Retrotechtacular: Operation Smash Hit

Judging by the number of compilations that have been put online, one of the not-so-secret vices of the YouTube generation must be the watching of crash videos. Whether it is British drivers chancing their luck on level crossings, Russians losing it at speed on packed snow, or Americans driving tall trucks under low bridges, these films exert a compelling fascination upon the viewing public intent on deriving entertainment from the misfortunes of others. The footage is often peripheral or grainy, having inevitably been captured by a dashcam or a security camera rather than centre-stage on a broadcast quality system with professional operation. You can’t predict when such things will happen.

There was one moment, back in 1984, when predicting a major crash was exactly what you could do. It was a national event, all over the TV screens, and one which was watched by millions. The operators of British nuclear power stations wished to stage a public demonstration of how robust their transport flasks for spent nuclear fuel rods were, so after all the lab tests they could throw at one they placed it on a railway test track and crashed a 100mph express train into it.

Water escaping during drop test.

This was as much a PR stunt as it was a scientific endeavour, and they lost no time in promoting it across all media. The film below the break was part of this effort, and takes us through the manufacture of the flask forged in one piece from huge billets of steel, before showing us the tests to which it was subjected. The toughest of these, a drop-test onto a corner of a fully laden flask, resulted in a small escape of the water contained within it. It was thus decided to conduct the ultimate test to ensure full public confidence in nuclear transport.

The Old Dalby test track is a section of a closed-to-passengers line in the English Midlands that was retained by British Railways as a proving ground for new locomotives. In the ultimate test of rail transport for nuclear waste, a flask was placed on its side across a piece of the track, and a train formed of a withdrawn 1960s locomotive and a short rake of 1950s carriages was accelerated without a driver over several miles to 100mph.

An instant before impact, we see the underside of the derailed car. The flask is between it and the locomotive.

[Nigel Harris] for Rail magazine wrote an almost funerial description of the destruction of locomotive 46009 25 years later in 2009, and as he reported the flask survived with only superficial damage and a tiny loss in pressure. The event was hailed as a success by the nuclear industry, before fading from the public consciousness as nuclear power station operators prefer to remain out of the news.

It is questionable how much the Old Dalby crash was for the cameras and the public, and how much it was for the scientists and engineers. But such destructive tests do serve as a means to gain vital test data that could not be harvested any other way, and have been performed more than once in the aviation industry. Later in the same year a Boeing 720 was crashed for science in the USA, while more recently in 2012 a Boeing 727 was crashed in Mexico.

Crashing an express train into a nuclear flask is something not likely to be seen again, it was a one-off event. But one thing’s for sure, our inability to turn away from watching a train wreck is nothing new. YouTube and ubiquitous cameras certainly make crashes available with a few keystrokes. But from the 1984 cask crash test, to the the spectacle of Crush, Texas back in 1896, the sheer power shown in these crashes seems to have a siren song effect on us.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Operation Smash Hit”

Retrotechtacular: A 180 GB Drive from 1994

Hard drive storage has gone through the roof in recent years. Rotating hard drives that can hold 16 terabytes of data are essentially available today, although pricey, and 12 terabyte drives are commonplace. For those who remember when a single terabyte was a lot of storage, the idea that you can now pick up a drive of that size for under $40 is amazing. Bear in mind, we are talking terabytes.

In 1994, that was an unimaginable amount of storage. Just a scant 24 years ago, though, you could get 90 gigabytes — 0.09 terabytes — if you didn’t mind buying an IBM mainframe and a RAMAC disk storage unit. You can see a promotional video digitized by, below. Just keep in mind that IBM has a long history of calling disk drives DASD — an acronym for Direct Access Storage Device. You pronounce that “dazz-dee”, as you’ll hear in the video.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: A 180 GB Drive from 1994”

Retrotechtacular: A Very British MagLev

When we look back to the 1970s it is often in a light of somehow a time before technology, a time when analogue was still king, motor vehicles had carburettors, and telephones still had rotary dials.

In fact the decade had a keen sense of being on the threshold of an exciting future, one of supersonic air travel, and holidays in space. Some of the ideas that were mainstream in those heady days didn’t make it as far as the 1980s, but wouldn’t look out of place in 2018.

The unlikely setting for todays Retrotechtacular piece is the Bedford Levels, part of the huge area of reclaimed farmland in the east of England known collectively as the Fens. The Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River are two straight parallel artificial waterways that bisect the lower half of the Fens for over 20 miles, and carry the flood waters of the River Ouse towards the sea. They are several hundred years old, but next to the Old Bedford River at their southern end are a few concrete remains of a much newer structure from 1970. They are all that is left of a bold experiment to create Britain’s first full-sized magnetic levitating train, an experiment which succeeded in its aim and demonstrated its train at 170 miles per hour, but was eventually canceled as part of Government budget cuts.

A track consisting of several miles of concrete beams was constructed during 1970 alongside the Old Bedford River, and on it was placed a single prototype train. There was a hangar with a crane and gantry for removing the vehicle from the track, and a selection of support and maintenance vehicles. There was an electrical pick-up alongside the track from which the train could draw its power, and the track had a low level for the hangar before rising to a higher level for most of its length.

After cancellation the track was fairly swiftly demolished, but the train itself survived. It was first moved to Cranfield University as a technology exhibit, before in more recent years being moved to the Railworld exhibit at Peterborough where it can be viewed by the general public. The dream of a British MagLev wasn’t over, but the 1980s Birmingham Airport shuttle was hardly in the same class even if it does hold the honour of being the world’s first commercial MagLev.

We have two videos for you below the break, the first is a Cambridge Archaeology documentary on the system while the second is a contemporary account of its design and construction from Imperial College. We don’t take high-speed MagLevs on our travels in 2018, but they provide a fascinating glimpse of one possible future in which we might have.

It does make one wonder: will the test tracks for Hyperloop transportation break the mold and find mainstream use or will we find ourselves 50 years from now running a Retrotechtacular on abandoned, vacuum tubes?

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: A Very British MagLev”

Retrotechtacular: The Best Jeep Commercial Ever

How often do we find ourselves thankful for advertising? When it comes to Hackaday’s Retrotechtacular column it’s actually quite often since it snapshots a moment in culture and technology. Today’s offering is a shining example, where we get a great look into vehicular utility of the day that is rarely seen in our modern lives.

The origin story of the Jeep is of course its prominence in World War II when more than half a million were produced. GIs who drove the vehicles constantly during the war greatly appreciated the reliability and versatility and wanted one for their own when returning home and a market rose up to satisfy that need. The modern equivalent would be the Hummer fad that started in the 1990’s. Humvee, the early ancestor of the Hummer, replaced the Jeep in the US military in the 1980’s and a version called Hummer entered the consumer market in ’92. But that was more of a comfort-meets-icon proposition, where the Jeep of the 1950’s (seen in the commercial below) delivered — even over delivered — on a promise of utility.

In this ad, the case is made for Jeep as farm implement, acting as plow, mower, even post hole digger. As a firefighting implement the announcer boasts that “One man with a Jeep can do the work of 100 men with shovels” by cutting fire breaks into the soil. It’s sold as the workhorse of cemeteries, ranches, county service crews, and anything else their marketing gurus could write into copy. We think the metrics are dubious but certainly the inexpensive build, versatile nature, and need for power equipment across the countryside brought these Jeeps into widespread rural and industrial service in myriad roles.

Power take off driving shaft to power circular saw. You can also see the hydraulics that lift and lower the saw.

What makes most of this possible is the existence of a power take-off (PTO). This is a mechanical connection from the engine of the vehicle to external components that can be switched out. Once connected, the speed of the engine can be controlled to adjust the power take-off operation. In conjunction with a hydraulic system that can lift and lower the implement, it becomes a remarkably versatile system. We begin to wonder the American vernacular includes the saying “it’s like the Swiss Army knife of…” rather than calling everything that’s insanely useful a Jeep.

Connect a pump to the PTO and you have a fire-fighting Jeep. Connect a generator and you can drive electric tools like the chainsaw used to cut down a tree in the video and to power an arc welder. There’s a gnarly-looking circular saw blade, and you’re going to spill your coffee when you get to the “Jeep-a-trench”. That’s right, a trenching attachment gives the vehicle’s suspension a rough workout. It boasts the ability to dig down six feet and complete the footings for an ordinary house in just three hours.

Willy’s MB, the company behind the Jeep must have employed a crew of hackers. What a blast it would have been to be in the research and development sessions to come up with 1,001 more uses for the equipment. The company has a bit of Jeep history you can peruse, but we’d really love to hear about the addon equipment ideas that didn’t make the cut. Are there any readers who have some stories along these lines? Let us know in the comments below.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Best Jeep Commercial Ever”

Retrotechtacular: AM Radios, Core Memory, And Color TV, What Was Hot In Chips In ’73

As part of writing tech stories such as those we feature here at Hackaday, there is a huge amount of research to be done.  We trawl through pages and pages of obscure blogs, videos, and data sheets. Sometimes we turn up resources interesting enough that we file them away, convinced that they contain the nucleus of another story at some point in the future.

Today’s topic of entertainment is just such a resource, courtesy of the Internet Archive. It’s not a video as we’d often provide you in a Retrotechtacular piece, instead it’s the February 1973 edition of the Fairchild Semiconductor Linear Integrated Circuits Catalog. Books like this one that could be had from company sales representatives were highly prized in the days before universal Internet access to data sheets, and the ink-on-paper datasheets within it provide a fascinating snapshot of the integrated electronics industry as it was 45 years ago.

The first obvious difference between then and now is one of scale, this is a single volume containing Fairchild’s entire range. At 548 pages it wouldn’t have been a slim volume by any means, but given that Fairchild were at the time one of the big players in the field it is unimaginable that the entire range of a 2018 equivalent manufacturer could be contained in the same way. Given that the integrated circuit was at the time an invention barely 15 years old, we are looking at an industry still in relative infancy.

The catalog has a series of sections with familiar headings: Operational amplifiers, comparators, voltage regulators, computer/interface, consumer, and transistor/diode arrays with analog switches. Any modern catalog will have similar headings, and there are even a few devices you will find have survived the decades. The μA741 op-amp (page 64) from its original manufacturer has not yet become a commodity product here, and it sits alongside familiar devices such as the μA7800 series (page 201) or μA723 (page 194) regulators.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: AM Radios, Core Memory, And Color TV, What Was Hot In Chips In ’73”

Retrotechtacular: 1950s Televisions Were Beasts

Television has been around for a long time, but what we point to and call a TV these days is a completely different object from what consumers first fell in love with. This video of RCA factory tours from the 1950s drives home how foreign the old designs are to modern eyes.

Right from the start the apparent chaos of the circuitry is mindboggling, with some components on circuit boards but many being wired point-to-point. The narrator even makes comments on the “new technique for making electrical connections” that uses a wire wrapping gun. The claim is that this is cleaner, faster, and neater than soldering. ([Bil Herd] might agree.) Not all of the methods are lost in today’s manufacturing though. The hand-stuffing and wave soldering of PCBs is still used on lower-cost goods, and frequently with power supplies (at least the ones where space isn’t at a premium).

It’s no surprise when talking about 60+ year-old-designs that these were tube televisions. But this goes beyond the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) that generates the picture. They are using vacuum tubes, and a good portion of the video delves into the manufacture and testing of them. You’ll get a glimpse of this at 3:20, but what you really want to see is the automated testing machine at 4:30. Each tube travels along a specialized conveyor where the testing goes so far as to give a  few automated whacks from corks on the ends of actuators. As the tube gauntlet progresses, we see the “aging” process (around 6:00) when each tube is run at 3-4 times the rated filament voltages. Wild!

There’s a segment detailing the manufacture of the CRT tubes as well, although these color tubes don’t seem to be for the model of TV being followed during the rest of the films. At about 7:07 they call them “Color Kinescopes”, an early name for RCA’s CRT technology.

During the factory tours we get the overwhelming feeling that this manufacturing is more related to automotive than modern electronic. These were the days when televisions (and radios) were more like pieces of furniture, and seeing the hulking chassis transported by hanging conveyors is just one part of it. The enclosure plant is churning out legions of identical wooden consoles. This begins at 11:55 and the automation shown is very similar to what we’d expect to see today. It seems woodworking efficiency was already a solved problem in the ’50s.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: 1950s Televisions Were Beasts”

Retrotechtacular: Field Assembling Airplanes Like Wartime “Ikea”

Imagine it’s 1943, and you have to transport 1,000 P-47 fighter planes from your factory in the United States to the front lines in Europe, roughly 5,000 miles over the open ocean. Flying them isn’t an option, the P-47 has a maximum range of only 1,800 miles, and the technology for air-to-air refueling of fighter planes is still a few years off. The Essex class aircraft carriers in use at this time could carry P-47s in a pinch, but the plane isn’t designed for carrier use and realistically you wouldn’t be able to fit many on anyway. So what does that leave?

It turns out, the easiest way is to simply ship them as freight. But you can’t exactly wrap a fighter plane up in brown paper and stick a stamp on it; the planes would need to be specially prepared and packed for their journey across the Atlantic. To get the P-47 inside of a reasonably shaped shipping crate, the wings, propeller, and tail had to come off and be put into a separate crate. But as any reader of Hackaday knows, getting something apart is rarely the problem, it’s getting the thing back together that’s usually the tricky part.

So begins the 1943 film “Uncrating and Assembly of the P-47 Thunderbolt Airplane which has been digitally restored and uploaded to YouTube by [Zeno’s Warbirds]. In this fascinating 40 minute video produced by the “Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics”, the viewer is shown how the two crates containing the P-47 are to be unpacked and assembled into a ready-to-fly airplane with nothing more than manpower and standard mechanic’s tools. No cranes, no welders, not even a hanger: just a well-designed aircraft and wartime ingenuity.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Field Assembling Airplanes Like Wartime “Ikea””