When Hams Helped Polar Researchers Come In From The Cold

We always enjoy [The History Guy] videos, although many of them aren’t much about technology. However, when he does cover tech topics, he does it well and his recent video on how ham radio operators assisted in operation Deep Freeze is a great example. You can watch the video, below.

The backdrop is the International Geophysical Year (IGY) where many nations cooperated to learn more about the Earth. In particular, from 1957 to 1958 there was a push to learn more about the last unexplored corner of our planet: Antarctica. Several of the permanent bases on the icy continent today were started during the IGY.

It’s hard for modern audiences to appreciate what the state of personal communication was in 1957. There were no cell phones and if you are thinking about satellites, don’t forget that Sputnik didn’t launch until late 1957, so that wasn’t going to happen, either.

Operation Deep Freeze had ten U. S. Navy vessels that brought scientists, planes, and Seabees (slang for members of the Naval Construction Batallion) — about 1,800 people in all over several years culminating in the IGY. Of course, the Navy had radio capabilities, but it wasn’t like the Navy to let you just call home to chat. Not to mention, a little more than 100 people were left for each winter and the Navy ships went home. That’s where ham radio operators came in.

Hams would do what is called a phone patch for the people stationed in Antarctica. Some hams also send radiograms to and from the crew’s families. One teen named Jules was especially dedicated to making connections to Antarctica. We can’t verify it, but one commenter says that Jules was so instrumental in connecting his father in Antarctica to his fiancee that when his parents married, Jules was their best man.

Jules and his brother dedicated themselves to keeping a morale pipeline from New Jersey to the frozen stations. He figures prominently in recollections of many of the written accounts from people who wintered at the nascent bases. Apparently, many of the men even traveled to New Jersey later to visit Jules. What happened to him? Watch the end of the video and you’ll find out.

While being a ham today doesn’t offer this kind of excitement, hams still contribute to science. Want to get in on the action? [Dan Maloney] can tell you how to get started on the cheap.

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Kindle, EPUB, And Amazon’s Love Of Reinventing Wheels

Last last month, a post from the relatively obscure Good e-Reader claimed that Amazon would finally allow the Kindle to read EPUB files. The story was picked up by all the major tech sites, and for a time, there was much rejoicing. After all, it was a feature that owners have been asking for since the Kindle was first released in 2007. But rather than supporting the open eBook format, Amazon had always insisted in coming up with their own proprietary formats to use on their readers. Accordingly, many users have turned to third party programs which can reliably convert their personal libraries over to whatever Amazon format their particular Kindle is most compatible with.

Native support for EPUB would make using the Kindle a lot less of a hassle for many folks, but alas, it was not to be. It wasn’t long before the original post was updated to clarify that Amazon had simply added support for EPUB to their Send to Kindle service. Granted this is still an improvement, as it represents a relatively low-effort way to get the open format files on your personal device; but in sending the files through the service they would be converted to Amazon’s KF8/AZW3 format, the result of which may not always be what you expected. At the same time the Send to Kindle documentation noted that support for AZW and MOBI files would be removed later on this year, as the older formats weren’t compatible with all the features of the latest Kindle models.

If you think this is a lot of unnecessary confusion just to get plain-text files to display on the world’s most popular ereader, you aren’t alone. Users shouldn’t have to wade through an alphabet soup of oddball file formats when there’s already an accepted industry standard in EPUB. But given that it’s the reality when using one of Amazon’s readers, this seems a good a time as any for a brief rundown of the different ebook formats, and a look at how we got into this mess in the first place.

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Genaille’s Rods: When Paint Sticks Do Math

What is a hacker, if not somebody who comes up with solutions that other just don’t see? All the pieces may be in place, but it takes that one special person to view the pieces as greater than the sum of their parts. As [Chris Staecker] explains in the video below the break, Henri Genaille was one such person.

When French mathematician Edouard Lucas (himself well known for calculating the longest prime number found by hand) posed a mathematical problem at the French Academy, a French railway engineer named Henri Genaille developed the rods we’re discussing now.

Genaille’s Rods are designed to perform multiplication. But rather than require computation by the user, the rods would simply need to be laid out in the correct order. The solution could readily be found by just following the lines in the correct pattern. This might sound a lot like cheating, and that’s exactly what it is. No manual math needed to be done. Genaille also created rods for doing long division, which we’re sure were every bit as enthralling as the multiplication rods. Demonstrations of both are included in the video below.

While Genaille’s Rods have gone the way of the slide rule, we can’t help but wonder how many engineers and scientists carried around a set of marked up wooden sticks in their pocket protector.

If designing and building manual mathematical machines is something that you think really adds up to a good time, check out this post on how to design and build your own circular slide rule!

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The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Turns 40

It’s an auspicious moment for retrocomputing fans, as it’s now four decades since the launch of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This budget British microcomputer was never the best of the bunch, but its runaway success and consequent huge software library made it the home computer to own in the UK. Here in 2022 it may live on only in 1980s nostalgia, but its legacy extends far beyond that as it provided an entire generation of tech-inclined youngsters with an affordable tool that would get them started on a lifetime of computing.

What Was 1982 Really Like?

Cover of Sincalir User, Sir Clive Sinclair as a magician
Sinclair User issue 3 captures the excitement surrounding the Spectrum launch.

There’s a popular meme among retro enthusiasts that the 1980s was a riot of colour, pixel artwork, synth music, and kitschy design. The reality was of growing up amid the shabby remnants of the 1970s with occasional glimpses of an exciting ’80s future. This was especially true for a tech-inclined early teen, as at the start of 1982 the home computer market had not yet reached its full mass-market potential. There were plenty of machines on offer but the exciting ones were the sole preserve of adults or kids with rich parents. Budget machines such as Sinclair’s ZX81 could give a taste of what was possible, but their technical limitations would soon become obvious to the experimenter.

1982 was going to change all that, with great excitement surrounding three machines. Here in the UK, the Acorn BBC Micro had been launched in December ’81, the Commodore 64 at the start of ’82, and here was Sinclair coming along with their answer in the form of first the rumour of a ZX82, and then the reality in the form of the Spectrum.

This new breed of machines all had a respectable quantity of memory, high-res (for the time!) colour graphics, and most importantly, sound. The BBC Micro was destined to be the school computer of choice and the 64 was the one everybody wanted, but the Spectrum was the machine you could reasonably expect to get if you managed to persuade your parents how educational it was going to be, because it was the cheapest at £125 (£470 in today’s money, or about $615). Continue reading “The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Turns 40”

Copper: Rectifying AC A Century Ago

[Robert Murray-Smith] presents for us an interesting electronic device from years gone by, before the advent of Silicon semiconductors, the humble metal oxide rectifier. After the electronic dust had settled following the brutal AC/DC current wars of the late 19th century — involving Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse to name a few of the ringleaders — AC was the eventual winner. But there was a problem. It’s straightforward to step down the high voltage AC from the distribution network to a more manageable level with a transformer, and feed that straight into devices which can consume alternating current such as light bulbs and electrical heaters. But other devices really want DC, and to get that, you need a rectifier.

It turns out, that even in those early days, we had semiconductor devices which could perform this operation, based not upon silicon or germanium, but copper. Copper (I) Oxide is a naturally occurring P-type semiconductor, which can be easily constructed by heating a copper sheet in a flame, and scraping off the outer layer of Copper (II) Oxide leaving the active layer below. Simply making contact to a piece of steel is sufficient to complete the device.

Obviously a practical rectifier is a bit harder to make, with a degree of control required, but you get the idea. A CuO metal rectifier can rectify as well as operate as a thermopile, and even as a solar cell, it’s just been forgotten about once we got all excited about silicon.

Other similar metallic rectifiers also saw some action, such as the Selenium rectifier, based on the properties of a Cadmium Selenide – Selenium interface, which forms an NP junction, albeit one that can’t handle as much power as good old copper. One final device, which was a bit of an improvement upon the original CuO rectifiers, was based upon a stack of Copper Sulphide/Magnesium metal plates, but they came along too late. Once we discovered the wonders of germanium and silicon, it was consigned to the history books before it really saw wide adoption.

We’ve covered CuO rectifiers before, but the Copper Sulphide/Magnesium rectifier is new to us. And if you’re interested in yet more ways to steer electrons in one direction, checkout our coverage of the history of the diode.

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Commodore C64: The Most Popular Home Computer Ever Turns 40

This year marks the anniversary of the most popular selling home computer ever, the Commodore 64, which made its debut in 1982. Note that I am saying “home computer” and not personal computer (PC) because back then the term PC was not yet in use for home computer users.

Some of you have probably not heard of Commodore, which is kind of sad, though there is a simple reason why — Commodore is no longer around to maintain its legacy. If one were to watch a documentary about the 1980s they may see a picture of an Apple computer or its founders but most likely would not see a picture of a Commodore computer in spite of selling tens of millions of units.

To understand the success of the C64 I would first back up and talk about the fabled era of home computers which starts with understanding the microprocessor of the day, the venerable 6502. Check out the video and follow along below.

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Less Is More — Or How To Replace A $25,000 Bomb Sight For 20 Cents

Depending on who you ask, the Norden bombsight was either the highest of high tech during World War II, or an overhyped failure that provided jobs and money for government contractors. Either way, it was super top secret in its day. It was also expensive. They cost about $25,000 each and the whole program came in at well over a billion dollars. The security was over the top. When not flying, the bombsight was removed from the plane and locked in a vault. There was a pyro device that would self-destruct the unit if it were in danger of being captured. So why did one of the most famous missions of World War II fly with the Norden replaced by 20 cents worth of machined metal? Good question.

You often hear the expression “less is more” and, in this case, it is an accurate idea. I frequently say, though, that “just enough is more.” In this case, though, less was actually just enough. There were three reasons that one famous mission in the Pacific theater didn’t fly the Norden. It all had to do with morale, technology, and secrecy.

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