Retrotechtacular: DC to DC Conversion, Rotary Style

If you want to convert one voltage to another, what do you do? Well, if you are talking DC voltages today, you’ll probably use a DC to DC converter. Really, these converters generate some sort of AC waveform and then use either an inductor or a transformer to boost or buck the voltage as desired. Then they’ll convert it back to DC. If you are talking AC voltages, you could just use a transformer. But think about this: a transformer has two sides. The primary makes an alternating magnetic field. Just like rotating a shaft with magnets on it could. The secondary converts that alternating magnetic field into electricity just like a generator does. In other words, a transformer is just a generator that takes an AC input instead of a rotating mechanical input.

That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but in the old days, a lot of mobile radios (and other devices) took this idea to its logical conclusion. A M-G (Motor Generator) set was little more than a motor connected to a generator. The motor might take, say, 12V DC and the output could be, for example 300V AC that would get rectified for the plate voltage in a tube radio.

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Retrotechtacular: Reading and Sorting Mail Automatically

We often read about the minicomputers of the 1960s, and see examples of their use in university research laboratories or medium-sized companies where they might have managed the accounts. It’s tempting though to believe that much of the world in those last decades of the analogue era remained untouched by computing, only succumbing in the decade of the microcomputer, or of the widespread use of the Internet.

What could be more synonymous with the pre-computing age than the mail system? Hundreds of years of processing hand-written letters, sorted by hand, transported by horses, boats, railroads and then motor transport, then delivered to your mailbox by your friendly local postman. How did minicomputer technology find its way into that environment?

Thus we come to today’s film, a 1970 US Postal Service short entitled “Reading And Sorting Mail Automatically”. In it we see the latest high-speed OCR systems processing thousands of letters an hour and sorting them by destination, and are treated to a description of the scanning technology.

If a Hackaday reader in 2017 was tasked with scanning and OCR-ing addresses, they would have high-resolution cameras and formidable computing power at their disposal. It wouldn’t be a trivial task to get it right, but it would be one that given suitable open-source OCR software could be achieved by most of us. By contrast the Philco engineers who manufactured the Postal Service’s  scanners would have had to create them from scratch.

This they performed in a curiously analogue manner, with a raster scan generated by a CRT. First a coarse scan to identify the address and its individual lines, then a fine scan to pick out the line they needed. An optical sensor could then pick up the reflected light and feed the information back to the computer for processing.

The description of the OCR process is a seemingly straightforward one of recognizing the individual components of letters which probably required some impressive coding to achieve in the limited resources of a 1960s minicomputer. The system couldn’t process handwriting, instead it was reserved for OCR-compatible business mail.

Finally, the address lines are compared with a database of known US cities and states, and each letter is routed to the appropriate hopper. We are shown a magnetic drum data store, the precursor of our modern hard drives, and told that it holds an impressive 10 megabytes of data. For 1970, that was evidently a lot.

It’s quaint to see what seems to be such basic computing technology presented as the last word in sophistication, but the truth is that to achieve this level of functionality and performance with the technology of that era was an extremely impressive achievement. Sit back and enjoy the film, we’ve placed it below the break.

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Retrotechtacular: The Transistor (1953 Film)

If we cast our minds back to the early years of the transistor, the year that is always quoted is 1947, during which a Bell Labs team developed the first practical germanium point-contact transistor. They would go on to be granted the Nobel Prize for their work in 1956, but the universal adoption of their invention was not an instantaneous process. Instead there would be a gradual change from vacuum to solid state that would span the 1950s and the 1960s, and even in the 1970s you might still have found mainstream devices on sale containing vacuum tubes.

First point contact transistor via kasap3

To speed up this process, Bell Labs made every effort to publicize their invention. Thus we come to our subject today, their 1953 publicity film The Transistor, in which the electronics industry of the era is described and how each part of it might revolutionize by the transistor is laid out.

We start with a look at a selection of electronic components, among which are a few transistors. The point contact device is already described as superceded by the junction transistor, but as well as those two we are shown a phototransistor and a junction tetrode, a now-obsolete design that had two base connections.

Unexpectedly we don’t dive straight into the world of transistors, but take a look back at the earlier years of the century to the development of vacuum electronics. We’re taken through the early development  and operation of vacuum tubes, then their use in long-distance radio communications, through the advent of electronics in mass entertainment, and finally into the world of radar and microwave links. Only then do we return to the transistor, with a posed shot of [John Bardeen], [William Shockley], and [Walter Brattain] hard at work in a lab. The merits of the transistor as opposed to the tube are then set out, though we can’t help wondering whether they have confused a milliwatt and a microwatt when they describe the transistor as requiring only a millionth of a watt to operate.

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Retrotechtacular: Stereo Records

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.

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Retrotechtacular: The Last Main Line

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.

A Ruston steam navvy excavating near Wembley, London. S.W.A.Newton/Leicestershire County Council (Fair use)
A Ruston steam navvy excavating near Wembley, London. S.W.A.Newton/Leicestershire County Council (Fair use)

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.

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Retrotechtacular: The Best Pendulum Clock

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”

Retrotechtacular: The Aerolux Light Corporation

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?

Even when switched off, they have a striking appearance.

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

Thanks to [Itay Ramot] for the tip!