Retrotechtacular: Robots and Bowling Pins

On a recent bowling excursion it occurred to us that this is one of the most advanced robotics systems most Americans will directly interact with. That’s a bold claim today, but certainly one that was correct decades ago. Let’s take a stroll back to 1963 for a look at the state of the art in bowling at the time, the AMF automatic pinspotter.

With their basis in industrial automation, bowling was a perfect problem for the American Machine and Foundry company (AMF) to take on. Their business began at the turn of the 20th century with automated cigarette manufacturing before turning their sights on bowling pins after the second world war. The challenge involves more than you might think as pinspotters are confined to a narrow area and need to work with oddly-shaped pins, the bowling ball itself, and deal with setting up fresh frames but also clearing out the field after the first roll.

Separating the ball from the pins is handled by gravity and an oscillating plunger that pushes errant pins back onto a conveyor. That conveyor stretches the width of the lane and moves pins back to a pin elevator — a wheel moving perpendicular to the ground with orients and raises them to a swiveling conveyor belt that can drop them into the setting jig waiting for the next full frame setup.

Everything in this promo video has jargon which is just delightful. We especially enjoyed the non-mechanical mention of how the machine “clears dead wood from the pin deck”. We could watch this kind of automation all day, and in fact found some other gems while searching about. Here’s a more recent look a the AMF 82-70 (the same model as in the promo video). We also wondered about manual pinspotting and found this manual-with-mechanical-assist setup to be interesting despite the audio.

Much to our surprise we’ve featured AMF in a Retrotectacular article before. Once their bowling automation started to take off, they set their sights on restaurant automation. Looks like Brian Benchoff’s visit to the robo-hamburger joint was actually a retro experience!

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Retrotechtacular: Disposing of Sodium, 1947-Style

A high school friend once related the story about how his father, a chemist for an environmental waste concern, disposed of a problematic quantity of metallic sodium by dumping it into one of the more polluted rivers in southern New England. Despite the fact that the local residents were used to seeing all manner of noxious hijinx in the river, the resulting explosion was supposedly enough to warrant a call to the police and an expeditious retreat back to the labs. It was a good story, but not especially believable back in the day.

After seeing this video of how the War Department dealt with surplus sodium in 1947, I’m not so sure. I had always known how reactive sodium is, ever since demonstrations in chemistry class where a flake of the soft gray metal would dance about in a petri dish full of water and eventually light up for a few exciting seconds. The way the US government decided to dispose of 20 tons of sodium was another thing altogether. The metal was surplus war production, probably used in incendiary bombs and in the production of aluminum for airplanes. No longer willing to stockpile it, the government tried to interest industry in the metal, but to no avail due to the hazard and expense of shipping the stuff. Sadly (and as was often the case in those days), they just decided to dump it.

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Retrotechtacular: Here’s How They Programmed the EDSAC Computer

When you write a program for your computer, whether it is a desktop machine, a microcontroller, or a supercomputer, the chances are that you use software tools to help you get the job done. High level languages, compilers, linkers, assemblers, debuggers, and code libraries have become so integrated that in many cases you will barely be aware of their existence. To all intents and purposes this huge toolchain will be the computer. But the first computer programmers had none of these luxuries. They had to hand assemble their own binaries, check them by hand, and debug them by guessing what had happened when they failed.

EDSAC I, 1948, W.Renwick with 5 hole tape reader and Creed teleprinter. Copyright Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Reproduced by permission. [CC BY 2.0 UK]
EDSAC I, 1948, W.Renwick with 5 hole tape reader and Creed teleprinter. Copyright Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Reproduced by permission. [CC BY 2.0 UK]
EDSAC (Electronic delay storage automatic calculator) was the first computer operated by the University of Cambridge in the UK and one of the first few computers in the entire world when it was built in the late 1940s. It is the subject of the 1951 film you’ll find embedded below. Originally produced for a conference, the video sports a 1976 introduction and narration from the machine’s creator Professor Maurice Wilkes. It doesn’t take us through the design of the machine itself, instead it concentrates on the workflow required to program it.

The Paper-Heavy Process of Programming EDSAC

To illustrate the programming process, a committee of people who would now call themselves computer scientists, but probably then called themselves mathematicians, breaking a formula into subroutines before the code is laboriously hand assembled. The linking process is performed manually too by the secretary who types the code into a teletype for transfer to a punched tape. When a library function is required she reaches into a filing cabinet for the roll of tape containing it before running it through a tape duplicator to add it to the program. Finally the completed tape is checked and added to a job queue that consists of a row of hooks on the wall. Never complain that your toolchain is unwieldy again!

The original EDSAC was decommissioned in the late 1950s after serving the university and spawning a commercial version, the LEO, which became the first ever computer manufactured for use in commerce. That was not the end of the EDSAC story though, because in this century a team at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park set about recreating EDSAC as an exhibit. And as luck would have it a member of that team was at the recent Electromagnetic Field hacker camp to give a talk about their work which you will also find below.

Building a Faithful Reproduction of EDSAC

Tony Abbey gives us both a history of the machine and a description of its architecture, followed by a run through their efforts in rebuilding it. You may be surprised by some of the unexpected facts from the talk. For instance, while all the tubes used in the EDSAC are still available, their bases are not. Equivalents were sourced from China, but team members had to modify them with dental drills.

They also needed to manufact the 1940s-style tube chassis, and the solution to that problem happened to be just down the road. Bletchley is part of modern-day Milton Keynes, a post-war new town that is also home to another famous name: Marshall amplifiers. Tube amps are built in a surprisingly similar way, so they took on the manufactured challenge. Not all the parts of the new EDSAC are original though. The memory used mercury delay lines in 1949, but for 2018 recreation the computer has a delay line using nickel wire and modern components. Tony admits that even that has caused problems, and there is a simulator using a microcontroller.

You can see the restored EDSAC at the National Museum of Computing. We visited it in 2016, and you can read our review. Meanwhile if you are an FPGA wizard, you can even have a virtual EDSAC of your own.

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Retrotechtacular: The Iron Giants That Built The Jet Age

In the closing months of World War II, the Axis and the Allies were throwing everything they had at each other. The tide was turning to the Allies’ favor, but the Germans were showing a surprising resilience, at least in terms of replacing downed fighter and bomber aircraft. When the Allies examined the wreckage of these planes, they discovered the disturbing truth: the planes contained large pieces forged from single billets of metal, which suggested a manufacturing capability none of the Allies possessed and which allowed the Germans to quickly and cheaply make better and faster planes.

When the war was over, the Allies went looking for the tools the Germans had used to make their planes, and found massive closed-die forging presses that could squeeze parts out of aluminum and magnesium alloys in a single step. The Soviets carted off a 30,000 ton machine, while the Americans went home with a shipload of smaller presses and the knowledge that the Russians had an edge over them. Thus began the Heavy Press Program, an ultimately successful attempt by the US military to close a huge gap in strategic manufacturing capabilities that [Machine Thinking] details in the excellent video below.

One doesn’t instantly equate monstrous machines such as the Mesta 50,000-ton press, over nine stories tall with half of it buried underground and attached directly to bedrock, with airplane manufacture. But without it and similar machines that came from the program, planes from the B-52 to the Boeing 747 would have been impossible to build. And this isn’t dead technology by any means; sold to Alcoa in 1982 after having been operated by them for decades, the “Fifty” recently got a $100 makeover after cracks appeared in some castings, and the press and its retro-brethren are still squeezing out parts for fighters as recent as the F-35.

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Retrotechtacular: Constructing A Car Engine

Oxford is a city world-famous for its university, and is a must-see stop on the itinerary of many a tourist to the United Kingdom. It features mediaeval architecture, unspoilt meadows, two idylic rivers, and a car plant. That’s the part the guide books don’t tell you, if you drive a BMW Mini there is every chance that it was built in a shiny new factory on the outskirts of the historic tourist destination.

A 1930s Morris Ten Series II. Humber79 [CC BY-SA 3.0].
A 1930s Morris Ten Series II. Humber79 [CC BY-SA 3.0].
The origins of the Mini factory lie over the road on a site that now houses a science park but was once the location of the Morris Motors plant, at one time Britain’s largest carmaker. In the 1930s they featured in a British Pathé documentary film which we’ve placed below the break, part of a series on industry in which the production of an internal combustion engine was examined in great detail. The music and narration is charmingly of its time, but the film itself is not only a fascinating look inside a factory of over eight decades ago, but also an insight into engine manufacture that remains relevant today even if the engine itself bears little resemblance to the lump in your motor today.

Morris produced a range of run-of-the-mill saloon cars in this period, and their typical power unit was one of the four-cylinder engines from the film. It’s a sidevalve design with a three-bearing crank, and it lacks innovations such as bore liners. The metallurgy and lubrication in these engines was not to the same standard as an engine of today, so a prewar Morris owner would not have expected to see the same longevity you’d expect from your daily.

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Retrotechtacular: Car Navigation Like It’s 1971

Anyone old enough to have driven before the GPS era probably wonders, as we do, how anyone ever found anything. Navigation back then meant outdated paper maps, long detours because of missed turns, and the far too frequent stops at dingy gas stations for the humiliation of asking for directions. It took forever sometimes, and though we got where we were going, it always seemed like there had to be a better way.

Indeed there was, but instead of waiting for the future and a constellation of satellites to guide the way, some clever folks in the early 1970s had a go at dead reckoning systems for car navigation. The video below shows one, called Cassette Navigation, in action. It consisted of a controller mounted under the dash and a modified cassette player. Special tapes, with spoken turn-by-turn instructions recorded for a specific route, were used. Each step was separated from the next by a tone, the length of which encoded the distance the car would cover before the next step needed to be played. The controller was hooked to the speedometer cable, and when the distance traveled corresponded to the tone length, the next instruction was played. There’s a long list of problems with this method, not least of which is no choice in road tunes while using it, but given the limitations at the time, it was pretty ingenious.

Dead reckoning is better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from GPS navigation. If you’re still baffled by how that cloud of satellites points you to the nearest Waffle House at 3:00 AM, check out our GPS primer for the details.

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Retrotechtacular: Voice Controlled Robot from 1961

We like to think that all these new voice-controlled gadgets like our cell phones, Google Home, Amazon Echo, and all that is the pinnacle of new technology. Enabled by the latest deep learning algorithms, voice-controlled hardware was the stuff of science fiction back in the 1961s, right? Not really. Turns out in around 1960, Ideal sold Robot Commando, a kid’s toy robot that featured voice control.

Well, sort of. If you look at the ad in the video below, you’ll see that a kid is causing the robot to move and fire missiles by issuing commands into a microphone. How did some toy company pull this off in 1961?

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