Rotary Phones and the Birth of a Network

I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before the movie title  “Dial M for Murder” becomes mysterious to most of the population. After all, who has seen a dial phone lately? Sure, there are a few retro phones, but they aren’t in widespread use. It may not be murder, but it turns out that the dial telephone has its roots in death — or at least the business of death. But to understand why that’s true, you need to go back to the early days of the telephone.

Did you ever make a tin can phone with a string when you were a kid? That dates back to at least 1667. Prior to the invention of what we think of as the telephone, these acoustic phones were actually used for specialized purposes.

We all know that [Alexander Graham Bell] made a working telephone over a wire, drawing inspiration from the telegraph system. However, there’s a lot of dispute and many others about the same time were working on similar devices. It is probably more accurate to say that [Bell] was the first to successfully patent the telephone (in 1876, to be exact).

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Retrotechtacular: London Bus Overhaul

If you have ever visited London as a tourist, what memories did you take away as iconic of the British capital city? The sound of Big Ben sounding the hour in the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster perhaps, the Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London, or maybe the guardsmen at Buckingham Palace. Or how about the red double-decker buses? They’re something that, while not unique to the city, have certainly become part of its public image in a way that perhaps the public transport of other capitals hasn’t.

A city the size of London has many thousands of buses in the fleet required to provide transport to its sprawling suburbs. Until a few years ago the majority of these machines were built to a series of standard designs under the London Transport banner, so a Londoner with an eye for buses could have seen near-identical vehicles in any corner of the city. Each of these buses would have carried millions of passengers over hundreds of thousands of miles in a typical year, so many in fact that every few years they would have required a complete overhaul. For that task, London Transport maintained a dedicated factory capable of overhauling hundreds of buses simultaneously, and this factory is our subject today.

The overhaul works at Aldenham was the subject of a 1957 British Transport Films picture, Overhaul, in which we follow a bus in its journey through the system from tired-out to brand-new. We see the bus given a thorough inspection before being stripped of its upholstery and then having its body separated from its chassis and cleaned, then we see each part being refurbished. Along the way we gain a fascinating insight into the construction of a mid-century passenger transport vehicle, with its wooden frame and aluminium exterior panels being refurbished and rebuilt where necessary, before the camera. Meanwhile we see the chassis, with its separate gearbox in the centre of the vehicle, before it is painted to resist more years of road grime and reunited with a bus body. The completed vehicle is then taken for a test run before being sent to the paint shop for a coat of that iconic London Transport red. Enjoy the film in its entirety below the break.

The buses in the film are the AEC/London Transport “RT” vehicles, which entered service in the late 1930s and last ran in the 1970s. Their replacement, the visually similar “Routemaster” had only started to appear the previous year, and continued in regular service until 2005. Meanwhile the Aldenham bus overhaul works survived until its closure in 1986 due to the appearance of a range of new buses in the capital that did not conform to the standard design that it had been designed to serve.

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Game Like it is 1983

The first computer I ever physically saw — I think — was an IBM System/3. You might not remember them. They were business computers for businesses that couldn’t justify a big mainframe. They were “midrange.” Nevermind that the thing probably had the memory and processing speed of the CPU inside my mouse. Time progressed and IBM moved on to the System/3x (for example, the System/32). Next up was the AS/400 and finally the IBM i, which is still in production. Here’s a secret, though, most of the code I’ve seen running on an IBM i dates back to at least the System/3 days and maybe even before that.

If you are interested in history, or midrange computers (which are mainframe-like in their operation), you might want to actually play with a real machine. A quick glance at eBay tells me that you might be able to get something workable for about $1000. Maybe. That’s a bit much. What if you could get time on one for free? Turns out, you can.

The Cloud Option

Head over to and register for an account. This won’t be instant — mine took a day or two. The system is for educational purposes, so be nice and don’t use it for commercial purposes. You get 150MB of storage (actually, some of the documentation says 250MB, and I have not tested it). While you are waiting for your account, you’ll need to grab a 5250 terminal emulator and adjust your thinking, unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool IBM guy.

Even though the IBM i looks like an old 1970’s midrange, the hardware is quite modern with a 64-bit CPU (and the architecture can handle 128 bits) and well-known stability. However, the interface is, well, nostalgic.


Depending on your host computer, there are several IBM 5250 terminal programs available. They recommend tn5250 or tn5250j which use Java. However, I installed Mochasoft’s emulator into my Chrome browser. It is a 30-day free trial, but I figure in 30 days I’ll be over it, anyway.

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Retrotechtacular: DC to DC Conversion, Rotary Style

If you want to convert one voltage to another, what do you do? Well, if you are talking DC voltages today, you’ll probably use a DC to DC converter. Really, these converters generate some sort of AC waveform and then use either an inductor or a transformer to boost or buck the voltage as desired. Then they’ll convert it back to DC. If you are talking AC voltages, you could just use a transformer. But think about this: a transformer has two sides. The primary makes an alternating magnetic field. Just like rotating a shaft with magnets on it could. The secondary converts that alternating magnetic field into electricity just like a generator does. In other words, a transformer is just a generator that takes an AC input instead of a rotating mechanical input.

That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but in the old days, a lot of mobile radios (and other devices) took this idea to its logical conclusion. A M-G (Motor Generator) set was little more than a motor connected to a generator. The motor might take, say, 12V DC and the output could be, for example 300V AC that would get rectified for the plate voltage in a tube radio.

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Retrotechtacular: Reading and Sorting Mail Automatically

We often read about the minicomputers of the 1960s, and see examples of their use in university research laboratories or medium-sized companies where they might have managed the accounts. It’s tempting though to believe that much of the world in those last decades of the analogue era remained untouched by computing, only succumbing in the decade of the microcomputer, or of the widespread use of the Internet.

What could be more synonymous with the pre-computing age than the mail system? Hundreds of years of processing hand-written letters, sorted by hand, transported by horses, boats, railroads and then motor transport, then delivered to your mailbox by your friendly local postman. How did minicomputer technology find its way into that environment?

Thus we come to today’s film, a 1970 US Postal Service short entitled “Reading And Sorting Mail Automatically”. In it we see the latest high-speed OCR systems processing thousands of letters an hour and sorting them by destination, and are treated to a description of the scanning technology.

If a Hackaday reader in 2017 was tasked with scanning and OCR-ing addresses, they would have high-resolution cameras and formidable computing power at their disposal. It wouldn’t be a trivial task to get it right, but it would be one that given suitable open-source OCR software could be achieved by most of us. By contrast the Philco engineers who manufactured the Postal Service’s  scanners would have had to create them from scratch.

This they performed in a curiously analogue manner, with a raster scan generated by a CRT. First a coarse scan to identify the address and its individual lines, then a fine scan to pick out the line they needed. An optical sensor could then pick up the reflected light and feed the information back to the computer for processing.

The description of the OCR process is a seemingly straightforward one of recognizing the individual components of letters which probably required some impressive coding to achieve in the limited resources of a 1960s minicomputer. The system couldn’t process handwriting, instead it was reserved for OCR-compatible business mail.

Finally, the address lines are compared with a database of known US cities and states, and each letter is routed to the appropriate hopper. We are shown a magnetic drum data store, the precursor of our modern hard drives, and told that it holds an impressive 10 megabytes of data. For 1970, that was evidently a lot.

It’s quaint to see what seems to be such basic computing technology presented as the last word in sophistication, but the truth is that to achieve this level of functionality and performance with the technology of that era was an extremely impressive achievement. Sit back and enjoy the film, we’ve placed it below the break.

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Retrotechtacular: The Transistor (1953 Film)

If we cast our minds back to the early years of the transistor, the year that is always quoted is 1947, during which a Bell Labs team developed the first practical germanium point-contact transistor. They would go on to be granted the Nobel Prize for their work in 1956, but the universal adoption of their invention was not an instantaneous process. Instead there would be a gradual change from vacuum to solid state that would span the 1950s and the 1960s, and even in the 1970s you might still have found mainstream devices on sale containing vacuum tubes.

First point contact transistor via kasap3

To speed up this process, Bell Labs made every effort to publicize their invention. Thus we come to our subject today, their 1953 publicity film The Transistor, in which the electronics industry of the era is described and how each part of it might revolutionize by the transistor is laid out.

We start with a look at a selection of electronic components, among which are a few transistors. The point contact device is already described as superceded by the junction transistor, but as well as those two we are shown a phototransistor and a junction tetrode, a now-obsolete design that had two base connections.

Unexpectedly we don’t dive straight into the world of transistors, but take a look back at the earlier years of the century to the development of vacuum electronics. We’re taken through the early development  and operation of vacuum tubes, then their use in long-distance radio communications, through the advent of electronics in mass entertainment, and finally into the world of radar and microwave links. Only then do we return to the transistor, with a posed shot of [John Bardeen], [William Shockley], and [Walter Brattain] hard at work in a lab. The merits of the transistor as opposed to the tube are then set out, though we can’t help wondering whether they have confused a milliwatt and a microwatt when they describe the transistor as requiring only a millionth of a watt to operate.

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Retrotechtacular: Farming Implements in 1932

Few people would deny that farming is hard work. It always has been, and it probably always will be no matter how fancy the equipment gets. In 1932, farming was especially grueling. There was widespread drought throughout the United States, which gave rise to dust bowl conditions. As if those two things weren’t bad enough, the average income of the American farmer fell to its lowest point during the Depression, thanks to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

Even so, crop farming was still a viable and somewhat popular career path in 1932. After all, knowing how to grow food is always going to get you elected into your local post-apocalyptic council pretty quickly. As such, the John Deere Equipment Company released the 19th edition of their classic book, The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery. This book covers all of the various equipment a crop farmer needed to get from plough to bounty. The text gives equal consideration to horse-driven and tractor-driven farming implements, and there’s an entire chapter dedicated to tractor engine maintenance.

According to its preface, this book was used as an agricultural text in schools and work-study programs. It offers a full course in maintaining the all the (John Deere) equipment needed to work the soil, plant crops, cultivate, harvest, and manure in all parts of the country. The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery was so well-received that John Deere kept the book in publication for over thirty years. The 28th edition and final edition came out in 1957. We wonder why they would have stopped putting it out after all that time. Maybe it wasn’t profitable enough, or the company decided to phase out the shade tree tractor mechanic.

So why should you delve into a sorely outdated textbook about farm equipment? Well, it’s straightforwardly written and easy to learn from, whether you’re trying or not. You should check it out if you’re even remotely curious about the basics of farming. If for no other reason, you should go for the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and stay for the interesting tables and charts in the back. Did you know that a gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds?

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