The End Of The Electromechanical Era

When viewed from the far future, the early years of the 21st century will probably be seen as the end of a short era in human technological development. In the beginning of the 20th century, most everything was mechanical. There were certainly some electric devices, but consumer products like gramophone players and “movie” cameras were purely mechanical affairs. You cranked them up, and they ran on springs. Nowadays, almost every bit of consumer gear you buy will be entirely electronic. In between, there was a roughly 50 year period that I’m going to call the Electromechanical Era.

Jenny List’s teardown this week of an old Fuji film movie camera from 1972 captures the middle of this era perfectly. There’s a small PCB and an electric motor, but most of the heavy lifting in the controls was actually put on the shoulders of levers, bearings, and ridiculously clever mechanisms. The electrical and mechanical systems were loosely coupled, with the electrical controlled by the mechanical.

I’m willing to argue the specifics, but I’d preliminarily date the peak of the Electromechanical Era somewhere around 1990. Last year, I had to replace all of the rotted rubber drive belts in a Sony Walkman WM-D6C, a professional portable tape player and recorder produced from 1984-2002.

It’s not a simple tape recorder — the motors are electronically regulated to keep ridiculously constant speed for such a small device, and mine has Dolby B and C noise reduction circuitry packed inside along with some decent mic preamps. But still, when you press the fast-forward button, it physically shoves rubber-coated drive wheels out of the way, and sliding pieces of metal make it change modes of operation by making and breaking electrical contacts. Its precision lies as much in the mechanical assemblies and motors as in the electronics. It’s truly half electronic and half mechanical.

But that era is long over. The coming of the CD player signaled the end, although we didn’t see it at the time. Sure, there is a motor, but all the buttons are electronic, and all the “mechanism” is implemented almost entirely in silicon. The digital camera was possibly the last nail in the Electromechanical Era’s coffin: with no need to handle physical film, the last demand for anything mechanical evaporated. Open up a GoPro if you don’t know what I mean.

While I’ll be happy to never have to replace the drive rubber in a cassette recorder again, it’s with a little sadness that I think on the early iPods with their spinning metal hard drives, and how they gave way to the entirely silicon Zoom H5 recorder that I use now. It has a S/N ratio and quiet pre-amps, no wow or flutter, and a quality that would have been literally unbelievable when I bought the WM-D6C.

Still, if you find yourself in the thrift store, and you’ve never done so before, buy and take apart one of these marvels from a bygone era. A cassette recorder, even a cheap one, hides a wealth of electromechanical design.

138 thoughts on “The End Of The Electromechanical Era

  1. There’s still at least one key mechanical component – cable connectors. How long before the majority of non-high-power cable connectors are are gapped induction coils, toothbrush style. Less wear, less breakage, mechanically much simpler and cheaper, electronically much more complicated.

    1. A physical connection still serves a purpose… Toothbrush doesn’t need much current, or a clean power source.

      There will always be a mechanical element. We live in a physical world, not a digital one. There will always be a need of actuators, and input devices. Playing video games is fine, but we need machines that do actual, physical work. So we have more time to play video games, or something more ‘adult’, with computers and the internet. Without electro-mechanical devices, a computer can only tell you to perform a physical task, like open or close a valve. Where it could operate a solenoid valve without your help.

      1. I think the author meant to focus on “consumer products” and “gear”. But the claim that ANY device can be “entirely electronic” is too strong. Haptic feedback, accelerometers, magnetometers, DLP (MEMS – MicroELECTROMECHANICAL Systems), and even wireless charging that relies on a close physical configuration all mean that the mechanical elements have been simplified and almost made invisible, but not eliminated. And let’s not forget the consumer electromechanical devices known as the dish washing machine, the clothes washing machine, the food processor. Hard to imagine those getting less mechanical.

    2. Having lived personally thru the era of the Walkman type music player, the vast majority of portable cassette players died because of damage to the 1/8 inch headphone jack.

      I’m going to the gym in a few minutes using bluetooth headphones.

      Of course that just moves the problem from broken audio jacks to dead unreplaceable batteries.

      1. I don’t think I ever broke one of those. Some people are too rough on their connectors and now we have all those environmentally unfriendly disposable bluetooth devices as a result.

        The only ways I ever had a Walkman die,

        abandonment – leave the batteries in too long and they leak

        mechanisms out of tolerance – starts eating tapes

  2. > The digital camera was possibly the last nail in the Electromechanical Era’s coffin: with no need to handle physical film, the last demand for anything mechanical evaporated.

    You should take a look at the technology in modern lenses before saying that.

          1. I don’t know why that seems different to me, but a camera (with motors for the lenses or even driven gimbals for stabilization) is still and electronic device that has some motors and gears on it, rather than something _driven_ by a mechanical apparatus.

          1. Thus far, only one ILC (reflex or not) has eliminated the mechanical shutter entirely. Except it (the Z9) still has a mechanical shutter after all, it’s just used only to protect the sensor against dust ingress rather than for exposure start/stop.

  3. I don’t care what the people say. Electromechanics are here to stay! Seriously though, some things just gotta move. Those Walkman casette players were a master class in what could be achieved with folded and stamped sheet metal but I would argue that those Boston Dynamics robots are an even greater electromechanical marvel.

    1. Yep, at the consumer end it’s limited but specialist and industrial tech has it all over. Must interesting a area of engineering imo as it requires a good hollistic understanding of the problem and the technologies involved. Also if you start thinking just in digital electronic fashion you can end up over complicating solutions with poor or reslus. Self regulating mechanical systems win.

  4. Early VCR’s had similar mechanical chonky tape handler mechanisms sliding around from the leverage of pushing the buttons down. The larger scale made it easier to see some of it, and the more complicated tape path was insane to work out where it was going, much less “how the hell did someone design this machine”… True wondrous beauty for teen me :)

    See also (well known example):

    1. Yeah, they were truly amazing. I owned a domestic electronics repair about mid to late era for VCR. Some mechanical calibrations (adjustments) where done by watching a signal from the VCR on a CRO (Oscilloscope) while making the mechanical adjustment. The adjustment itself was so fine that the difference was visible to the human eye. Tape to head angle adjustments were thousandths of a degree.

      Early units (VCRs) had a circuit board about 45cm (18″) x 25cm (10″), which was mostly discrete components with a small number of ICs. Later units had a PCB around 30cm (12″) x 15cm-20cm (6″ – 8″) which had many IC’s and far less discretes.

    2. the newer ones might use soft buttons, but the mechanical bit is still borderline insane…a single motor powers a mechanism that 1) feeds the cassette in and laces the tape 2) engages and disengages the capstan and unlaces the tape from the drum for fast rewind or forward
      The pro machines can do “scrubbing” when controlled from a rotary encoder with no perceptible delay regardless of the speed or direction.

  5. The cassette recorder I used with my ZX Spectrum had a warning label on the back: “DANGER: DO NOT DISASSEMBLE UNLESS QUALIFIED TO DO SO. THIS APPARATUS CONTAINS DANGEROUS VOLTAGES.”

  6. There should be a hall of fame for mechanical marvels. Amongst the items in there would be the carburetor from a 1978 Honda Accord, the Roytron paper tape punch mechanism and any Digital Video Cassette recorder.

    Other nominations?

    1. I like the analog car stereos that had mechanical station presets., set the station, pull out the button, then press it in to save the station. always functioned even if power was lost.

    2. The heating/cooling system for 1990’s Hondas was something different yet: a pneumatic computer, where sliding knobs actuated valve systems that ran little pneumatic actuators, some of which had servo-type feedback systems. It was really amazing until dirt got into it.
      Similarly, cars had spectacular electromechanical systems. Twitter has been agog recently about the sequential turn signal blinker system on old Chrysler products, that was run with a motor spinning a cylinder that was half-copper, and had sliding contacts at different points around it to multiplex voltage to the lights. I worked on a 1971 Pontiac that had something almost like a flying shuttle mechanism in the window wiper system, because they retracted down under the hood when not in use so would pass a sort of floating cam between two parts of the system to pop up and start wiping. They had a similar spinning-cylinder system to the sequential light setup for intermittent wiping, too.

      1. Obligatory Honda story: ‘all their ECUs from 1992 (P05) onward had full facility to drive individual coil on plug, but officially Honda switched away from mechanical distributor in 1999 (S2000?). You can trivially convert 92 car with a small adapter board, ECUs shipped with all the needed firmware and hardware in place sitting unused for 7 years.’
        Honda already knew in 1990 that electromechanical system were a dead end. It just took time for the economies of scale to kick in.

    3. The original teletype: with the exception of a single relay to transform the received signal into mechanical movement, everything else was done mechanically.

      Also the Selectric typewriter. With the exception of the electric motor, everything else was mechanical. In theory, if you changed it with a crank and pulled it fast enough, you would be able to type without problems.

      1. You beat me to it!
        I remember spending many hours playing on the floor as my father’s teletype ckickety-clacked away in the corner, with the musical tones of RTTY coming from his amateur radio gear. It was utterly fascinating for a young boy, especially when he dug into one of his teletypes in order to maintain them. Those things were electromechanical marvels of engineering!

      2. When I was in High School in 1979, there was an Olivetti Teletype as computer access in the library. Well, it turns out that if you move some of the flippy bars inside when the unit is powered off, then power it on, very bad things happened. We learned how to break into the school over the weekend to try to attempt to fix it. Didn’t go too well. Ended up with too many extra parts.

        Now that I actually can find a service manual….how the hell did anyone design this machine? wow?

    4. If it had actually been built, the Analytical Engine by Charles Babbage would be top of the list when it comes to mechanical marvels. Based on what I have read about it, the Analytical Engine (as designed by Babbage) would have been a fully programmable Turing-complete computer many decades before the first true electronic computers were invented.

    5. the control unit from the Messerschmitt Bf 109
      Where the pilot of a Spitfire had to futz with a choke, a throttle, propeller blade pitch and speed of the supercharger (running it fast while flying low destroyed the engine btw), the Bf 109 pilot had *one* lever that commanded thrust.
      The plane had mechanical fuel injection and the control unit handled everything with just hydraulics, pneumatics and mechanics…

    6. The linotype used for typesetting ranks pretty high on my list of amazing mechanical machines. Anything that forges it’s own parts from molten metal as you type deserves a gold star.

  7. Over a month ago I disassembled old VHS-C camcorder that had an early auto-focus system based on a chip by Tamron. It used IR transmitter and receiver with lenses that focused the beam. One part was fixed, the other rotated via electromagnet or small motor. I’m not sure because I didn’t disassemble it completely yet. This worked as distance meter, which then controlled the motor coupled to the lens focus ring. Lens came from older camcorder and was also manually operated.

    There are plenty of electromechanical systems around us, that won’t disappear any time soon. A simple washing machine includes a computer that controls it all, electromechanical valves and sensors, electric motors that operate both the drum and waste water pump, and even an electromechanical lock that uses thermal expansion to lock the door for few minutes after program ends. A quartz clock is another example of optimized electromechanical design – very simple motor driven by quartz oscillator rotates a set of gears, which in turn drives the hands. The same goes for many other devices we use every day: from coffee makers to cars. Vending machines, ATM’s, automatic vacuum cleaners, a variety of industrial machines, cameras and lenses with AF, image stabilization and powered zoom, and everything MEMS. Electromechanical era is here to stay.

    1. Years ago my workplace had a remote control rooftop camera (black and white).
      When focusing it, I noticed that the “whites” were whitest, and the “blacks” were blackest at maximum focus. I thought it would be great to have envelope detection on the video signal to employ auto focus. I eventually found out that $ony had patented that idea years before.

    2. All true but you’re missing the point. None of those devices these days have the same type of electromechanical systems as talked about in the article. They’re entirely electronic systems controlling mechanical outputs.

      My mum’s old washing machine had an electric powered clockwork-style mechanism to control the wash/spin etc cycle and drive the (3?) programmes. Not a microcontroller one sight.

      1. When I was a kid, we had a washing machine with such mechanical “programmer”. It had three washing programs and in addition a set of single program elements. My current washing machine has a microcontroller, but the program selector uses absolute position rotary encoder.

        In my opinion any system where mechanical, electric and electronic components cooperate is electromechanical in nature. Tape players and recorders used mechanical switching of gears and pulleys and various switches to control both motor and electronics, that’s one type of electromechanical system. VCR used logic circuits, microprocessors or microcontrolers to operate various elements of the tape mechanism. This was done via clever use of motors, switches and electromagnets, but control was fully electronic, like in modern washing machine. If you want a non-electronic control system, then look at jukeboxes. [TechnologyConnections] has a great video series on a jukebox that implemented “memory” mechanically and used switch and relay logic for its operation. Modern versions would use microcontroller because it’s much simpler to implement memory and sequential control in software. And you don’t need a complex wiring diagrams.

        And don’t forget that many industrial machines use quite simplified PLC controllers. And in some cases they still use switch and relay logic because for many functions you only need a few logic gates connected between inputs and outputs. And usually safety systems and emergency stop switches are implemented in hardware for their reliability. I have somewhere parts of Avent bottle warmer that used a microcontroler for its operation (STM8) and a bimetallic cut-off switch just in case electronics failed and heater was locked on. It’s in parts because electronics had failed – capacitor in transformerless power supply blew up.

      2. MEMS -MicroELCTROMECHANICAL Systems (such as accelerometers, pressure sensors and DLP) cannot be said to be “entirely electronic” unless one embraces contradiction. The mechanical element can only be simplified and miniaturized until the mechanism is invisible, but never eliminated.

    3. yes, the clothes washer, clothes dryer, and dish washer is where I will take refuge – sure, can throw some computer chips into them if that’s all one knows how to do, but at the end of the day they have to perform some very mechanical operations

      as the world turns digital I will take solace in the sloshing noise from my clothes washer – with its wonderful mechanical knobs and buttons instead of the now common place, bland, generic touch interface (ugh!)

      1. I always wished there could be an infrared thermometer in the dryer, constantly getting temperature readings of the clothes tumbling within. This would allow temperature regulation in a more closed loop fashion. Since clothes of different material and density absorb the convection heat at very different rates and reach different temperatures, I always thought it could be great if you could set a “max temperature” to prevent shrinkage/damage to clothing, and the dryer would deliver heat in a controlled way so that no item within reached a temperature above the max temp.

        This of course is the backend controls side – the machine could still be interfaced with any style inputs/outputs

  8. There is no polite way to say it,so, what a joke statement about it bieng the end of the electro mechanical era,pure drivell.All of our devices contain mechanical components,speakers are electro mechanical,haptic vibrators are just unbalanced,motors,switches,sim card drawers,charge ports,plugs.
    All devices a made useing mechanisms,moved useing machines,powered by machines, and when possible serviced like toasters.
    The simple truth is that every single last bit of human technology
    is driven by fire,wheels,gears and levers.All 100 billion tons per anum of primary resourse extraction and shipping is done mechanicaly.No refining of metals or any other basic comodity
    is done useing anything other than mechanisms.
    All “devices” and there trillions of transistors and other components are also made with mechanisms.

    1. He was very clear in the article. He is not referring to devices that have mechanical components, but devices where the electronic is controlled by the mechanical. It is basically the inverse of today’s technology where mechanical devices feed data into electronics which then output instructions to mechanical outputs. It was mechanical inputs to electronic inputs to mechanical control and so on. Varies per device. I honestly don’t even get how that mechanical voodoo worked.

        1. I don’t think it was a different mindset, just different constraints.

          Older devices had a lot of mechanical stuff to do, like actuate switches, move tape heads and eject cassettes etc. and these require a lot of force which cannot be produced reasonably by small electric motors, if at all, so the user of the device has to be responsible for making the mechanism cycle. It could have been done with some ASIC but the motors to drive it weren’t there, and still aren’t.

          If you’re presented with a similar problem in the modern context, the solution is still going to be along the same lines – as long as you have competent engineers. A lot of modern devices simply don’t do very much and instead blink a bunch of LEDs to distract from the fact. Yet all you have to do is take a look at a kitchen cabinet door hinge, how many mechanical parts and linkages there are to do one simple job.

          1. Nothing has changed. A computer mouse is an absolutely useless device from the point of hardware, firmware and software. It’s only the wetware in the control loop that makes it work.

  9. The term “mechatronics” is a good one, but didn’t seem to take root.
    A pick and place machine for circuit board assembly is one fine example of mechatronics — tight integration between mechanical and electronic functions.

    1. I use mechatronics, usually pair it with ‘robotics’ because the two are so tightly coupled, but most laymen get a very wrong idea if you just say ‘robotics’, so “robotics and mechatronics” is a good way to prevent That.

    2. Mechanical, electrical, control systems theory and data processing. It’s like a venn diagram between those four. Mechatronics used to be called “cybernetics”, which would still be a whole lot cooler.

    1. Most of state institutions, companies and data centers worldwide still use tape media, like LTO for long-term storage and backup. I’m planning on doing just that for my data, as I don’t trust clouds. On related note MiniDisc was an interesting way to store data. Laser heated up the magnetic material so it could be written to, so in theory data should last for a very long time. Unfortunately it lost to optical media, which, as it turns out, rots.

      1. Magnetic tape/film also rots, it’s not about whether it’s magnetic or optical but about the materials used. I recall an article some years ago abotu recording studios finding out that degraded DAT tapes are very hard to recover because once the errors hit a certain level the player just throw their hands up and quit. Analogue tapes degrade but will always play whatever information is left on them.

        There’s writeable blu-ray discs with huge lifespans (ISTR 50 year guarantee) compared to CDR/DVDR because of the materials used and construction of the disc.

    2. Our initial backups are to “online storage”, mechanical spinny drives, which are fast to store to, convenient to restore from, but expensive so only retain a couple backup iterations.
      Those backups are copied to “offline storage”, mechanical tapes like you mention, rotated to cheaply store many iterations back, where the speed is less annoying.
      Then those tapes are rotated out not by human hands, but with a mechanical robotic tape storage system.

      I too am waiting for the day fused based PROM storage for permanent backups is as cheap as spinning disks and tapes… but that is far from today. Not to mention the solid state replacement for the robotic storage system :P

      1. The question for backups isn’t just cheap but durable/reliable etc – magnetic tapes are going to be hard to best on that for medium-long term storage. In the right conditions they last basically forever, and with no real care last decades, its pretty hard to actually harm the tape to the point it can’t be read unintentionally, data dense enough to easily ship huge datasets, and cheap too…

        Clearly full of downsides as well, but as the longer term/ emergency recovery backup I can’t see them going anywhere in a long long time even as other techniques start to catch up in the ‘cheap’ (though tape being so niche now isn’t half as cheap as it really should be)…

      2. There is a great photo on Wikipedia somewhere showing a US census storage facility, where their data is stored in thousands and thousands of boxes, each one filled with punch cards. Great long-term storage medium – paper. But data density is rather low.

        There is also a Rosetta project. One of its parts is to record samples of all languages on a metal disc by etching it. To indicate how to read it, some samples start at a normal font size and then get progressively smaller and smaller to the micro scale, to indicate how to read the whole disk. The disk should last for at least 12 millennia.

        1. Do they still have the machines to read those punch cards? And the format of the data on it? I have some old books, hundreds of years of, perfectly readable. Now try that with a 51/4 inch floppy with some Wordperfect files on it….

          1. I’m pretty sure that all the necessary information is written down somewhere. Probably at Library of Congress. Many documents are also stored as microfilm or microfiche. The challenge is tracking down the information. In case of that facility, if it still exists, they probably already converted all of the data to the more modern formats. Besides, they used one of the major computer systems of that time, probably IBM, and the documentation still exists. I know because I have some specs for those old computers on my modern computer. I have most of documentation for Odra 1305, which was polish clone of ICL-9000 system created by polish engineers by reverse-engineering the entire system from programming references and user manuals.

            On related note most of the global banking systems still use software written in COBOL, and many of those systems see active development, despite the fact that hardware that ran it is no more. Some parts are rewritten in more modern languages, but most of it is run on PCs and mainframes using emulators of old hardware. Just think about it: all your banking records and financial data is managed by millions of lines of spaghetti code that grew over last 50-60 years written in one of the worst programming languages ever created.

          2. Urgon, the part about COBOL is utter BS. I’ve worked on backend systems for Pek_o Bank and it’s mostly C#. According to docs I’ve read, last bits of COBOL code have been analyzed and reimplemented as needed circa 2010. My mates still working in financial systems for other banks say the same – it’s C# or Java everywhere now.

          3. Good thing none of your old books are in the Etruscan language. haha ;) A modern person would have a much better luck discerning what was encoded in those old punch cards than anything written in that truly dead language.

        2. I remember hearing an interview with someone from the Library of Congress, who mentioned that they still use lacquer disks for voice recordings…..because all you need is a pin and a cone of paper and you can play them….they are “technology Proof”

  10. My dad got a commodore pet that used a cassette tape drive for storage. Ah the fun of load ” whatever program”. and wait forever .
    Anyway after running a few hundred tapes through this and sometimes leaving the play button on the cassette down for an extended period of time it developed a flat spot on one of the rollers in it and the tape drive speed was not consistent so my grandfather took the cassette player apart and we found a plastic roller inside of it which had a rubber ring around the outside of it and we called commodore to see if they can get us the part and they told us ‘no we needed to buy the entire drive’ for $100. so my grandfather and I went up to the hardware store and we got a o-ring for a faucet that looks like it was about the same size and we cut the old rubber ring off and stretched this o-ring over it and put put the tape drive back together and it worked perfectly and it cost about 50 cents

  11. In a few days my wife will get to open her new Sewing Machine. Expensive enough to not be a ‘Surprise gift’. With all the cheaper units being computerized, and a bunch of failures over the years, fully mechanical was still the way to go. At the store about 1/8 were mechanical.
    Of course the really expensive units were large, multi-color embroidery setups, but there is definitely a market for fully mechanical sewing machines.

    The new machine has an amazing number of stitches, even button hole patterns.

    Bottom line : Mechanical lasts longer.
    (Yes replace the LG washing machine with a used clockwork one, it has lasted much
    longer than the LG, but it doesn’t play songs when done. )

    1. Yes, mechanical lasts much longer.

      I have sewing machine from about 1926 (Adler class 8) that I use. My wife has a Pfaff 262 from 1962.

      Mine was originally a treadle driven machine. Some previous owner removed it from its table and attached a small electric motor.

      The one my wife has was built with a motor to begin with.

      Both machines run smoothly.

      Keep them oiled, and they’ll serve you for a lifetime (or more.)

  12. Electro mechanical devices are fun in so many ways. The telephone systems with the rotary dial and the pulsed stepper relays are a fascinating to see in operation. The beauty of electro mechanical devices is that you can see how they work and solve some problem without a schematic, just by observing you can learn and figure out a lot and in many cases repair it sometimes even quite easily. And the humming of gently spinning motors have something reassuring, as they confirm that it is working.

    1. “The beauty of electro mechanical devices is that you can see how they work and solve some problem without a schematic, just by observing you can learn and figure out a lot and in many cases repair it sometimes even quite easily.”

      This. This, right here. This is the thing, the beauty and the experience of revelation. Mechanicals speak to us; digital bits jealously guard their secrets.

      1. “Mechanicals speak to us; digital bits jealously guard their secrets.”


        Unless we use an oscilloscope or oscillograph (CRT or electro-mechanical).
        Or a mechanical Volt/Ampère meter.. Or just a modest lamp. :)

    2. hahha i agree and disagree! yes, the operation could be seen…but usually, i can’t see it! like a tape recorder mechanism, for example, it’s got too many parts layered too tightly. if i could see them all, i could understand it just from the seeing. but i simply can’t see them. there’s almost always an opaque metal piece somewhere that has the holes all the little axles and fulcrums are mounted on. and even if that can be seen through, a lot of times there are several devices on one shaft and i can’t see them all. and then, if you take it apart, there’s usually springs so you reach a point where the dastardly thing self-destructs! and then, good luck figuring out how it all went together!

      i remember, my dad had a little light mounted on the end of a straw, so he could shove it into the crevices of these devices and get a better view. these days, if i had the need, i’d one-up that. i’d have a camera *and* a light mounted on the end of a straw! like many things, the older technology is easier to work on if you have modern tools.

      so sometimes with modern equipment, it’s easy to get the source, the schematic, or enough other details to understand how it works. or more importantly, how to fix or modify it. and when that’s true, it’s sometimes easier to understand than the older electromechanical things. imo :)

    1. big office grade models also come with a bolt-on paper finisher…if you have the ca$h, it can: set papers aside by each printjob, punch holes for binders, staple and even fold.

  13. The sixties-era light bars I worked on way back when had motors and belts and gears to rotate reflectors around halogen bulbs. I needed a grease gun to keep everything turning. Now, of course, it’s all electronic.

  14. 1 – 80 years old hand crank meat grinder will still be usable 80 years from now (it will outlive everything in my kitchen – me included)
    2 – pinball machines !!! (no modern video game can replicate the experience of a gentle, just below tilt failure side tap resulting in a gentle ball path change giving the player few more seconds or minutes of interaction with the machine; which at the end would always be triumphant over the human)

  15. I am a lover of the classic wristwatch. I sot of got into repairing and modifying some watches. In my research I found that through the years the fight was to have the fastest heartbeat so the watch hands moved as smoothly as possible. One of the fstest is Rolex. I seriously thought I wanted one but then found that the faster the hertbeat (measurd as bets per hour or BPH) the faster the watch needed service. Good watches can run up to 28,000 BPH. But then I discovered the Grand seiko. This watch uses a generator on the main wheel and an electromagnet around the wheel to maintain constant speed. It truly is an engineering feat and electromechanical at it’s finest. There is a great video on the video website that shows the engineering and construction of the watch. AHHHHHHHHH the beauty of the thing!!!!!

  16. As another example, consider remote controlled helicopters. 30 years ago, they were mechanical monsters, expensive, complex, requiring skill to fly, with a main rotor that used cyclic and collective pitch control, plus a smaller tail rotor. They weren’t very common, either. Now we have inexpensive quadcopters, with four fixed-pitch propellers, and all control is done merely by changing the speeds of the props. A tiny MEMS inertial measurement unit, plus a GPS receiver, and some CPU power and software, allows the inexpensive commercial drone to maintain a stable hover in wind gusts while the pilot just watches and leaves his hands off the controls.

    Sure, there’s some mechanical stuff inside the inertial measurement unit, and the propellers and motors are mechanical, but nothing like the mechanical complexity of a rotor swashplate.

  17. I think this article is a bit uninformed. The era of electromechanical devices is just about to kick into high gear. Maybe not to the visible eye, but MEMS are making 20th century stuff look primitive in comparison. Look at inertial sensors under an electron microscope, for an example. Or AFM-on-a-chip, or grated light valves that are basically tunable diffraction gratings and may revolutionize projection technology. Micro sensors that interact with individual gas molecules. DNA storage. The list goes on. Sorry electromechanical devices aren’t going anywhere.

  18. Maybe just a little bit of a description misjudgment? Holiday trinkets, usually fairly cheap, will likely always be around, the kind where a motion sensor activates some holdiday figure into song and dance, maybe even a fish on the wall, things like this. Other items like many different kinds of exercise equiptment are quite enjoyable to reverse engineer for a few short minutes while looking one over. I suppose a cheap coffee maker might be considered for this category? As far as a good chunk of consumer goods being mostly in the ‘electro’ side of things, sure, but completely expected. While any factory is a wonder of electro mechanical goodness, I suppose it isn’t quite in the spirit of the article. For the people who care about such things? I suspect it will never die. It seems more a ‘shift’ than a death, and one that begun some time ago waiting for technology to provide the path. Is it a shame? I don’t think so, again for the people who care about these things there is always a workbench, a toolbox and a bunch of bits laying around. I will say, looking back in fondness on something seems to bring a bit of happiness mixed with a tinge of….perhaps sadness for lack of better description that is likely there. We do have to be somewhat practical though, electo mechanical does have limits, and we rapidly became accustomed to a certain level of technology.

  19. what a naïve post,

    Ignoring the fact that for example in cars, the amount of mechanical parts en motors have exploded over the last couple of years. where a simple pin to set your mirrors was replaced with at least three motors and gears, two for positioning the mirror, one to fold it back when parking. car chairs with at least 5 motors to adapt to your fit.

    and yes, a car is definitely a consumer electronics thing now.

    lenses for cameras are not simpler, but way more complicated than before. don’t forget compact cameras with retractable lenses and image stabilization.

    next up: office printers with the possibility to fold and staple complete booklets. you have no idea how many motors, gears, sensors and belts are in such a machine.

    3d printers?
    machines in factories? a saw table with memory and motors to set the cut size, angle an depth.
    production lines in factories?

    and that is what just popped into my head the last 5 minutes…

    1. “a simple pin to set your mirrors was replaced with at least three motors and gears, two for positioning the mirror, one to fold it back when parking. car chairs with at least 5 motors to adapt to your fit.”

      I think you are referring to luxury vehicles. The essential mechanics of automobiles clearly follow the trend toward more electronics, less mechanics. The Toyota Prius ( in my opinion the most intelligently designed mass-produced consumer vehicle that will ever be) has less internal moving parts than ICE automobiles. It was the first drive-by-wire consumer vehicle, which has enabled the development of autonomous vehicle control systems. Of course all-electric automobiles are even simpler. So simple even the Chinese can build them.

      I’m pretty sure all the machines you mention can be seen to follow the same trend when you consider the full history of their development.

  20. A recent article covering the evolution of a Tesla door handle should not go unmentioned here

    >Still, if you find yourself in the thrift store, and you’ve never done so before, buy and take apart one of these marvels from a bygone era.

    Preferably people would learn enough to be able to put a device back together. Destructive teardowns of rare / vintage devices are a disgrace.

    1. “Destructive teardowns of rare / vintage devices are a disgrace.”

      This is a tough one for me. I’ve been collecting old machines since I was a little kid. Everything from clocks, rotary phones and typewriters/teleprinters, to early chainsaws, to old computers and HiFis, and quite a lot else.

      Any time I go to tinker with something, there’s a risk of breaking it (and when I was little, I broke things pretty often in the course of “fixing” them), but it’s the absolute best way to learn, especially when you’re young. Just pull stuff apart. Take the tubes out, take the head off the mower engine, dive in with the soldering iron to “fix” stuff, even if you’re a little kid whose only diagnostic technique is “check the components for scorch marks.” The historical value of an old machine is generally miniscule compared with the educational/spiritual value of pulling things apart. Learning to appreciate and preserve the old machines comes from understanding them, which is a unavoidably destructive process (especially when you’re young).

      1. I won’t disagree. In fact it’s also how I grew up, with old radios, cassette players and power tools from the e-waste collecting point, and most of them weren’t broken. They were just old and unloved. Now I’m really having a hard time weighing the cost of destroying things against potential benefits (teaching engineering and design by example, learning by doing, and preserving a repair / DIY culture).
        When one heads over to youtube, it seems “break something to learn from it” has been reduced to “break something” – we get to see everything from indifference to outright clickbait-dominated “today we’re going to crush / burn ..” acts without any engagement and little insights. Orthogonally, it’s perhaps the “gold recovery” scene which I hate most in this context.

        Lately it’s even channels like mikeselectricstuf that don’t prioritize preserving a serviceable / salvageable product of a teardown (cue GE Talaria teardown).

        My point is thus that it’s not simply a cause-and-effect relatiobship between teardowns and learning / appreciation, but greatly dependent upon the attitude and values set forth by the community, and that Hackaday bears responsibility in this, too.

        1. You seem to have watched a lot of these destruction videos. From my seat, I’m not at all sure what a “gold recovery scene” could be. And you even give one of these Vandalists a shout-out by name. Are you sure you don’t have some affinity for these videos? You know why they took away the thumbs down count? Because it doesn’t matter if you like it or dislike it – just that you watch, react, remember, and best of all, report what you’ve watched. Attention actuated by any affect – that’s their racket.

      2. Nothing lasts forever, even if you encase it in carbomite or whatever. I’d rather somebody learn something applicable from its mindful destruction than to have to have it superficially observed as it dissolves to dust on a shelf. Perhaps future tinkers could squeeze more knowledge with future technology, but maybe we could use some of that knowledge NOW, and maybe THAT is how we eventually win the future.

    2. “Destructive teardowns of rare / vintage devices are a disgrace.”

      What is the ratio of vintage devices that are taken apart by an appreciative and inquisitive mind to those that end up thrown away whole? 1:1,000? 1:10,000? Hackers aren’t the problem here.

      But if you want to use it, sure, fix it! Like I said, I put new rubber in my cassette recorder.

    3. “Destructive teardowns of rare / vintage devices are a disgrace.”

      Well can’t disagree so much, except I used to do it all the time. Of course, that was before they became rare or vintage :)

  21. I laughed when I read the title, and then I laughed more when I read the article. This is just a spin on the old ‘Analog is dead’ argument when in reality both are far from dead. If anything, the modern digital age has allowed mechanical systems to evolve way past what they could have been as purely electromechanical designs.

    As long as we have hands and feet, electromechanical designs will continue to interface with those hands and feet. Even tactile switches that deliver signals to digital circuits are electromechanical designs!

    1. I think you missed the point, but you also somehow got it. “Evolve way past what they could have been as purely electromechanical designs” is practically the thesis of the post.

      Tac switches are _not_ electromechanical designs in the sense intended. They have no mechanical control function, but simply create electrical signals. Hell, it’s not even a light switch, which at least passes the current in question. Tac switches pass information, encoded as voltage.

      The play button on my cassette recorder physically shoves stuff around. It mechanically _controls_ the device, the electronics included, by moving metal levers. The cassette recorder in question has a mechanical brain, mechanical logic.

      The only similarity to “analog is dead” here is the parallel to the analog computer. Which is dead. :)

  22. an astonishing number of comments here completely missed the point. yes, modern devices have moving parts in both input and output. but the logic and control function is almost always software. the mechanical components are used for physical tasks. but 30 years ago, the mechanical components performed logic and control tasks. they used to be the primary part of the device but now they’re nothing but sensors and effectors.

    economically, we’ve reached a point where a reasonably powerful CPU is cheaper than a network of a dozen pieces of injection-molded plastic with metal pins that implements a couple bits of logic.

  23. At first I thought this was an interesting take, but I realized this is all about electromechanical memory devices, and yes, I suspect even the magnetic hard drive will eventually lose to solid state, but currently $/TB is still very much ruled be the electromechanical spinning hard drive. (casettes, movie film, photographic film – all memory devices)

    To demonstrate how limited in scope this is, take the humble speaker as an example. Its a linear electromechanical device that isn’t going anywhere. We’ve developed some pretty interesting ways of creating vibrations in air, but those vibrations will always be mechanical (even in plasma speakers and other interesting designs, it is, by definition, vibrating air.

    Another huge area of expansion in the space has been CNC of various varieties, from 22 bit encoders providing micrometer precision positioning on “entry level CNC machining centers” (Think haas) to cheap stepper motors making for cheap printers, laser cutters, routers, etc.

    What about BLDC motors? Another huge area of expansion making controlled torque cheap and easy. Drones have thrived from this and led many to explore old/new concepts from rotary wing to fixed wing, from underwater, to surface, to land vehicles. The sky isn’t the limit. Look at the new SpaceX video of the booster steering mechanism, tell me that isn’t the most mesmerizing electromechanical thing you’ve ever seen! Bring that home to BPS.Space’s thrust vectoring of model rockets. Big and small, the sky isn’t the limit for electromechanical.

    If anything, I’d say the shift of electromechanical has moved from memory devices where it was necessary at the time to really exploding in popularity right where it belongs – in physical world interactions! Electromechanical is here to stay, just not in memory, and I expect to see even more!

  24. Nah, the situation seems more grim than it really is at the moment. Let’s don’t get depressed.
    These things may be gone in every day life, but not completely.
    As long as people remember, as long as people care, something isn’t gone. It’s not just a saying, I think.

    Just think of the SAQ transmitter, professional streamer tapes for archive/backup purposes, steam engines used in atomic reactors, the dynamo/alternators and motors found in cars, etc.

    Or the little community of Slow Scan TV (SSTV) and Narrow Band TV (NBTV) enthusiasts that use coffee cans as drums and glow paint to make a displays. To simulate/replace old radar screens that are nolonger available.. They use mechanical devices to replace tube technology! :)

    Same happens with “magic eyes”, also.
    Spinning LEDs and a motor are replacing the tube.

    Cassettes (MCs) and Vinyl has sort of a revival, too.
    Because people still love them.
    Heck, there are VHS fans, still! 😁

    To be fair, that’s also because there are some treasures out there that can only be found on old VHS cassettes.
    Remember, VHS could be recorded at home, no expensive facilities were needed. Everyone was able to produce for VHS. Those pirate copy scenes of the 80s/90s and the fan dubbing scenes (animes etc) did create some works that never officially existed. Underground stuff, so to say.

    Also, people generally just realize what they have had after it’s “gone”.
    And since mechanical HDDs, DVDs/BDs are still common and in use, it will take while still.

    Maybe in a few years people will have the same teary eyes when they see a DVD being displayed on a late CRT monitor/TV, as the older generations/vintage fans have when viewing Super 8 films on a real, noisy, smelly film projector. ;)

        1. Well there went half my day. I herd FM being used for a conversation on CB lol.

          It took me back to my childhood of sweeping the bands on a 4 band radio (receiver) at night.

          It’s a pity I can’t decode the digital signals with the web interface. How is that done?

  25. We didn’t call them gramophone players. They were just called gramophones. Later we called them GrandMaPhones,

    They’re collectors items now. They didn’t all use windup springs. There were some that run off a candle and they’re the most expensive collectors gramophone now because there’s hardly any on them left. Most of them caught fire and burnt down themselves and the house they were in.

      1. I went and had a quick look to. There will be something out there somewhere but google isn’t the best. Perhaps a search engine more focused on history. I tried to focus google on museums but it kept substituting keywords like record player.

        There wouldn’t be many people alive who have seen one. I am old and they didn’t last long, till they self destructed in flames. I think it was pre 78 (RPM) era before there were standards between manufacturers.

  26. Nah .. the writer clearly has nostalgia glasses on. Those were good times for electromechanical design.. but so were the 60’s on up through now in various forms. Just look at all the stuff goin on with cameras, drones, 3d printers, cars, electric cars. Yes that is often dominated by computer and chip design, but the foundation where the rubber meets the road of reality is in a massive field of motors, switches, servos, and sensors.

    1. Nostalgia glasses for sure!

      But don’t think for a second I would trade any of it for what turning those levers into firmware has brought us. That era is dead for a reason. As you say, just better motor control alone is worth putting electromechanical to rest.

  27. We may be bordering on hair splitting religion. There will always be a need for mechanical interfaces. However many “clever” mechanical functions that were once cheaper than electronic equivalents are being replaced. The mass scale electronics and miniaturization makes them ultimately cheaper. Furthermore, electronic systems have a wider margin for optimization compared to mechanical.

    The cycle begins where the mechanical is less expensive. Then because of assembly cost, the electronic no-moving part equivalent become less expensive. Eg. VHS was cheaper than DVD. But comparing the moving parts and mechanical complexity, DVDs became cheaper. Then the same happend in DVD vs SSD storage. At first DVD was less expensive but over time, we can optimize the manufacturing where non-moving part assembly is required. And now SSD storage is outpacing DVD and Blue-Ray.

  28. Since we are physical beings, there will always be a need for the physical. I don’t want to be digitized somehow and stored in a computer, even if that were a possibility. Even though the electronics will get better and rely less on the physical, there will always be that point of electronic-physical interface.

  29. There are two things in my life that immediately come to mind when talking about mechanical workings (levers etc) that control the electronics….and are still made today.
    1. Turntables. At the end of the record, when the tone arm raises. That mechanical action turns of the drive.
    2. Pool valves. When it gets to the end of it’s rotation, the cam hits a switch which shuts of the electric supply. (I’ve had to replace the micro switches a few times)

  30. 60s IBM card sorters. 70s robot computer tape libraries with auto feeding tape drives. And of course older pinball machines. Diesel-electric locomotives until recently to some extent, though pneumatic/mechanical did and still does some of what electromechanical would do had trains not become popular until the dawn of the 20th century.

  31. Join a First Robotics Competition (FRC) Team. Our robots still use a lot of mechanisms. They weigh 150 lbs and lift themselves off the ground. We throw things, pick things up, place things, and run around. Sometimes we even tip over. Haven’t designed a robot with a tape drive or hard drive though. But our 2020 robot could shoot an 8″ foam ball 68 ft.

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