Retrotechtacular: Steam Locomotive Construction in the 1930’s

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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Retrotechtacular: Miniseries on The Wright Brothers

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Admittedly we prefer our Retrotechtacular videos to be campy, but sometimes the content is just so cool we have to give up that goal. So is the case with this series on the Wright Brothers’ first manned, powered flight.

Now there is some argument on who actually flew for the first time on earth. And that issue is touched upon right away by sharing the benchmarks used to substantiate the claim:

  • The machine was heavier than air
  • Carried a man
  • Rose from the ground under its own power
  • Flew under control without losing speed
  • Landed safely at an altitude no lower than it took off

The two-part series clocks in at almost two hours. But the combination of images, video footage, and first-hand accounts makes for something incredibly interesting. The original flight happened 110 years ago this December. That doesn’t seem so long ago and it’s incredible to think that air-travel is now common in the developed world and we’re even seeing progress toward human powered flight that itself is doing the same kind of trailblazing the Wright Brothers did.

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Retrotechtacular: Discovering Electronic Music

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We take it for granted today that a lot of the music we hear includes synthesized instruments and sounds. But looking all the way back to 1983 for this Discovering Electronic Music video series provides a glimpse of the humble beginnings of the technology. The first five minutes of part one may annoy your aurally, but it’s worth it as that’s the point at which we get into sound generation using equipment like that seen above. All three parts in the series are embedded below; about twenty minutes of video in total.

Mixer boards and other control interfaces used today still have a large area of real estate devoted to knobs and adjustments. But they also include a ton of software processing options which weren’t available until computers became both affordable and ubiquitous. What’s shown in the video is a set of hardware interfaces that process signals from oscillators or alter recorded sound. We’ve spent a lot of time marveling about software defined radio and how it’s making RF hacking accessible to the masses. But who here hasn’t done at least a bit of tinkering in electronic music using any of the myriad of audio software? Would you have done that if you needed to build your own envelope and filter circuitry?

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Retrotechtacular: Building BART

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Sometimes it’s fun to take a step back from the normal electronics themes and feature a marvelous engineering project. This week’s Retrotechtacular looks at a pair of videos reporting on the progress of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Anyone who’s visited San Francisco will be familiar with the BART system of trains that serve the region. Let’s take a look at what went into building the system almost half a century ago.

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Retrotechtacular: Fundamentals of AM and FM Radio Communication

How radios send and receive information can seem magical to the uninformed. For some people, this week’s Retrotechtacular video, “Frequency Modulation – Part 1 Basic Principles”, from the US Army Department of Defense 1964 will be a great refresher, and for others it will be their first introduction into the wonderful world of radio communications.

The stated objective is to teach why FM radio communication reduces interference which normally afflicts AM radio communications. Fundamentals of AM and FM is a better description, however, because the first part of the video nicely teaches the principles of AM and FM radio communications. It isn’t until later in the clip that it delves into interference, advantages of FM modulation, and detailed functioning of FM radio. The delivery is slow at times and admittedly long, yet the pace is perfect for a young ham to follow along with plenty of time to soak in the knowledge. If you’re still on the fence about becoming a ham here’s some words or encouragement.

Though the video isn’t aimed at ham radio users it does address core knowledge needed by amateur radio hobbyists. Amateur radio is full of many exciting communication technologies and you should have a clear understanding of AM and FM communication methodologies before getting on Grandpa’s information super highway. Once you have your ham license (aka ticket) you have privileges to create and test amazing ham related hacks, like [Lior] implementing full programmable control of a Baofeng UV5R ham radio using an Arduino.

Join us after the break to watch the video.

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Retrotechtacular: The history of ANSI and ASCII art

These slides may not be the style of character art you remember from the days of 2400 baud modems; they’re more advanced than what was out there in the beginning. It turns out there is still some life left in this art subculture. For this week’s installment of Retrotechtacular we look in on [Doug Moore’s] talk on the history and survival of ANSI and ASCII art given at this year’s BSides conference.

ASCII is still a common character encoding so chances are you’re already familiar with it. ANSI on the other hand is a rather confusing term as it’s been lost in obscurity when referring to character sets. In this case it refers to a set of extended characters which is better described as Windows Code Pages.

Most of what we know about the ANSI art scene is from watching BBS: The Documentary (which is on our ten best hacking videos list). We certainly remember seeing the vertically scrolling art after connecting to a dial-up BBS back in the day. But understanding the factions that formed around the creation, bundling, and distribution of this is art is fascinating. [Doug] does a great job of covering this history, sharing side-by-side examples of the shunned practice of “ripping” another artists work. This image is actually not a rip. Later in his talk he discusses the continued existence of the subculture, showing what a modern take on the same subject looks like.

If you’re merely into the technical the first half of the video below is worth watching. But we bet it’ll be hard not to continue to the end for a side-trip into art history.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

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Retrotechtacular: Understanding a voltage doubler

This very stern looking gentleman is about to explain how voltage doubles work in a plodding, yet satisfyingly thorough manner.

We’re not certain when this US Air Training Command video was produced. Obviously it was used to train servicemen who were responsible for keeping electronics running during war time. We’re glad for that, as they really found just the right balance to present a concept that required some knowledge, but is approachable for even the most basic of new electronics hackers.

The demonstration board shown on the right is the voltage circuit highlighted in the lesson. Here the pointing stick is being used to trace out the circuit function during one phase of the input transformer. The capacitor/diode pairs rectify the voltage, with the capacitors discharging in parallel series to double the output voltage. But how does the variable load (RL) affect the output? This is demonstrated under several different conditions using an oscilloscope to illustrate the change.

The discussion of how the diodes work reminded us of a modern tutorial we just ran across this weekend. It’s a bit bizarre, but explains the PN junction in a different way than we’re accustomed to. In this case you will already need to be familiar with how semiconductors work to understand the presentation.

Both clips can be found below the jump.

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