them after the break for your convenience.

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Performance oddities

[Mario the Magician] wrote in to let us know that he makes Hackaday a priority every morning with his coffee. Well, so do we. He also included a link to his homepage when submitting this revelation. The juicy details that are as much of a fix as the caffeine in the coffee are missing from his posts. But the hacks are solid.

Magicians are hackers. If you could go out and buy the props, the concept are unlikely to impress anyone. [Mario] demonstrates his Nickel Box and a Jedi Mind Trick he built. The Nickel Box is a mechanical contraption that somehow transports a coin from one part of a cigar box to a tiny little enclosure on top of it. The Jedi Mind Trick uses a microcontroller and an old Star Wars soundtrack cassette tape box to put on a light and sound show while it recovers your chosen card from a shuffled deck. Great demonstrations, but no word on what’s going on inside.

[Mario's] also has a collection of… performance oddities. His talking television takes an audio input and displays a 1950’s-esque oscilloscope effect on an old TV. He’s attempting to stop his heart, or burn the house down, or both with a flyback transformer lightning box. And his drawing automaton, well, you’ll just have to see it.

We believe in electrons, not magic (even though some say there are no electrons). So we want to know how those magic props are built. Like any good magician, [Mario] probably won’t reveal his secrets. If you’ve got the goods this your chance. Write a post detailing your magical prop builds and send them our way. If it’s well done we’ll feature it here on Hackaday.

Hackaday Links: December 7 2009

Ah the beauty of watching molten solder pull SMD components into place. Yeah, we’ve seen it before, but for some reason it never gets old.

The glory days of wardriving are certainly behind us but if you’re still hunting in certain areas for access points you can leave the laptop at home. A homebrew program called Road Dog can turn your PSP into a WiFi search device. You must be able to run custom code to use this app.

Ferrofluid is our friend. But having grown up watching the Terminator and Hellraiser movies we can’t help being a little creeped out by the effects seen in this movie.

Follow along with the NASA astronauts in this 20 minute HD tour of the international space station. It’s a cramped place to live but we can’t help thinking that it looks incredibly clean. After all, where would the dirt come from?

How are your woodworking skills?  Can you take a wooden block and turn it on a lathe until you have a lampshade 1/32″ thick? We’d love to see how these are made, but imagine the artist’s reaction when hours of labor are ruined by a minuscule amount of misplaced pressure on a carving tool. Patience, we’ll learn it some day!

This video from the past that is about the future of  travel does leave us wondering why our cars don’t have built-in radar for poor visibility? We’ve already realized the rear-view-mirror-tv-picture, but we’re going to need your help before the flying police/fire/ambulance-mobile is a common sight. Oh, the fun of seeing a high-tech push-button selector 3:30 into the video. Perhaps the touch-screen was a bit beyond the vision of the time.

Sometimes you have so many servants you need to find creative things for them to do. Only the most discriminating of the super-rich employ a person whose sole responsibility is to erase and redraw the hands of a clock each minute. This video is obviously a result of the global recession as the live time-keeper has been let go; a looping recording took his job!

Last time we checked in with [Marco Tempest] he was syncing video over multiple iPhones. Now he’s at it again with an augmented reality setup. A camera picks up some IR LEDs in a canvas and translates that into information for a video projector. We’d call this a trick, but it’s certainly not magic.

Magic clock knows your location

Straight out of the fiction of Harry Potter is The Magic Clock. Just like in the novel this clock (is it still a clock even thought it doesnt tell time?) shows the current location of family members, from home to the doctor’s office, even to mortal peril (We hear its nice this time of year).

The clock hands are driven by 4 separate servo motors, which are maintained by an Arduino. The location of family members is updated wirelessly via Twitter. We think a script written for each member’s GPS enabled cell phone might be more trustworthy, but it seems to be working fine currently.

[via Make]

Why I Hate Django

[Cal Henderson] delivered a keynote titled Why I Hate Django at the first annual DjangoCon. Django is an open source BSD licensed web framework written in Python. Google has posted the keynote in its entirety to YouTube, which you can find embedded above. While the talk is humorous (and takes many jabs at Rails developers) it does provide insight into what makes a good web framework. [Cal] is Director of Engineering at Flickr and is an authority on how to make websites scale. He points out that most frameworks are designed to get projects off the ground quickly, but are lacking when it comes to building an even larger service. He talks about several things in Django that need work and improvements that could be made. It’s really an interesting look at what it takes to go big. [Read more...]

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