For those of us who lived through the Cold War, there’s still an air of mystery as to what it was like on the Communist side. As Uncle Sam’s F-111s cruised slowly in to land above our heads in our sleepy Oxfordshire village it was at the same time very real and immediate, yet also distant. Other than being told how fortunate we were to be capitalists while those on the communist side lived lives of mindless drudgery under their authoritarian boot heel, we knew nothing of the people on the other side of the Wall, and God knows what they were told about us. It’s thus interesting on more than one level to find a promotional film from the mid 1970s showcasing VEB Fernsehgerätewerk Stassfurt (German, Anglophones will need to enable subtitle translation), the factory which produced televisions for East Germans. It provides a pretty comprehensive look at how a 1970s TV set was made, gives us a gateway into the East German consumer electronics business as a whole, and a chance to see how the East Germany preferred to see itself.
The sets in question are not too dissimilar to those you would have found from comparable west European manufacturers in the same period, though maybe a few things such as the use of a tube output stage and the lack of integrated circuits hints at their being a few years behind the latest from the likes of Philips or ITT by 1975. The circuit boards are assembled onto a metal chassis which would have probably been “live” as the set would have derived its power supply by rectifying the mains directly, and we follow the production chain as they are thoroughly checked, aligned, and tested. This plant produces both colour and back-and-white receivers, and since most of what we see appears to be from the black-and-white production we’re guessing that here’s the main difference between East and West’s TV consumers in the mid ’70s.
The film is at pains to talk about the factory as a part of the idealised community of a socialist state, and we’re given a tour of the workers’ facilities to a backdrop of some choice pieces of music. References to the collective and some of the Communist apparatus abound, and finally we’re shown the factory’s Order of Karl Marx. As far as it goes then we Westerners finally get to see the lives of each genosse, but only through an authorised lens. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: How Communism Made Televisions”→
If you’ve ever wondered where the term “banker’s hours” came from, look back to the booming post-war economy of 1950s America. That’s when banks were deluged with so many checks, each of which had to be reconciled by hand, that they had to shut their doors at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, just to have a hope of getting all the work done at a reasonable time. It was time-consuming, laborious, error-prone work that didn’t scale well, and something had to be done about it.
The short film below, “Manufacturing Competence,” details the building of ERMA, the Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting. ERMA was the result of years of R&D work, and by the early 1960s, General Electric was gearing up production at its new Phoenix, Arizona plant. The process goes from bare metal racks and proceeds through to manufacturing the many modules needed for these specialized machines, which were perhaps the first commercial use of computers outside of universities and the military.
The sheer number of workers involved is astonishing, especially in backplane assembly, with long lines of women wielding wire-wrapping guns and following punch-tape instructions for the point-to-point connections. PCB stuffing was equally labor-intensive, with women stuffing boards from a handful of seemingly random components. And the precision needed for some of the steps, like weaving the ferrite core memory, was breathtaking. We really enjoyed the bit where the tiny toroids were bounced into place with a vibrating jig.
The hybrid nature of ERMA, and the assembly methods needed to produce it, are what strike us most about this film. The backplanes were wire-wrapped, but the modules were wave-soldered PCBs. Component leads were automatically formed and trimmed, but inserted by hand. Assembly and testing were directed by punched tape, but results were assessed by eye. Even ERMA itself was prototyped with vacuum tubes, but switched to transistors for production. The transitional nature of electronics in the early 1960s is on full display here, and it offers an interesting perspective on how change in this field can be simultaneously rapid and glacial.
You might expect Bell Labs would have state-of-the-art computers, and they did. But it is jarring to realize just how little that was in 1973, fifty years ago. If you started work at Bell’s Holmdel Computing Center back then, you might have watched one of the orientation videos below. Your first clue about how far things have come might be the reference to the IBM 370/165, which had “3 million bytes of core, 2 million of which are available for programmer use.” Even our laptops today have at least 8 gigabytes of RAM. There were at least two other smaller IBM 370s, too. Plenty of 029 card punches are visible.
If you were trying to run something between 8:00 AM and 5:30 PM, you had to limit your job run time to three minutes, 4,000 lines of output, and no more than 1,000 cards in and 5,000 cards out. Oh, and don’t use more than 384 kB of that core memory, either. If you fell within those limits, you could hand your card deck over at the express counter and get your results in only five or ten minutes. If you were not in the express line but still rated “premium” service, you could expect to wait a half hour.
Usually, if you are listening to people debate about nuclear issues, it is one of two topics: how to deal with nuclear weapon stockpiles or if we want nuclear power plants in our backyard. But there was a time when the US and the USSR had more peaceful plans for nuclear bombs. While peaceful plans for nuclear bombs might sound like an oxymoron, there was somewhat of a craze for all things nuclear at some point, and it wasn’t clear that nuclear power and explosives wouldn’t take over many industries as the transistor did, or the vacuum tube before it.
You may have heard about Project (or Operation) Plowshare, the US effort to find a peaceful use for all those atom bombs. The Atomic Energy Commission video below touts the benefits “for all nations.” What benefits? Mostly moving earth, including widening the Panama Canal or creating a new canal, cutting highways through mountains, assisting mining and natural gas production, and creating an artificial harbor. There was also talk of using atomic blasts to create new materials and, of course, furthering the study of the atom.
The average modern cruise ship takes about 250 tons or 80,000 gallons of fuel daily. But can you imagine a cruise ship capable of circling the globe fourteen times before it needed to top off? That was the claim for the NS Savannah, a nuclear-powered cruise ship born out of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative.
The ship was a joint project of several government agencies, including the US Maritime Administration. With a maiden cruise in 1962, the vessel cost a little more than $18 million to build, but the 74-megawatt nuclear reactor added nearly $30 million to the price tag. The ship could carry 60 passengers, 124 crew, and over 14,000 tons of cargo around 300,000 nautical miles using one set of 32 fuel elements. What was it like onboard? The video below gives a glimpse of nuclear cruising in the 1960s.
There was a time when the very idea of building a complex circuit with the intention of destroying it would have been anathema to any electrical engineer. The work put into designing a circuit, procuring the components, and assembling it, generally with point-to-point wiring and an extravagant amount of manual labor, only to blow it up? Heresy!
But, such are the demands of national defense, and as weapons morphed into “weapon systems” after World War II, the need arose for electronics that were not only cheap enough to blow up but also tough enough to survive the often rough ride before the final bang. The short film below, simply titled “Potted and Printed Circuits“, details the state of the art in miniaturization and modularization of electronics, circa 1952. It was produced by the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), the main electronics R&D entity in the UK during the war which was responsible for inventions such as radar, radio navigation, and jamming technology.
Here at Hackaday, our aim is to bring you only the freshest of hacks, which carries the burden of being Johnny-on-the-spot with our source material. So if something of obvious interest to our readers goes viral, we might just choose to skip covering it ourselves, figuring you all have probably seen it already. But, if we can dig a little deeper and bring extra value over and above what the viral content provides — well then that’s another story.
That’s pretty much the story behind the excellent video recently released by [Real Engineering] about “The Secret Weapon That Changed World War 2.” It concerns the VT series of proximity fuzes — it’s a legitimate alternate spelling of “fuse” if a somewhat archaic one — that were used for artillery shells and spin-stabilized rockets in World War II. The video gives an excellent overview of the development of the VT, which was used primarily in anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). The details about the development of the American VT fuze are excellent, although curiously there’s no mention that British experiments with a radio proximity fuze were part of the goldmine of information brought to America at great risk by the Tizard mission in 1940. While there has been plenty of contention about the exact role the British work played, it’s fair to say that it at least informed the development and fielding of the American VT fuze.