The scale of this salvage operation is nothing short of daunting. The SS Normandie was an ocean liner put into service in 1935 and capable of carrying 1,972 people across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship is still the fastest turbo-electric-propelled passenger vessel ever built, so it’s no surprise that it was seized by the US Navy during World War II for conversion to a troop carrier called the USS Lafayette. But in 1942, during retrofit operations, the vessel caught fire and capsized. The topic of today’s Retrotectacular is the remarkable salvage operation that righted the ship. Unfortunately, it was subsequently scrapped as bringing it into service was going to be too costly. Lucky for us the US Navy documented the salvage operation which makes for a fascinating 35-minutes of footage.
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Does your bicycle master boardwalk and quagmire with aplomb? If it was built by the Raleigh Bicycle Company, it ought to. This week’s Retrotechtacular is a 1945-era look into the start-to-finish production of a standard bicycle. At the time of filming, Raleigh had already been producing bicycles for nearly 60 years.
The film centers on a boy and his father discussing the purchase of a bicycle in the drawing office of the plant where a bicycle begins its life. The penny-farthing gets a brief mention so that the modern “safety model”—wherein the rider sits balanced between two wheels of equal size—can be compared. The pair are speaking with the chief designer about the model and the father inquires as to their manufacturing process.
We are given the complete story from frame to forks and from hubs to handlebars. The frame is forged from high-quality steel whose mettle is tested both with heat and with a strain much greater than it will receive in manufacture or use. It is formed from long pieces that are rolled into tubes, flame sealed at the joint, and cut to length. The frame pieces are connected with brackets, which are formed from a single piece of steel. This process is particularly interesting.
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In this 1942 tour of the RCA Victor plant in Camden, NJ, we see the complete record making process from the master cut production to the shipping of multiple 78RPM shellac pressings. The film centers around a recording of Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz as performed by the 1940s equivalent of studio musicians, the Victor Salon Orchestra.
The master record starts life as a thin layer of molten wax poured on to a hot circular plate in a dust-free room. Bubbles and impurities are blow torched out, and the wax is left to cool under a steel dome. This perfect disc is carefully passed to the recording studio through a special slot, where it is laid carefully beneath the cutting stylus.
Unlike today’s multi-track recording sessions, the master was cut from the performance of a complete band or orchestra all playing as they would in concert. The sound engineer was responsible for making fast changes on the fly to ensure sonic and groove width consistency.
After cutting, the delicate wax undergoes several phases of electrolysis that form the metal master. It is bombarded first with pure gold and then twice with copper sulfate to build a sturdy disc. The copper ionization process also ensures high fidelity in the final product.
Although mighty, this master won’t last long enough to make all the necessary pressings, so a mother matrix is made. This is a negative image of the master. The mother is formed by electrolytically bathing the master in nickel, and then adding a thin film of some indeterminate substance. Another copper bath, and mother emerges. As soon as possible, the master is separated and whisked away to the storage vault.
Since a positive image is needed for pressing, a stamping matrix is made. Mother gets a nickel bath for durability, and then a copper bath to form the stamping matrix. Many stampers are created so that several records can be pressed at once. These images get a chromium plating to help them last through many pressings.
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Really. As this wonderfully narrated talkie picture from 1939 will attest, keeping even one drop of water from penetrating undersea cables is of the utmost importance.
How do they do it? Many, many layers of protection, including several of jute wrapping. The video centers on splicing a new cable to an existing one in the San Francisco Bay to bring the wonder of telephony to a man-made island created for the Golden Gate International Expo.
The narrator makes these men out to be heroes, and when you see how much lead they came into contact with, you’ll understand what he means. Each of the 1,056 individually insulated wires must be spliced by hand. After that comes a boiling out process in which petrolatum is poured over the splice to remove all moisture. Then, a lead sleeve is pulled over the connections. Molten lead is poured over the sleeve and smoothed out by hand.
At this point, the splice is tested. The sleeve is punctured and nitrogen gas is pumped in at 20psi. Then comes the most important step: the entire sleeve is painted with soap suds. Any gas that escapes will make telltale bubbles.
Once they are satisfied with the integrity of the sheath, they wrap the whole thing in what appears to be lead cables and pound them into submission. Surely that would be enough, don’t you think? Nope. They weld the cables all around and then apply two coats of tar-treated jute wrapping, which retards saltwater corrosion considerably.
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What’s surprising about the subject of this week’s Retrotechtacular is that the subject is not from that long ago. But looking at the way in which the work was done makes it feel so far in the past. In 1974 the British Railways Board set out to modernize and interconnect the signaling system. What you see above is one of hundreds of old signal control houses slated to be replaced by an interconnected system.
These days we take this sort of thing for granted. But from the start of the project it’s clear how the technology available at the time limited the efficiency of the development process. We’re not talking about all of the electro-mechanical parts shown during the manufacturing part of the video. Nope, right off the bat the volumes of large-format paper schematics and logic diagrams seem daunting. Rooms full of engineers with stacks of bound planning documents feel alien to us since these days even having to print out a boarding pass seems antiquated.
With fantastic half-hour videos like this one available who needs television? We’d recommend adding this to your watch list so you can properly enjoy it. They show off everything; manufacturing the cables, stringing them between the signal towers, assembling the control panels, testing, and much more.
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It’s surprising how often a brilliant idea is missed out on until years after the fact. In this case the concept was seen publicly within ten years, but the brilliance of the inventor has been appreciated once again after 110 years. It’s a color movie which was filmed around 1901 or 1902 but it sounds like the reel wasn’t shown in its full color grandeur until 2012 when the National Media Museum in the UK started looking into the history of one particular film.
The story is well told by the curators in this video which is also embedded after the break. The reel has been in their collection for years. It’s black and white film that’s labeled as color. It just needed a clever and curious team to put three frames together with the help of color filters. It seems that [Edward Turner] patented a process in 1899 which used red, green, and blue filters to capture consecutive frames of film. The patent description helped researchers put image those frames — also using filters — to produce full color images like the one seen above.
The press release on the project shares a bit more information, like how they determined the age of the film using genealogical research and the fact that [Turner] himself died in 1904. The process didn’t die with him, but actual evolved and was exhibited publicly in 1909. This, however, is the oldest known color movie ever found.
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Here’s a fascinating look at high-tech manufacturing in the 1930’s. This week’s Retrotechtacular features the building of a steam-powered locomotive. The quality of the black and white footage, and the audio accompanying it are almost as impressive as the subject material — which is nothing short of a machinist’s wet-dream but also includes much forging and smithing. Digging through the video for a suitable still image was a tough task, as every step in the process was interesting to us. But this image showing some of the 2700 feet of tubing used in the locomotive seems most appropriate.
The build covers all aspects of the build. Huge sheets of steel make up two side plates between which the cast engine block is mounted. The mold for casting was huge, required twelve hours dry time before the pour, and took a day or two to cool before breaking the mold. That yielded a rough block which then headed off for machining.
We were delighted by the crane used to transport steel sheets from the oven to a stamping machine. The counterweight is workers (and lots of them) on the other side of the fulcrum. After a glimpse of the ancillary part fabrication you begin to get a look at the complexity of the machine as it is assembled.
Does anyone feel a deep appreciation for the pedagogy that went into making something like this? What we mean is that the teams building No. 6207 don’t seem to be using skills learned in a book or from a class, but rather those passed down from the masters that have been on the job most of their lives. Watching them all work is nothing short of astounding!
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