Historical Hackers: Ctesibius Tells Time

People are obsessed with the time and the weather. We’ve talked about the weather since we were all cave dwellers hunting with spears. But the time is a different matter. Sure, people always had the idea of the passage of time. The sun rising and setting gives a natural sense of days, but daylight and dark periods vary by the time of year and to get an accurate and linear representation of time turns out to be rather difficult. That is unless you are a Greek engineer living in Alexandria around 250 BC.

Legend has it that and engineer working in his father’s barbershop led him to discover not only the first working clock, but also the pipe organ, launching the field of pneumatics in the process. That engineer was named Ctesibius and while his story is mostly forgotten, it shows he has a place as a historical hacker.

You might think there were timekeeping devices before 250 BC, and that’s sort of true. However, the devices before Ctesibius had many limitations. For example, a sundial can tell time, but only if the sun is shining. At night or during a storm it is worthless.

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Mariner 4: Our First Up-Close Look At Mars

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t all that long ago that the entire body of knowledge of our solar system was built solely with Earth-based observations. Turning first their naked eyes to the heavens, and then a succession of increasingly complex and sensitive optical and radio telescopes gathering light from all across the spectrum, our astronomically curious forbears did a commendable job working out the broad strokes of what’s going on in the neighborhood.

But there’s only so much information that can be gathered by instruments operating at the bottom of a roiling ocean of air, so when the opportunity to send instruments to our planetary neighbors began to be possible some 60 years ago, scientists started planning how to accomplish it. What resulted was the Mariner program, a series of interplanetary probes launched between 1962 and 1973 that performed flyby missions of the inner planets.

The list of accomplishments of the Mariner program is long indeed, and the number of firsts achieved by its ten spacecraft is impressive. But it is Mariner 4, the first flyby mission of Mars, which set the stage for a lot of the science being done on and around Mars today, and the first mission where NASA wisely took a “pics or it didn’t happen” approach to planetary science. It was the first time a TV camera had traveled to another world, and it was anything but a sure bet that it would pay dividends.

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History Of Closed Captions: Entering The Digital Era

When you want to read what is being said on a television program, movie, or video you turn on the captions. Looking under the hood to see how this text is delivered is a fascinating story that stared with a technology called Closed Captions, and extended into another called Subtitles (which is arguably the older technology).

I covered the difference between the two, and their backstory, in my previous article on the analog era of closed captions. Today I want to jump into another fascinating chapter of the story: what happened to closed captions as the digital age took over? From peculiar implementations on disc media to esoteric decoding hardware and a baffling quirk of HDMI, it’s a fantastic story.

There were some great questions in the comments section from last time, hopefully I have answered most of these here. Let’s start with some of the off-label uses of closed captioning and Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI) data.

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Technical Audacity And The Phone Book

I often think we — or maybe the people who control our money — lack the audacity to take on really big projects. It is hard to imagine laying the transatlantic cable for the first time today, for example. When I want a good example of this effect, I usually say something like: “Can you imagine going to a boardroom of a major company today and saying, ‘We plan to run wire to every house and business in the world and connect them all together.'” Yet that’s what the phone company did. But it turns out, running copper wire everywhere was only one major challenge for the phone company. The other was printing phone directories. In today’s world, it is easy to imagine a computer system that keeps track of all the phone numbers that can spit out a printed version for duplication. But that’s a relatively recent innovation. How did big city phonebooks work before the advent of the computer?

Turns out, the Saturday Evening Post talked about how it all worked in a 1954 article. We aren’t sure there weren’t some computerized records by 1954, but the whole process was still largely manual. By that year, an estimated 60,000,000 directories went out each year in the United States alone. Some of these were small, but the Chicago directory — not including suburban directories — had over 2,100 pages. In New York City, the solution was to print a separate book for each borough. Even then. the Manhattan book was three inches thick and projected to grow to five inches by 1975.

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Historical Hackers: Emergency Antennas Launched By Kite

Your airplane has crashed at sea. You are perched in a lifeboat and you need to call for help. Today you might reach for a satellite phone, but in World War II you would more likely turn a crank on a special survival radio.

These radios originated in Germany but were soon copied by the British and the United States. In addition to just being a bit of history, we can learn a few lessons from these radios. The designers clearly thought about the challenges stranded personnel would face and came up with novel solutions. For example, how do you loft a 300-foot wire up to use as an antenna? Would you believe a kite or even a balloon?

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The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna

On July 4th, 1976, as Americans celebrated the country’s bicentennial with beer and bottle rockets, a strong signal began disrupting shortwave, maritime, aeronautical, and telecommunications signals all over the world. The signal was a rapid 10 Hz tapping that sounded like a woodpecker or a helicopter thup-thupping on the roof. It had a wide bandwidth of 40 kHz and sometimes exceeded 10 MW.

This was during the Cold War, and plenty of people rushed to the conclusion that it was some sort of Soviet mind control scheme or weather control experiment. But amateur radio operators traced the mysterious signal to an over-the-horizon radar antenna near Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) and they named it the Russian Woodpecker. Here’s a clip of the sound.

The frequency-hopping Woodpecker signal was so strong that it made communication impossible on certain channels and could even be heard across telephone lines when conditions were right. Several countries filed official complaints with the USSR through the UN, but there was no stopping the Russian Woodpecker. Russia wouldn’t even own up to the signal’s existence, which has since been traced to an immense antenna structure that is nearly half a mile long and at 490 feet, stands slightly taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This imposing steel structure stands within the irradiated forest near Pripyat, an idyllic town founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers. Pictured above is the transmitter, also known as Duga-1, Chernobyl-2, or Duga-3 depending on who you ask. Located 30 miles northeast of Chernobyl, on old Soviet maps the area is simply labeled Boy Scout Camp. Today, it’s all within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

It was such a secret that the government denied it’s existence, yet was being heard all over the world. What was this mammoth installation used for?

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The Soviet RBMK Reactor: 35 Years After The Chernobyl Disaster

Thirty-five years ago, radiation alarms went off at the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden. After an investigation, it was determined that the radiation did not come from inside the plant, but from somewhere else. Based on the prevailing winds at that time, it was ultimately determined that the radiation came from inside Soviet territory. After some political wrangling, the Soviet government ultimately admitted that the Chernobyl nuclear plant was the source, due to an accident that had taken place there.

Following the disaster, the causes have been investigated in depth so that we now have a fairly good idea of what went wrong. Perhaps the most important lesson taught by the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster is that it wasn’t about one nuclear reactor design, one control room crew, or one totalitarian regime, but rather the chain of events which enabled the disaster of this scale.

To illustrate this, the remaining RBMK-style reactors — including three at the Chernobyl plant — have operated without noticeable issues since 1986, with nine of these reactors still active today. During the international investigation of the Chernobyl plant disaster, the INSAG reports repeatedly referred to the lack of a ‘safety culture’.

Looking at the circumstances which led to the development and subsequent unsafe usage of the Chernobyl #4 reactor can teach us a lot about disaster prevention. It’s a story of the essential role that a safety culture plays in industries where the cost of accidents is measured in human life.

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