The 20th century saw some amazing technological developments. We went from airplanes to the moon. We went from slide rules to digital computers. Crank telephones to cell phones. But two of the most amazing feats of that era were ones that non-technical people probably hardly think about. The transformation of radio and TV from mono and black and white, to stereo and color. What was interesting about both of these is that engineers managed to find a way to push the new better result into the same form as the old version and — this is the amazing part — do it in such a way that the old technology still worked. Maybe it is the rate that new technology moves today, but we aren’t doing that today. Digital TV required all-new everything: transmitters, receivers, frequencies, and recording gear. Good luck trying to play the latest video game on your 25-year-old PC.
It is hard to remember when stores were full of all sorts of audio and video media. We’ve noticed that all forms of media are starting to vanish. Everything audio and video are all streamed or downloaded these days. Records, 8-tracks, cassettes, and even CDs and DVDs are vanishing. However, vinyl records have made a come back in the last few years for their novelty or nostalgic value.
If you were to nominate a technology from the 19th century that most defined it and which had the greatest effect in shaping it, you might well settle upon the railway. Over the century what had started as horse-drawn mining tramways evolved into a global network of high-speed transport that meant travel times to almost anywhere in the world on land shrank from months or weeks to days or hours.
For Brits, by the end of the century a comprehensive network connected almost all but the very smallest towns and villages. There had been many railway companies formed over the years to build railways of all sizes, but these had largely conglomerated into a series of competing companies with a regional focus. Each one had its own main line, all of which radiated out from London to the regions like the spokes of a wheel.
By the 1890s there was only one large and ambitious railway company left that had not built a London main line. The Great Central Railway’s heartlands lay in the North Midlands and the North of England, yet had never extended southwards. In the 1890s they launched their ambitious scheme to build their London connection, an entirely new line from their existing Nottingham station to a new terminus at Marylebone, in London.
Since this was the last of the great British main lines, and built many decades after its rivals, it saw the benefit of the century’s technological advancement. Gone were the thousands of navvies (construction workers, from “Navigational”) digging and moving soil and rock by hand, and in their place the excavation was performed using the latest steam shovels. The latest standards were used in its design, too, with shallow curves and gradients, no level crossings, and a wider Continental loading gauge in anticipation of a future channel tunnel to France This was a high-speed railway built sixty years before modern high-speed trains, and nearly ninety years before the Channel Tunnel was opened.
Would you believe a pendulum clock that can keep time accurately to within one second per year? If you answered “yes”, you’ve either never tried to regulate a pendulum clock yourself, or you already know about the Shortt Clock. Getting an electromechanical device to behave so well, ticking accurately to within 0.03 parts per million, is no mean feat, and the Shortt clock was the first timekeeping device that actually behaves more regularly than the Earth itself. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Best Pendulum Clock”→
The humble incandescent lightbulb is an invention just about anyone born in the 20th Century is more than familiar with. But it’s not the be all and end all of lighting technology – there are neon lights, compact fluorescent bulbs, and even LEDs are finally being adopted for interior lighting. But with the endless march forward, there are vintage throwbacks to the past – how many hipster cafes have you been to lately with great big industrial-looking filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling?
However, that’s not all history has to give us. These gas discharge bulbs from yesteryear are absolute works of art.
The bulbs contain delicate floral sculptures in metal, coated with phosphor, and the bulbs are filled with neon or argon gas. Applying mains voltage to the electrodes inside the bulb causes the phospor to fluoresce, creating a glowing flower that is hauntingly beautiful.
These bulbs were manufactured by the Aerolux Light Company, from the 1930s to the 1970s. Once upon a time, they could be had for as little as 20 cents a bulb – nowadays you’re likely to pay over $50 on eBay or Etsy. The bulbs work by the glow discharge effect, not at all dissimilar to garden variety neon lamps.
While it’s not easy, it is possible to make your own vacuum tubes. Maybe it’s time to order some phospor powder and a tank of neon and get to work? Be sure to document your attempt on Hackaday.io.
They just don’t write promotional film scripts like they used to: “These men are design engineers. They are about to engage a new breed of computer, called Graphic 1, in a dialogue that will test the ingenuity of both men and machine.”
This video (embedded below) from Bell Labs in 1968 demonstrates the state of the art in “computer graphics” as the narrator calls it, with obvious quotation marks in his inflection. The movie ranges from circuit layout, to animations, to voice synthesis, hitting the high points of the technology at the time. The soundtrack, produced on their computers, naturally, is pure Jetsons.
Back in “the old days” (that is, when I was a kid), kids led lives of danger and excitement. We rode bikes with no protective gear. We stayed out roaming the streets after dark without adult supervision. We had toy guns that looked like real ones. Dentists gave us mercury to play with. We also blew things up and did other dangerous science experiments.
If you want a taste of what that was like, you might enjoy The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. The book, first published in 1960, offers to show you how to set up a home laboratory and provides 200 experiments. The colorfully illustrated book shows you how to do some basic lab work as well as offering some science history and terminology.
Want to make oxygen? There’s several methods on page 27. Page 28 covers making hydrogen. To test the hydrogen for purity, the suggest you collect a test tube full, invert it, and stick a match up to the tube. If the hydrogen is pure it will burn with a pop noise. If air is mixed it, it will explode. Yeah, that sound safe to us.
It was one of the more interesting consumer tech stories floating around at the turn of the century, a disposable cell phone manufactured using a multi-layer folded paper circuit board with tracks printed in conductive ink. Its feature set was basic even by the standards of the day in that it had no display and its only function was to make calls, but with a target price of only $10 that didn’t matter. It was the brainchild of a prolific New Jersey based inventor, and it was intended to be the first in a series of paper electronic devices using the same technology including phones with built-in credit card payment ability and a basic laptop model.
The idea of a $10 mobile phone does not seem remarkable today, it’s possible that sum might now secure you something with features far in excess of the Nokias and similar that were the order of the day at that time. But when you consider that those Nokias could have prices well into three figures without a contract, and that the new features people considered exciting were things like integrated antennas or swappable coloured plastic covers rather than the multicore processors or high-res cameras we’re used to today, a phone so cheap as to be disposable promised to be very disruptive.
The product’s wonderfully dated website (Wayback Machine link, we’ve skipped the Flash intro for you) has pictures of the device, and the video below the break features shots of it in use as its inventor is interviewed. But by the end of 2002 the Wayback Machine was retrieving 404 errors from the server, and little more was heard of the product. No sign of one ever came our way; did any make it to market, and did you have one?
With the benefit of fifteen years hindsight, why did we not have paper mobile phones as part of the ephemera of the early years of the last decade? It was not a product without promise; a ten-dollar phone might have been a great success. And the description of a cheap laptop that talks to a remote server for its software sounds not unlike today’s Chromebooks.
Some of you might claim the product was vapourware, but given that they demonstrated a working prototype we’d hesitate to go that far. The likelihood is that it did not find the required combination of component price and manufacturing ease to exploit its intended market segment before its competition improved to the point that it could no longer compete. If you have ever taken apart a typical mobile phone of the period you’ll have some idea of why they were not cheap devices, for example the RF filter modules of the day were individually adjusted precision components. And paper-and-ink printed circuit boards are still a technology with a way to go even now, perhaps the idea was simply too far ahead of its time. Meanwhile within a relatively short period of time the price of simple candybar phones dropped to the point at which they would tempt the $10 buyer to spend more for a better product, so the window of opportunity had passed.