Spy Tech: Tiny Spy Plane Becomes Cold War Prize

What looks like something famous, is much smaller, and is embroiled in a web of cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigue? It sounds like the answer could be Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies, but we were actually thinking of the D-21 supersonic spy drone. Never heard of it? It didn’t have a very long service life, but it was a tiny little unmanned SR-71 and is part of a spy story that would fit right in with James Bond, if not Austin Powers.

The little plane had a wingspan of only 19 feet — compared to the SR-71’s 56 foot span — and was 42 feet long. It could fly at about Mach 3.3 at 95,000 feet and had a range of around 3,500 miles. It shared many characteristics with its big brother including the use of titanium and a design to present a low RADAR cross-section.

The Spy Who Photographed Me

With today’s global economy and increased international cooperation, it is hard to remember just how tense the late 1960s were. Governments wanted to see what other governments were up to. Satellite technology would eventually fill that role, but even though spy satellites first appeared in 1959, they used film that had to be retrieved by an airplane as it fell from the sky and then processed. Not exactly real time. More effective satellites would have to wait for better imaging technology — see the video below for just how bad those old satellite images were. That left spy planes to do the bulk of the work.

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Making A Mediaeval Nail

If for some reason I were to acknowledge the inevitability of encroaching middle age and abandon the hardware hacker community for the more sedate world of historical recreation, I know exactly which band of enthusiasts I’d join and what period I would specialise in. Not for me the lure of a stately home in Regency England or the Royal court of Tudor London despite the really cool outfits, instead I would head directly for the 14th century and the reign of King Edward the Third, to play the part of a blacksmith’s wife making nails. It seems apposite to pick the year 1337, doesn’t it.

The woman blacksmith forging a nail depicted in the Holkham Bible. British Library (Public domain)
The woman blacksmith forging a nail depicted in the Holkham Bible. British Library (Public domain)

Why am I so sure? To answer that I must take you to the British Library, and open the pages of the Holkham Bible. This is an illustrated book of Biblical stories from the years around 1330, and it is notable for the extent and quality of its illuminations. All of mediaeval life is there, sharply observed in beautiful colour, for among the Biblical scenes there are contemporary images of the people who would have inhabited the world of whichever monks created it. One of its more famous pages is the one that caught my eye, because it depicts a woman wearing a blacksmith’s apron over her dress while she operates a forge. She’s a blacksmith’s wife, and she’s forging a mediaeval carpenter’s nail. The historians tell us that this was an activity seen as women’s work because the nails used in the Crucifixion were reputed to have been forged by a woman, and for that reason she is depicted as something of an ugly crone. Thanks, unknown mediaeval monk, you really don’t want to know how this lady blacksmith would draw you!
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Before Computers: Notched Card Databases

It is hard to remember that practical computers haven’t been around for even a century, yet. Modern computers have been around an even shorter period. Yet somehow people computed tables, kept ledgers, and even wrote books without any help from computers at all. Sometimes they just used brute force but sometimes they used little tricks that we’ve almost forgotten. For example, only a few of us remember how to use slide rules, but they helped send people to the moon. But what did database management look like in, say, 1925? You might think it was nothing but a filing cabinet and someone who knew how to find things in it. But there was actually a better system that had fairly wide use.

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An Evening With Space Shuttle Atlantis

When I got the call asking if I’d be willing to fly down to Kennedy Space Center and cover an event, I agreed immediately. Then about a week later, I remembered to call back and ask what I was supposed to be doing. Not that it mattered, I’d gladly write a few thousand words about the National Crocheting Championships if they started holding them at KSC. I hadn’t been there in years, since before the Space Shuttle program had ended, and I was eager to see the exhibit created for the fourth member of the Shuttle fleet, Atlantis.

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned that the event Hackaday wanted me to cover, the Cornell Cup Finals, would culminate in a private viewing of the Atlantis exhibit after normal park hours. After which, the winners of the competition would be announced during a dinner held under the orbiter itself. It promised to be a memorable evening for the students, a well deserved reward for the incredible work they put in during the competition.

Thinking back on it now, the organizers of the Cornell Cup and the staff at Kennedy Space Center should truly be commended. It was an incredible night, and everyone I spoke to felt humbled by the unique experience. There was a real, palpable, energy about it that you simply can’t manufacture. Of course, nobody sitting under Atlantis that night was more excited than the students. Though I may have come in as a close second.

I’ll admit it was somewhat bittersweet to see such an incredible piece of engineering turned into a museum piece; it looked as if Atlantis could blast off for another mission at any moment. But there’s no denying that the exhibit does a fantastic job of celebrating the history and accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program. NASA officially considers the surviving Shuttle orbiters to be on a “Mission of Inspiration”, so rather than being mothballed in a hangar somewhere in the desert, they are out on display where the public can get up close and personal with one of humanities greatest achievements. Judging by the response I saw, the mission is going quite well indeed.

If you have the means to do so, you should absolutely make the trip to Cape Canaveral to see Atlantis and all the other fascinating pieces of space history housed at KSC. There’s absolutely no substitute for seeing the real thing, but if you can’t quite make the trip to Florida, hopefully this account courtesy of your humble scribe will serve to give you a taste of what the exhibit has to offer.

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Biological Hacking In The 19th Century Or How The World Almost Lost Wine

While it isn’t quite universal, a lot of people enjoy a glass of wine now and again. But the world faced a crisis in the 1800s that almost destroyed some of the world’s great wines. Science — or some might say hacking — saved the day, even though it isn’t well known outside of serious oenophiles. You might wonder how biological hacking occurred in the 19th century. It did. It wasn’t as fast or efficient, but fortunately for wine drinkers, it got the job done.

When people tell me about new cybersecurity threats, I usually point out that cybercrime isn’t new. People have been stealing money, tricking people into actions, and impersonating other people for centuries. The computer just makes it easier. Even computing itself isn’t a new idea. Counting on your fingers and counting with electrons is just a matter of degree. Surely, though, mashing up biology is a more recent scientific advancement, right? While it is true that CRISPR can make editing genes a weekend garage project, people have been changing the biology of plants and animals for centuries using techniques like selective breeding and grafting. Not as effective, but sometimes effective enough.

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Zork And The Z-Machine: Bringing The Mainframe To 8-bit Home Computers

Computer games have been around about as long as computers have. And though it may be hard to believe, Zork, a text-based adventure game, was the Fortnite of its time. But Zork is more than that. For portability and size reasons, Zork itself is written in Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), makes heavy use of the brand-new concept of object-oriented programming, and runs on a virtual machine. All this back in 1979. They used every trick in the book to pack as much of the Underground Empire into computers that had only 32 kB of RAM. But more even more than a technological tour de force, Zork is an unmissable milestone in the history of computer gaming. But it didn’t spring up out of nowhere.

DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module
DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module

The computer revolution had just taken a fierce hold during the second World War, and showed no sign of subsiding during the 1950s and 1960s. More affordable computer systems were becoming available for purchase by businesses as well as universities. MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) was fortunate to have ties to ARPA, which gave MIT’s LCS and AI labs (formerly part of Project MAC) access to considerable computing resources, mostly in the form of DEC PDP systems.

The result: students at the MIT Dynamic Modeling Group (part of LCS) having access to a PDP-10 KA10 mainframe — heavy iron at the time. Though this PDP-10 was the original 1968 model with discrete transistor Flip Chip modules and wire-wrapping, it had been heavily modified, adding virtual memory and paging support to expand the original 1,152 kB of core memory. Running the MIT-developed Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) OS, it was a highly capable multi-user system.

Naturally, it got mostly used for playing games.
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Twenty Five Years Since The End Of Commodore

This week marks the twenty-five year anniversary of the demise of Commodore International. This weekend, pour one out for our lost homies.

Commodore began life as a corporate entity in 1954 headed by Jack Tramiel. Tramiel, a Holocaust survivor, moved to New York after the war where he became a taxi driver. This job led him to create a typewriter repair shop in Bronx. Wanting a ‘military-style’ name for his business, and the names ‘Admiral’ and ‘General’ already taken, and ‘Lieutenant’ simply being a bad name, Tramiel chose the rank of Commodore.

Later, a deal was inked with a Czechoslovakian typewriter manufacture to assemble typewriters for the North American market, and Commodore Business Machines was born. Of course, no one cares about this pre-history of Commodore, for the same reason that very few people care about a company that makes filing cabinets. On the electronics side of the business, Commodore made digital calculators. In 1975, Commodore bought MOS, Inc., manufacturers of those calculator chips. This purchase of MOS brought Chuck Peddle to Commodore as the Head of Engineering. The calculators turned into computers, and the Commodore we know and love was born.

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