Retrotechtacular: Studio Camera Operation, The BBC Way

If you ever thought that being a television camera operator was a simple job, this BBC training film on studio camera operations will quickly disabuse you of that notion.

The first thing that strikes you upon watching this 1982 gem is just how physical a job it is to stand behind a studio camera. Part of the physicality came from the sheer size of the gear being used. Not only were cameras of that vintage still largely tube-based and therefore huge — the EMI-2001 shown has four plumbicon image tubes along with tube amplifiers and weighed in at over 100 kg — but the pedestal upon which it sat was a beast as well. All told, a camera rig like that could come in at over 300 kg, and dragging something like that around a studio floor all day under hot lights had to be hard. It was a full-body workout, too; one needed a lot of upper-body strength to move the camera up and down against the hydropneumatic pedestal cylinder, and every day was leg day when you had to overcome all that inertia and get the camera moving to your next mark.

Operating a beast like this was not just about the bull work, though. There was a lot of fine motor control needed too, especially with focus pulling. The video goes into a lot of detail on maintaining a smooth focus while zooming or dollying, and shows just how bad it can look when the operator is inexperienced or not paying attention. Luckily, our hero Allan is killing it, and the results will look familiar to anyone who’s ever seen any BBC from the era, from Dr. Who to I, Claudius. Shows like these all had a distinctive “Beeb-ish” look to them, due in large part to the training their camera operators received with productions like this.

There’s a lot on offer here aside from the mechanical skills of camera operation, of course. Framing and composing shots are emphasized, as are the tricks to making it all look smooth and professional. There are a lot of technical details buried in the video too, particularly about the pedestal and how it works. There are also two follow-up training videos, one that focuses on the camera skills needed to shoot an interview program, and one that adds in the complications that arise when the on-air talent is actually moving. Watch all three and you’ll be well on your way to running a camera for the BBC — at least in 1982.

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Retrotechtacular: Crash Testing Truck Attenuators, For Science

There are those among us who might bristle at something from the early 1980s qualifying for “Retrotechtacular” coverage, but it’s been more than 40 years since the California Department of Transportation’s truck-mounted attenuators crash testing efforts, so we guess it is what it is.

If you’re worried that you have no idea what a “truck-mounted attenuator” might be, relax — you’ve probably seen these devices attached to the backs of trucks in highway work zones. They generally look like large boxes attached to frames at the rear of the truck which are intended to soften the blow should a car somehow not see the giant orange truck covered with flashing lights and drive into the rear of it at highway speeds. Truck-mounted attenuators are common today, but back in 1982 when this film was produced, the idea was still novel enough to justify crash-testing potential designs.

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Retrotechtacular: The $175,000 Laser Printer

Laser printers today are cheap and readily available. But in 1976, they were the height of printing technology. The IBM 3800 was the $175,000 printer to have in that year. (Video, embedded below.) But you couldn’t have one on your desktop. Even if you could afford it, the thing is the size of a car, and we don’t even want to guess what it weighs. The printer took tractor-fed continuous form paper and could do 167 pages a minute at about 150 dots per inch (actually 180 x 144). For the record, that was as much as 1.7 miles of paper an hour!

In those days, people who would use this printer traditionally had massive banks of noisy impact printers. We imagine this device saved many data processing person’s hearing. Compared to a modern laser printer, though, it needed a lot of maintenance. For example, the initial models needed a xenon flash lamp replaced every month, although later models could go years on one bulb. Looking at some of the hardware in the video, it was probably made closer to the end of life for these printers which were made through 1999.

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Retrotechtacular: How Communism Made Televisions

For those of us who lived through the Cold War, there’s still an air of mystery as to what it was like on the Communist side. As Uncle Sam’s F-111s cruised slowly in to land above our heads in our sleepy Oxfordshire village it was at the same time very real and immediate, yet also distant. Other than being told how fortunate we were to be capitalists while those on the communist side lived lives of mindless drudgery under their authoritarian boot heel, we knew nothing of the people on the other side of the Wall, and God knows what they were told about us. It’s thus interesting on more than one level to find a promotional film from the mid 1970s showcasing VEB Fernsehgerätewerk Stassfurt (German, Anglophones will need to enable subtitle translation), the factory which produced televisions for East Germans. It provides a pretty comprehensive look at how a 1970s TV set was made, gives us a gateway into the East German consumer electronics business as a whole, and a chance to see how the East Germany preferred to see itself.

Black and white photograph of a display of televisions displaying a DDR Deutsche Frensehfunk logo, with an attendant adjusting one of the sets.
The RFT range of televisions in the Städtisches Kaufhaus exhibition center for the 1968 Leipzig Spring Fair. Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The sets in question are not too dissimilar to those you would have found from comparable west European manufacturers in the same period, though maybe a few things such as the use of a tube output stage and the lack of integrated circuits hints at their being a few years behind the latest from the likes of Philips or ITT by 1975. The circuit boards are assembled onto a metal chassis which would have probably been “live” as the set would have derived its power supply by rectifying the mains directly, and we follow the production chain as they are thoroughly checked, aligned, and tested. This plant produces both colour and back-and-white receivers, and since most of what we see appears to be from the black-and-white production we’re guessing that here’s the main difference between East and West’s TV consumers in the mid ’70s.

The film is at pains to talk about the factory as a part of the idealised community of a socialist state, and we’re given a tour of the workers’ facilities to a backdrop of some choice pieces of music. References to the collective and some of the Communist apparatus abound, and finally we’re shown the factory’s Order of Karl Marx. As far as it goes then we Westerners finally get to see the lives of each genosse, but only through an authorised lens. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: How Communism Made Televisions”

Retrotechtacular: Building The First Computers For Banking

If you’ve ever wondered where the term “banker’s hours” came from, look back to the booming post-war economy of 1950s America. That’s when banks were deluged with so many checks, each of which had to be reconciled by hand, that they had to shut their doors at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, just to have a hope of getting all the work done at a reasonable time. It was time-consuming, laborious, error-prone work that didn’t scale well, and something had to be done about it.

The short film below, “Manufacturing Competence,” details the building of ERMA, the Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting. ERMA was the result of years of R&D work, and by the early 1960s, General Electric was gearing up production at its new Phoenix, Arizona plant. The process goes from bare metal racks and proceeds through to manufacturing the many modules needed for these specialized machines, which were perhaps the first commercial use of computers outside of universities and the military.

The sheer number of workers involved is astonishing, especially in backplane assembly, with long lines of women wielding wire-wrapping guns and following punch-tape instructions for the point-to-point connections. PCB stuffing was equally labor-intensive, with women stuffing boards from a handful of seemingly random components. And the precision needed for some of the steps, like weaving the ferrite core memory, was breathtaking. We really enjoyed the bit where the tiny toroids were bounced into place with a vibrating jig.

The hybrid nature of ERMA, and the assembly methods needed to produce it, are what strike us most about this film. The backplanes were wire-wrapped, but the modules were wave-soldered PCBs. Component leads were automatically formed and trimmed, but inserted by hand. Assembly and testing were directed by punched tape, but results were assessed by eye. Even ERMA itself was prototyped with vacuum tubes, but switched to transistors for production. The transitional nature of electronics in the early 1960s is on full display here, and it offers an interesting perspective on how change in this field can be simultaneously rapid and glacial.

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Retrotechtacular: The Computer Center Of 1973

You might expect Bell Labs would have state-of-the-art computers, and they did. But it is jarring to realize just how little that was in 1973, fifty years ago. If you started work at Bell’s Holmdel Computing Center back then, you might have watched one of the orientation videos below. Your first clue about how far things have come might be the reference to the IBM 370/165, which had “3 million bytes of core, 2 million of which are available for programmer use.” Even our laptops today have at least 8 gigabytes of RAM. There were at least two other smaller IBM 370s, too. Plenty of 029 card punches are visible.

If you were trying to run something between 8:00 AM and 5:30 PM, you had to limit your job run time to three minutes, 4,000 lines of output, and no more than 1,000 cards in and 5,000 cards out. Oh, and don’t use more than 384 kB of that core memory, either. If you fell within those limits, you could hand your card deck over at the express counter and get your results in only five or ten minutes. If you were not in the express line but still rated “premium” service, you could expect to wait a half hour.

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Retrotechtacular: Better Living Through A-Bombs

Usually, if you are listening to people debate about nuclear issues, it is one of two topics: how to deal with nuclear weapon stockpiles or if we want nuclear power plants in our backyard. But there was a time when the US and the USSR had more peaceful plans for nuclear bombs. While peaceful plans for nuclear bombs might sound like an oxymoron, there was somewhat of a craze for all things nuclear at some point, and it wasn’t clear that nuclear power and explosives wouldn’t take over many industries as the transistor did, or the vacuum tube before it.

You may have heard about Project (or Operation) Plowshare, the US effort to find a peaceful use for all those atom bombs. The Atomic Energy Commission video below touts the benefits “for all nations.” What benefits? Mostly moving earth, including widening the Panama Canal or creating a new canal, cutting highways through mountains, assisting mining and natural gas production, and creating an artificial harbor. There was also talk of using atomic blasts to create new materials and, of course, furthering the study of the atom.

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