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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Victorian Mouse

If Babbage had started the computer revolution early, we might have seen a mouse like the one [Peter Balch] created. He started with the guts from a USB wheeled mouse and some gears from an old clock movement. In addition to the big wheels to capture X and Y movement, the mouse buttons look like the keys from an old typewriter.

mechanical-mouse-magicWe were afraid the project would require advanced wood or metal working capability, but the bottom of the mouse is made from paper mache. The top and sides are cut from tinplate. Of course, the paint job is everything.

The electronics part is pretty simple, just hacking a normal mouse (although it is getting harder to find USB mice with mechanical encoders). However, we wondered if it would have been as simple to use an optical wireless mouse. That would leave the wheels just for show, but honestly, most people aren’t going to know if the wheels are useful or just ornamental, anyway.

If you don’t feel like gutting a mouse, but you still want USB, you could use an Arduino or similar board that can simulate a mouse. We’ve seen quite a few of those in the past. Now all you need is a matching keyboard.

3D Printed Wimshurst Machine

Steampunk extraordinaire [Jake von Slatt] has released his latest creation. This time he’s built a Wimshurst machine from mostly 3D printed parts. The Wimshurst machine is an electrostatic generator and was originally invented in the late 1800’s by James Wimshurst. It uses two counter-rotating disks to generate an electrostatic charge which is then stored in two Leyden jars. These jars are also connected to a spark gap. When the voltage raises high enough, the jars can discharge all at once by flashing a spark across the gap.

[Jake’s] machine has a sort of Gothic theme to it. He designed the parts using Autodesk’s 123D Design. They were initially printed in PLA. Skate bearings were used in the center of the disks to ensure a smooth rotation. The axle was made from the fiberglass shaft of a driveway reflector. The vertical supports were attached the base with machine screws.

The Leyden jars were made from sections of clear plastic tube. The caps for the jars were 3D printed and are designed to accept a short length of threaded 1/8″ pipe. Copper wire was used for the interior contacts and are held in place with electrical tape. The metal sectors on each disk were made from pieces of cut aluminum tape.

You may be wondering how this machine works if it’s almost entirely made out of plastic. [Jake] actually painted most of the parts with a carbon paint. This makes them electrically conductive and he can then use the parts to complete electrical circuits. Unfortunately he found this to be rather ineffective. The machine does work, but it only produces sparks up to 1/2″ in length. For comparison, his other machine is capable of 6″ sparks using similar sized Leyden jars.

[Jake] actually tried rebuilding this project using ABS, thinking that the PLA may have been collecting moisture from his breath, but the result is still only 1/2″ sparks. He suspects that the bumpy surface of the plastic parts may be causing the charge to slowly leak away, preventing a nice build up. He’s released all of his designs on Thingiverse in case any other hackers want to give it a whirl.

Adding a home theater without ruining a Victorian home

projector-screen-in-a-victorian-homeWe understand where [John Clarke Mills] is coming from when he says he wants a home theater but not at the expense of dedicating a room to it. His situation is a bit more sticky than most folks in that he has a beautifully kept Victorian era home. Recently he was removing a renovation from ages past that didn’t fit with the style and it gave him the opportunity to build in this hidden projector screen.

Years ago someone walled in this opening and added french doors. After opening up the wall [John] sized up the situation and decided he had just enough room to build a soffit which could hide a rolled up projection surface. He purchased a motorized screen (we’ve seen a few diy projection screens but can’t remember one that rolls up) and built a slot into the design just large enough for the screen to pass through. He’s testing it out in the clip after the break before doing the plaster work.

The columns on either side are his additions as well. The floor of the house is unlevel and one of those columns ended up a full inch longer than the other. We certainly can’t tell.

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19th century all-in-one PC

…well not quite, but Victorian-styled nonetheless.

In the same vein as his previous creation, [Jake] decided to steampunk his new monitor. However, this time around, he managed to squeeze a full pc into the retro case. A custom aluminum chassis had to be designed and safely house the disk drives and motherboard behind the monitor.  Since the 350W PSU was a bit too clunky to mount behind the screen, [Jake] rebuilt the base of the unit around it. The P4, 250GB SATA hard drive, and gold painted cooling fan allow the machine to run Kubuntu “Gusty Gibbon” smoothly. Coupled with a typewriter-inspired keyboard, [Jake’s] got a cutting edge antique setup.

Victorian Nixie tube clock


[John Clarke Mills] has pieced together this tastefully done Victorian style Nixie tube clock. He picked up a kit from nixietube.com and an old clock off of eBay. A little bit of elbow grease and solder later, he has this very nice mantle piece. Well done.

For those unfamiliar, a Nixie tube is used for displaying numbers or letters. They are a glass tube, filled with a gas (usually neon). There are metal structures inside that glow when electricity is applied. First widely used in the early sixties, Nixies were pretty much replaced when LED technology got cheap.

We noticed that nixietube.com was down, so you might also check TubeClock.com and neonixie.com for kits.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, read about the Nixie counter clock, Russian vfd, and the 6502 driven Nixie clock all previously on Hack a Day.

[via Retro Thing]