Retrotechtacular: Shake Hands With Danger

OK, you’re going to have to engage your safety squints and sit back to enjoy this one: a classic bit of safety propaganda from US heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar from 1980 entitled “Shake Hands with Danger.”

Actually, you’ll probably need to engage your schlock filters for this 23-minute film too, as both the writing and the theme song are pretty hard to take. The film is one of those “Scared Straight” attempts to show just how horrifically wrong things can go both in the field and in the shop when working on anything made of stuff stronger than human flesh and bone. And in that regard, the film is highly effective — we found ourselves getting a bit queasy at a few points, with the poor dude who got his hand sucked into a bench grinder being both terrifying and relatable. [Three-Finger Joe] indeed.

Now, you might take exception with the acting, but as you watch all these vignettes, keep in mind that these are all old-school stunts — that’s actually a gigantic D9 bulldozer they crashed, and that brake chamber explosion really blew out that truck’s windows. They did a great job making the potential consequences of a moment’s thoughtlessness sickeningly vivid. Especially that arm-in-the-linkages scene. Ugh.

Whatever way you practice the hacking arts, stay safe out there. And don’t “Shake Hands with Danger.”

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Retrotechtacular: The $5,000 40 Pound HP Classroom Computer

See if you can talk your local school district into buying a computer that costs about $5,000 and weighs 40 pounds. That was HP’s proposition to schools back in 1968 so really it is more like $35,000 today. The calculator had a CRT display for the RPN stack that you could mirror on a big screen. You could also get a printer or plotter add-on. Pretty hot stuff for the ’60s.

The 1970 videos promoting the HP 9100, posted by the [Computer History Archive Project], shows something we’d think of as a clunky calculator, although by the standards of the day it was a pretty good one with trig functions and a crude programming capability.

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Retrotechtacular: Forging In Closed Dies

It is the norm for our Retrotechtacular series to concentrate on a technology that has passed out of use but is still of interest to Hackaday readers, so it is perhaps unusual now to feature one that is very much still with us. Drop forging is a technique for forming hot metal in dies under huge force, and while it is still a current technique the 1950s educational film we are featuring is definitely retro.

An automotive connecting rod, sectioned and acid treated to show the grain structure. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
An automotive connecting rod, sectioned and acid treated to show the grain structure. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

If you have followed our occasional series on blacksmithing, you’ll be familiar with the process of forming metal by heating it to a temperature at which it becomes malleable enough to deform under pressure, and using a hammer to shape it against an anvil. This process not only shapes the metal, but also forms its inner grain crystal structure such that with careful management the forging process can impart significant resistance to fatigue in the finished item. Think of drop forging as automation of the manual blacksmithing process, with the same metallurgical benefits but in which the finished product is shaped in a series of dies rather than by the blacksmith’s hammer. It loses the craft of the smith over the process, but delivers an extremely consistent result along with a high production turnover.

The film that we’ve placed below the break is an in-depth introduction to the industry in a very period style and with components for the automotive, aerospace, and defense industries of the day. It takes the viewer through the different types of press and examines the design of dies to produce in stages the required grain structure and shapes.

Of particular interest is the section on upset forging, a technique in which a piece of steel stock is forged end-on rather from above. The components themselves make the video worth watching, as we see everything from jet turbine blades to medical forceps in production, along with many parts from internal combustion engines. The smallest piece shown is a tiny carburetor part, while the largest is a huge aircraft carrier catapult part that requires a special vehicle to load it into the press.

Drop forging is generally the preserve of a large metalworking factory due to the size of the presses involved. But it’s not entirely beyond the capabilities of our community given the resources of a well-equipped hackerspace or blacksmith’s shop. My father made simple forging dies by assembling a basic shape in weld and pieces of steel stock before grinding it to his requirements and heat treating. Mounted in a large rotary fly press for repetitive small scale shaping and forming tasks in ornamental ironwork, I remember bumping them out from red hot steel bar in my early teens.

This is one of those techniques that’s useful to know about in our community, because while the need to manufacture significant quantities of ornamental ironwork may not come your way too often, it’s still worth having the capability should you need it. Meanwhile the video below the break should serve to provide you with enough heavy machinery enjoyment to brighten your day.

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Retrotechtacular: The Nernst Lamp

After dominating the illumination market for more than a century, it’s easy to think of the glowing filament of the standard incandescent lamp as the only way people found to turn electricity into light. But plenty of fertile minds turned out alternative designs, one of which is the fascinating Nernst lamp, which we’d previously never heard of.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s likely through exposure to [Walther Nernst]’s equation for electrochemistry, or for his “New Heat Theorem” which eventually became the Third Law of Thermodynamics. Pal of [Einstein] and eventual Nobel laureate, [Nernst] was also a bit of a tinkerer, and he came up with a design for an incandescent lamp in 1897 that was twice as efficient as carbon-filament lamps. The video below, from the Edison Tech Center, details the design, which used a ceramic “glower rod” that would incandesce when current flowed through it. The glower, though, was not conductive until it was quite hot, so separate heater coils that gave the glower a start on the process were included; these were switched off by a relay built into the base of the lamp once the glower started conducting.

It’s a complicated design, but its efficiency, coupled with a better light spectrum and the fact that it didn’t need a vacuum bulb since the glower wouldn’t oxidize like a carbon or tungsten filament, gave it certain advantages that let it stake out a decent share of the early market for electric illumination. It was even the light source for one of the first facsimile machines. We find it a very clever use of what were at the time exotic materials, and wonder if this could have lead to something like vacuum tubes without the vacuum.

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Retrotechtacular: Wire Splicing The Army Way

For those of us who started experimenting with electricity when we were very young, one of the essential first skills was learning how to twist wires together. It seems like there’s not much to learn, but after a few failed attempts with nothing but your fingers, you learned a few tricks that are probably still with you to this day. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s an official US Army way to twist wires together, as this Signal Corps training film from 1941 shows.

Considering that the Signal Corps had nearly 80 years of experience with wiring battlefield communications at the outbreak of World War II, their methods were pretty solid, as were their materials. The film mainly concerns the splicing together of rolls of type W110-B field wire, used by the Signal Corps to connect command posts to forward positions, observation posts, and the rear echelons. More often than not laid directly upon the ground, the wire had to be tough, waterproof, and conductive enough that field telephone gear would still work over long loop lengths. As such, the steel-reinforced, rubber-and-fabric clad cable was not the easiest stuff to splice. Where we might cringe at the stresses introduced by literally tying a conductor in knots, it was all part of the job for the wire-laying teams that did the job as quickly as possible, often while taking enemy fire.

The film also has a section on splicing a new line into an existing, in-service circuit, using a T-splice and paying careful attention to the topology of the knots used, lest they come undone under stress. It’s fascinating how much thought was put into something as mundane as twisting wires, but given the stakes, we can appreciate the attention to detail.

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Retrotechtacular: Automotive Suspension Is All About Waves

In addition to driving home the need for Steadicam or Optical Image Stabilization, this eighty-year-old video illustrates some elegant solutions the automotive industry developed in their suspension systems. Specifically, this Chevrolet video from 1938 is aimed at an audience that values science and therefore the reel boils down the problem at hand using models that will remind you of physics class.

Model of a wheel with a leaf spring records the effect of a bump on a piece of paper above

The problem is uneven ground — the “waves in the Earth’s surface” — be it the terrain in an open field, a dirt road, or even a paved parkway. Any vehicle traveling those surfaces will face the challenge of not only cushioning for rough terrain, but accounting for the way a suspension system itself reacts to avoid oscillation and other negative effects. In the video this is boiled down to a 2-dimensional waveform drawn by a model which begins with a single tire and evolves to include a four wheeled vehicle with different suspension systems in the front and the rear.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the video is the explanation of how the car’s front suspension actually works. The wheels need to be able to steer the vehicle, while the suspension must also allow the tire to remain perpendicular to the roadway. This is shown in the image at the top of this article. Each wheel has a swing arm that allows for steering and for vertical movement of the wheel. A coil spring is used in place of the leaf springs shown in the initial model.

You probably know what’s coming next. The springs are capable of storing and releasing energy, and left to their own devices, they’ll dissipate the energy of a bump by oscillating. This is exactly what we don’t want. The solution is to add shock absorbers which limit how the springs perform. The waveforms drawn by the model encountering bumps are now tightly constrained to the baseline of flat ground.

This is the type of advertising we can wholeheartedly get behind. Product engineers of the world, please try to convince your marketing colleagues to show us the insides, tell us why the choices were made, and share the testing that helps users understand both how the thing works and why it was built that way. The last eighty years have brought myriad layers of complexity to most of the products that surround us, but human nature hasn’t changed; people are still quite curious to see the scientific principles in action all around us.

Make sure you don’t bomb out of the video before the very end. A true bit of showmanship, the desktop model of a car is recreated in a full-sized Chevy, complete with “sky-writing smoke” to draw the line. I don’t think it’s a true analog, but it’s certainly the kind of kitsch I always look for in a great Retrotechtacular subject.

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Retrotechtacular: Teasmade

We’re used to our domestic appliances being completely automated in 2020, but not so long ago they were much simpler affairs. Not everything required a human to run it though, an unexpected piece of electromechanical automation could be found in British bedrooms. This is the story of the Goblin Teasmade, an alarm clock with a little bit extra.

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