Books You Should Read: The Cuckoo’s Egg

 

The mid-1980s were a time of drastic change. In the United States, the Reagan era was winding down, the Cold War was heating up, and the IBM PC was the newest of newnesses. The comparatively few wires stitching together the larger university research centers around the world pulsed with a new heartbeat — the Internet Protocol (IP) — and while the World Wide Web was still a decade or so away, The Internet was a real place for a growing number of computer-savvy explorers and adventurers, ready to set sail on the virtual sea to explore and exploit this new frontier.

In 1986, having recently lost his research grant, astronomer Clifford Stoll was made a computer system admin with the wave of a hand by the management of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s physics department. Commanded to go forth and administer, Stoll dove into what appeared to be a simple task for his first day on the job: investigating a 75-cent error in the computer account time charges. Little did he know that this six-bit overcharge would take over his life for the next six months and have this self-proclaimed Berkeley hippie rubbing shoulders with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the German Bundeskriminalamt, all in pursuit of the source: a nest of black-hat hackers and a tangled web of international espionage.

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Spy Tech: Stealing a Moon Probe

Ever hear of the Soviet Luna program? In the west, it was often called Lunik, if you heard about it at all. Luna was a series of unmanned moon probes launched between 1959 and 1976. There were at least 24 of them, and 15 were successful. Most of the failures were not reported or named. Luna craft have a number of firsts, but the one we are interested in is that it may have been the first space vehicle to be stolen — at least temporarily — in a cold war caper worthy of a James Bond novel.

Luna-1 Payload

Around 1960, the Soviet Union toured several countries with exhibits of their industrial and technological accomplishments. One of the items on display was the upper stage of a Luna vehicle with windows cut out to show the payload inside. At first, the CIA suspected the vehicle was just a model. But they wanted to be sure.

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Retrotechtacular: Weather Station Kurt

Sometimes when researching one Hackaday story we as writers stumble upon the one train of thought that leads to another. So it was with a recent look at an unmanned weather station buoy from the 1960s, which took us on a link to a much earlier automated weather station.

The restored Kurt in the Canadian National War Museum.
The restored Kurt in the Canadian National War Museum.

Weather Station Kurt was the only successful installation among a bold attempt by the German military during the Second World War to gain automated real-time meteorological data from the Western side of the Atlantic. Behind that simple sentence hides an extremely impressive technical and military achievement for its day. This was the only land-based armed incursion onto the North American continent by the German military during the entire war. Surrounded as it was though by secrecy, and taking place without conflict in an extremely remote part of Northern Labrador, it passed unnoticed by the Canadian authorities and was soon forgotten as an unimportant footnote in the wider conflagration.

Kurt took the form of a series of canisters containing a large quantity of nickel-cadmium batteries, meteorological instruments, a telemetry system, and a 150W high frequency transmitter. In addition there was a mast carrying wind speed and direction instruments, and the transmitting antenna. In use it was to have provided vital advance warning of weather fronts from the Western Atlantic as they proceeded towards the European theatre of war, the establishment of a manned station on enemy territory being too hazardous.

A small number of these automated weather stations were constructed by Siemens in 1943, and it was one of them which was dispatched in the U-boat U537 for installation on the remote Atlantic coast of what is now part of modern-day Canada. In late October 1943 they succeeded in that task after a hazardous trans-Atlantic voyage, leaving the station bearing the markings of the non-existent “Canadian Meteor Service” in an attempt to deceive anybody who might chance upon it. In the event it was not until 1977 that it was spotted by a geologist, and in 1981 it was retrieved and taken to the Canadian War Museum.

There is frustratingly little information to be found on the exact workings on the telemetry system, save that it made a transmission every few hours on 3940kHz. A Google Books result mentions that the transmission was encoded in Morse code using the enigmatic Graw’s Diaphragm, a “sophisticated contact drum” named after a Dr. [Graw], from Berlin. It’s a forgotten piece of technology that defies our Google-fu in 2017, but it must in effect have been something of a mechanical analogue-to-digital converter.

Should you happen to be visiting the Canadian capital, you can see Kurt on display in the Canadian War Museum. It appears to have been extensively restored from the rusty state it appears in the photograph taken during its retrieval, it would be interesting to know whether anything remains of the Graw’s Diaphragm. Do any readers know how this part of the station worked? Please let us know in the comments.

Weather station Kurt retrieval image, Canadian National Archives. (Public domain).

Weather station Kurt in museum image, SimonP (Public domain).

Computers That Never Were

Today it is easier than ever to learn how to program a computer. Everyone has one (and probably has several) and there are tons of resources available. You can even program entirely in your web browser and avoid having to install programming languages and other arcane software. But it wasn’t always like this. In the sixties and seventies, you usually learned to program on computers that didn’t exist. I was recently musing about those computers that were never real and wondering if we are better off now with a computer at every neophyte’s fingertips or if somehow these fictional computing devices were useful in the education process.

Back in the day, almost no one had a computer. Even if you were in the computer business, the chances that you had a computer that was all yours was almost unheard of. In the old days, computers cost money — a lot of money. They required special power and cooling. They needed a platoon of people to operate them. They took up a lot of space. The idea of letting students just run programs to learn was ludicrous.

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Retrotechtacular: Radio to Listen to When you Duck and Cover

CONELRAD may sound like the name of a fictional android, but it is actually an acronym for control of electronic radiation. This was a system put in place by the United States at the height of the cold war (from 1951 to 1963) with two purposes: One was to disseminate civil defense information to the population and, also, to eliminate radio signals as homing beacons for enemy pilots.

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Retrotechtacular: Hacking Wartime Mail

I’m guessing you got quite a few e-mails today. But have you ever had a v-mail? That sounds like some new term for video e-mail, but it actually dates back to World War II. If you are in Europe, the term was Airgraph — not much more descriptive.

If you make a study of war, you’ll find one thing. Over the long term, the winning side is almost always the side that can keep their troops supplied. Many historians think World War II was not won by weapons but won by manufacturing capability. That might not be totally true, but supplies are critical to a combat force. Other factors like tactics, doctrine, training, and sheer will come into play as well.

On the other hand, morale on the front line and the home front is important, too. Few things boost morale as much as a positive letter from home. But there’s a problem.

While today’s warfighter might have access to a variety of options to communicate with those back home, in World War II, communications typically meant written letters. The problem is ships going from the United States to Europe needed to be full of materials and soldiers, not mailbags. With almost two million U.S. soldiers in the European Theater of Operations, handling mail from home was a major concern.

British Mail Hack

The British already figured out the mail problem in the 1930s. Eastman Kodak and Imperial Airways (which would later become British Airways) developed the Airgraph system to save weight on mail-carrying aircraft.  Airgraph allowed people to write soldiers on a special form. The form was microfilmed and sent to the field. On the receiving end, the microfilm was printed and delivered as regular mail.

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Ben Franklin’s Weak Motor and Other Forgotten Locomotion

Most of the electric motors we see these days are of the electromagnetic variety, and for good reason: they’re powerful. But there’s a type of motor that was invented before the electromagnetic one, and of which there are many variations. Those are motors that run on high voltage, and the attraction and repulsion of charge, commonly known as electrostatic motors.

Ben Franklin — whose electric experiments are most frequently associated with flying a kite in a thunderstorm — built and tested one such high-voltage motor. It wasn’t very powerful, but was good enough for him to envision using it as a rotisserie hack. Food is a powerful motivator.

What follows is a walk through the development of various types of these motors, from the earliest ion propelled ones to the induction motors which most have never heard of before, even an HV hacker such as yours truly.

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