Retrotechtacular: The Free Piston Engine

We all know how a conventional internal combustion engine works, with a piston and a crankshaft. But that’s by no means the only way to make an engine, and one of the slightly more unusual alternatives comes to us courtesy of a vintage Shell Film Unit film, The Free Piston Engine, which we’ve placed below the break. It’s a beautiful period piece of mid-century animation and jazz, but it’s also  an introduction to these fascinating machines.

We’re introduced to the traditional two-stroke diesel engine as thermally efficient but not smooth-running, and then the gas turbine as smooth but much more inefficient. The free piston engine, a design with opposed pistons working against compressed air springs and combining both compression and firing strokes in a single axis, doesn’t turn anything  in itself, but instead works as a continuous supplier of high pressure combustion gasses. The clever part of this arrangement is that these gasses can then turn the power turbine from a gas turbine engine, achieving a smooth engine without compromising efficiency.

This sounds like a promising design for an engine, and we’re introduced to a rosy picture of railway locomotives, ships, factories, and power stations all driven by free piston engines. Why then, here in 2024 do we not see them everywhere? A quick Google search reveals an inordinately high number of scientific review papers about them but not so many real-world examples. In that they’re not alone, for alternative engine designs are one of those technologies for which if we had a dollar for every one we’d seen that didn’t make it, as the saying goes, we’d be rich.

It seems that the problem with these engines is that they don’t offer the control over their timing that we’re used to from more conventional designs, and thus the speed of their operation also can’t be controlled. The British firm Libertine claim to have solved this with their line of linear electrical generators, but perhaps understandably for commercial reasons they are a little coy about the details. Their focus is on free piston engines as power sources for hybrid electric vehicles, something which due to their small size they seem ideally suited for.

Perhaps the free piston engine has faced its biggest problem not in the matter of technology but in inertia. There’s an old saying in the computer industry: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM“, meaning that the conventional conservative choice always wins, and it’s fair to guess that the same applies anywhere a large engine has been needed. A conventional diesel engine may be a complex device with many moving parts, but it’s a well-understood machine that whoever wields the cheque book feels comfortable with. That’s a huge obstacle for any new technology to climb. Meanwhile though it offers obvious benefits in terms of efficiency, at the moment its time could have come due to environmental concerns, any internal combustion engine has fallen out of fashion. It’s possible that it could find a life as an engine running on an alternative fuel such as hydrogen or ammonia, but we’re not so sure. If new free piston engines do take off though, we’ll be more pleased than anyone to eat our words.

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A man standing next to a log holds a wooden mallet and a grey froe with a wooden handle. The froe's long straight blade sits atop the end of the log. Several cuts radiate out from the center of the log going through the length of the wood.

Making Wooden Shingles With Hand Tools

While they have mostly been replaced with other roofing technologies, wooden shingles have a certain rustic charm. If you’re curious about how to make them by hand, [Harry Rogers] takes us through his friend [John] making some.

There are two primary means of splitting a log for making shingles (or shakes). The first is radial, like one would cut a pie, and the other is lateral, with all the cuts in the same orientation. Using a froe, the log is split in progressively smaller halves to control the way the grain splits down the length of the log and minimize waste. Larger logs result in less waste and lend themselves to the radial method, while smaller logs must be cut laterally. Laterally cut shingles have a higher propensity for warping and other issues, but will work when larger logs are not available.

Once the pieces are split out of the log, they are trimmed with an axe, including removing the outer sapwood which is the main attractant for bugs and other creatures that might try eating your roof. Once down to approximately the right dimensions, the shingle is then smoothed out on a shave horse with a draw knife. Interestingly, the hand-made shingles have a longer lifespan than those sawn since the process works more with the grain of the wood and introduces fewer opportunities for water to seep into the shingles.

If you’re looking for something more solarpunk and less cottagecore for your house, maybe try a green solar roof, and if you’ve got a glass roof, try cleaning it with the Grawler.

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Retrotechtacular: Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid Of A Nuclear Bomb

It may seem a bit obvious to say so, but when a munition of just about any kind is designed, little thought is typically given to how to dispose of it. After all, if you build something that’s supposed to blow up, that pretty much takes care of the disposal process, right?

But what if you design something that’s supposed to blow up only if things go really, really wrong? Like nuclear weapons, for instance? In that case, you’ll want to disassemble them with the utmost care. This 1993 film, produced by the US Department of Energy, gives a high-level overview of nuclear weapons decommissioning at the Pantex plant in Texas. Fair warning: this film was originally on a VHS tape, one that looks like it sat in a hot attic for quite a few years before being transferred to DVD and thence to YouTube. So the picture quality is lousy, in some points nearly unwatchably so. Then again, given the subject matter that may be a feature rather than a bug.

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Retrotechtacular: The Master Hands Of The Early Automotive Industry

When motion pictures came along as a major medium in the 1920s or so, it didn’t take long for corporations to recognize their power and start producing promotional pieces. A lot of them are of the “march of progress” genre, featuring swarms of workers happy in their labors and creating the future with their bare hands. If we’re being honest, a lot of it is hard to watch, but “Master Hands,” which shows the creation of cars in the 1930s, is somehow more palatable, mostly because it’s mercifully free of the flowery narration that usually accompanies such flicks.

“Master Hands” was produced in 1936 and focuses on the incredibly labor-intensive process of turning out cars, which appear to be the Chevrolet Master Deluxe, likely the 1937 model year thanks to its independent front suspension. The film is set at General Motors’ Flint Assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, and shows the entire manufacturing process from start to finish. And by start, we mean start; the film begins with the meticulous work of master toolmakers creating the dies and molds needed for forging and casting every part of the car. The mold makers and foundrymen come next, lighting their massive furnaces and packing the countless sand molds needed for casting parts. Gigantic presses stamp out everything from wheels to frame rails to body panels, before everything comes together at the end of the line in a delicate ballet of steel and men.

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Retrotechtacular: Rebuilding A Fire-Ravaged Telephone Exchange

Those who haven’t experienced the destruction of a house fire should consider themselves lucky. The speed with which fire can erase a lifetime of work — or a life, for that matter — is stunning. And the disruption a fire causes for survivors, who often escape the blaze with only the clothes on their backs, is almost unfathomable. To face the task of rebuilding a life with just a few smoke-damaged and waterlogged possessions while wearing only pajamas and slippers is a devastating proposition.

As bad as a residential fire may be, though, its impact is mercifully limited to the occupants. Infrastructure fires are another thing entirely; the disruption they cause is often felt far beyond the building or facility involved. The film below documents a perfect example of this: the 1975 New York Telephone Exchange fire, which swept through the company’s central office facility at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan and cut off service to 300 blocks of the East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods.

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Animated gif of large 1950s computer spitting out a sheet of paper.

Retrotechtacular: 1960s Doc Calls Computers The Universal Machine

It’s weird to think that an abacus would have still been used sixty years ago, or so posits the documentary series The Computer and the Mind of Man. This six part series originally aired on San Francisco local television station KQED in 1962, a time where few people outside of academia had even stood next to such a device.

Episode 3 titled “The Universal Machine” was dedicated to teaching the public how a computer can enhance every type of business provided humans can sufficiently describe it in coded logic. Though mainly filtered through IBM’s perspective as the company was responsible for funding the set of films; learning how experts of the time contextualized the computer’s potential was illuminating.

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Retrotechtacular: The Gunsmith Of Williamsburg

A modern firearm is likely to be mass-produced using high-precision machine tools, and with a uniformity to the extent that parts from one can be interchanged with those from another. This marks a progression of centuries of innovation, in gunsmithing, in machine tooling, and in metallurgy. In the 18th century there was little of the innovations found in a modern weapon, and a rifle would have been made entirely by hand through the work of a master gunsmith. The video below the break is a fascinating 1969 film following Wallace Gusler, the gunsmith at the museum town of Williamsburg, Virginia, as he makes an 18th-century muzzle-loading flintlock rifle from raw materials. It’s a long video, but it leaves nothing out and has a really informative commentary we’re told from the gunsmith himself.

The film opens with a piece of wrought iron being forged into a long strip. We’ve talked about wrought iron as a difficult-to-find blacksmith’s material before here, so this immediately makes us curious as to what material the current Williamsburg gunsmiths use. The strip is formed round a mandrel and laboriously forge-welded to form a rough tube, before being bored with a series of drills and then rifled with a toothed slug. The finishing is done by had with a file, with the rough tube being filed to an octagonal shape. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Gunsmith Of Williamsburg”