The humble incandescent lightbulb is an invention just about anyone born in the 20th Century is more than familiar with. But it’s not the be all and end all of lighting technology – there are neon lights, compact fluorescent bulbs, and even LEDs are finally being adopted for interior lighting. But with the endless march forward, there are vintage throwbacks to the past – how many hipster cafes have you been to lately with great big industrial-looking filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling?
However, that’s not all history has to give us. These gas discharge bulbs from yesteryear are absolute works of art.
The bulbs contain delicate floral sculptures in metal, coated with phosphor, and the bulbs are filled with neon or argon gas. Applying mains voltage to the electrodes inside the bulb causes the phospor to fluoresce, creating a glowing flower that is hauntingly beautiful.
These bulbs were manufactured by the Aerolux Light Company, from the 1930s to the 1970s. Once upon a time, they could be had for as little as 20 cents a bulb – nowadays you’re likely to pay over $50 on eBay or Etsy. The bulbs work by the glow discharge effect, not at all dissimilar to garden variety neon lamps.
While it’s not easy, it is possible to make your own vacuum tubes. Maybe it’s time to order some phospor powder and a tank of neon and get to work? Be sure to document your attempt on Hackaday.io.
They just don’t write promotional film scripts like they used to: “These men are design engineers. They are about to engage a new breed of computer, called Graphic 1, in a dialogue that will test the ingenuity of both men and machine.”
This video (embedded below) from Bell Labs in 1968 demonstrates the state of the art in “computer graphics” as the narrator calls it, with obvious quotation marks in his inflection. The movie ranges from circuit layout, to animations, to voice synthesis, hitting the high points of the technology at the time. The soundtrack, produced on their computers, naturally, is pure Jetsons.
Does everyone watch a load of videos on YouTube that are somewhat on the unadmissibly geeky side? In my case I might not care to admit that I have a lot of videos featuring tractors in my timeline. The mighty Russian Kirovets hauling loads through the impossible terrain of the taiga, tiny overloaded 2WD tractors in India pulling wheelies, and JCB Fastracs tearing around the British Fenland. You can take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.
So my recommendations have something of an agricultural flavor. Like the video below the break, a 1917 silent film promoting the Ford Model B tractor. This one was eye-catching because it was a machine I’d not seen before, a rather unusual three-wheeler design with two driving wheels at the front and a single rear steering wheel.
During the early years of the twentieth century the shape of the modern tractor was beginning to evolve, this must have been a late attempt at an alternative. Speaking from the viewpoint of someone who has operated a few tractors in her time it does not look the easiest machine to control, that cloud of exhaust smoke surrounding the driver would not be pleasant, and the operating position hanging over the implement coupling at the rear does not look particularly comfortable or safe.
The film has a charming period feel, and tells the tale of a farmer’s son who tires of the drudgery of manual farm labor, and leaves for the city. He finds a job at the tractor factory and eventually becomes a tractor salesman, along the way meeting and marrying the daughter of a satisfied customer. He returns home with his bride, and a shiny new tractor to release his father from ceaseless labor. Along the way we gain a fascinating look at agriculture on the brink of mass mechanization, as well as the inside of a tractor factory of the time with an assembly sequence in which they appear to use no fasteners.
All of this is very interesting, but the real nugget in the story lies with its manufacturer. This is a Ford Model B tractor. But it’s not a Ford Model B. Confused? So, it seems were the customers. The Ford we all know is the Michigan-based motor company of Henry Ford, who were already very much a big name in 1917. This Ford however comes from the Ford Tractor Co, of South Dakota, an enterprise set up by a shady businessman to cash in on the Ford brand, manufacturing an already outdated and inferior machine backed up by dubious claims of its capabilities.
On the staff was an engineer called Ford who lent his name to the company, but he bore no relation to Henry Ford. The company didn’t last long, collapsing soon after the date of this film, and very few of its products survived. It did have one legacy though, the awful quality of one of its tractors is reputed to have been the impetus behind the founding of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory, the place where if you sell a tractor in the USA, you’ll have to have it tested to ensure it performs as it should. In their museum they house one of the few surviving Ford Model B tractors.
Meanwhile the Ford in Michigan produced their own very successful line of tractors, and their Fordson Model F from the same year is a visible ancestor of today’s machines. But as the video below shows, there’s nothing new about a fake.
Those of you with long memories and a compulsive TV viewing habit might remember [Max Headroom], a quirky piece of TV ephemera from the late 1980s and early 1990s. [Max] was a supposedly computer generated TV show host and VJ with a pseudomechanical stutter, a slightly blocky rendered head, and a moving background of rendered lines. He looks a little quaint for viewers with a few decades viewing experience of CGI, but in his day he was cutting-edge cypberpunk TV.
If you were a bored British teenager and future Hackaday writer vegging out in front of your parents’ TV on an April night in 1985, you’d have caught [Max]’s genesis. He strung upon us by rising out of a title screen full of static in the Channel 4 TV movie [Max Headroom]: 20 Minutes into the Future.
The plot is a trip in itself. An investigative journalist seeking to uncover the sinister owners of his network (they run speeded-up adverts with the unfortunate side-effect of causing overweight viewers to explode) is pursued, causing a road accident in which he is injured by a collision with a safety barrier. Hence the name: [Max Headroom]. The network try to cover it up by producing a computerized facsimilie of the reporter which turns out to be an embarassing failure. They scrap the computer and it falls into the hands of a pirate TV station operating from a decrepit campervan, the Alphabetti-eating proprietor of which turns the character it contains into a TV sensation. Meanwhile the reporter escapes, recovers, and prevails over the villains.
The [Max] character proved to be something of a hit, with a TV spin-off series, VJing, adverts, and more. But that wasn’t the whole story of his appearances, back to that unexplained hack of Chicagoland TV.
On the night of the 22nd of November 1987, viewers of WGN were watching a sports program when the screen went blank and they were treated to a few seconds of a slightly home-made [Max Headroom] dancing in front of those trademark moving lines. A couple of hours later on WTTW a rerun of a [Doctor Who] episode was again interrupted with the same fake [Max], this time speaking for a while before, if his performance wasn’t already bizarre enough, being spanked by a woman whose face is off camera.
As a piece of television history it’s an intriguing mystery, though since so little is known about the mechanism through which it was achieved it hasn’t achieved the notoriety in the technical world that you might expect. The stations involved conducted full investigations at the time and failed to locate a culprit, perhaps they should have been looking for that old campervan with the antennae on its roof.
It is very unlikely that a similar stunt could be performed today, with entirely digital TV studios and easy access to encryption technologies for external links to transmitter sites. But in the 1980s a studio would still have been an analogue affair so there would have been more opportunities to insert an unauthorized feed. Next year sees the 30th anniversary of the event, it would be fascinating if the perpetrator would mark it by anonymously revealing how it was achieved. Of course, we’d love to hear how you would have done it in the comments below. Surely we have readers who are intimately familiar with the television broadcasting equipment of the time.
Below the break we’re showing you both fake [Max] intrusions into the Chicago airwaves. First is the short outing on EGN, below that the longer one on WTTV.
In the 1950s it seemed likely that the Cold War could at any minute take a turn for the worse, and we might all be consumed in the fiery conflagration of nuclear war. Fortunately neither the leaders on our side of the fence nor those on the other were the dangerous unpredictable lunatics their opponent’s propaganda might have portrayed them as, and instead we continued on our way uneasily gazing at each other over the Iron Curtain.
For civilian America, the Government created a series of promotional efforts to prepare them for the effects of nuclear war and equip them with the means to survive. Some of them like the infamous “Duck and cover” film seem quaint and woefully inadequate when viewed with several decades hindsight, but others tried hard to equip the 1950s American with what looked like the real means to survive.
Our film below the break today is part of one such effort. The Family Fallout Shelter was a booklet produced in 1959 by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, and it described in detail the construction of a series of fallout shelters of differing designs. There was a concrete underground shelter, a partially buried twin-wall shelter with infill, and the one shown in the film, a basement fallout shelter made from concrete blocks. Our narrator and protagonist is [Walt], a capable bespectacled middle-aged man in a check shirt who takes us through the shelter’s construction.
We start with him giving some friends a tour of the finished shelter, and we see its cozy furnished interior with bunk beds and all mod cons. We’re told it would make a useful extra spare bedroom, or a darkroom. Then we flash back to construction as [Walt] takes us through all the steps required to build your own basement shelter. As he says, it’s a project that could be attempted by almost anyone, and what follows is a pretty good introduction to basic bricklaying. We can’t help being concerned about the security of those unmortared roof blocks in the face of a Tsar Bomba, but fortunately they were never put to the test. We do find it amusing that this is presented by the National Concrete Masonry Association — how better to boost sales than get the populace to build extra brick walls in every home?
The film and booklet provide a fascinating window into some of the culture surrounding preparations for nuclear war in the early Cold War era. The ideas that it would be survivable, and that two weeks in a home-made fallout shelter would be sufficient to ensure that civilians would be safe are in stark contrast to the then-secret deep shelters and long-term survival plans that the governments of the time created for themselves. It would be interesting to know how many of these home shelters were built, and how many survive. Did you ever spend a night in a basement spare bedroom with a blast wall?
We’ll leave you with the film’s closing words from the Director of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.
“No home in America is modern without a family fallout shelter. This is the nuclear age.“
If you tell someone these days to send you something via FAX, you are likely to get a look similar to the one you’d get if you asked them to park your horse. But in 1984, FAX was a mysterious new technology (well, actually, it wasn’t, but it wasn’t yet common to most people).
FedEx–the people who got famous delivering packages overnight–made a bold move to seize a new market: Zapmail (not to be confused with the modern mass mailing service). The idea was simple (you can see a commercial for it in grainy VHS splendor, below): Overnight is great but sometimes you need something sent across the country now. A FedEx driver picks up your documents, carries them to a FedEx office. There the documents FAX to another FedEx office where another driver delivers the printed copy. The process took two hours to get a paper document from one side of the continent to another.
It was one of the more interesting consumer tech stories floating around at the turn of the century, a disposable cell phone manufactured using a multi-layer folded paper circuit board with tracks printed in conductive ink. Its feature set was basic even by the standards of the day in that it had no display and its only function was to make calls, but with a target price of only $10 that didn’t matter. It was the brainchild of a prolific New Jersey based inventor, and it was intended to be the first in a series of paper electronic devices using the same technology including phones with built-in credit card payment ability and a basic laptop model.
The idea of a $10 mobile phone does not seem remarkable today, it’s possible that sum might now secure you something with features far in excess of the Nokias and similar that were the order of the day at that time. But when you consider that those Nokias could have prices well into three figures without a contract, and that the new features people considered exciting were things like integrated antennas or swappable coloured plastic covers rather than the multicore processors or high-res cameras we’re used to today, a phone so cheap as to be disposable promised to be very disruptive.
The product’s wonderfully dated website (Wayback Machine link, we’ve skipped the Flash intro for you) has pictures of the device, and the video below the break features shots of it in use as its inventor is interviewed. But by the end of 2002 the Wayback Machine was retrieving 404 errors from the server, and little more was heard of the product. No sign of one ever came our way; did any make it to market, and did you have one?
With the benefit of fifteen years hindsight, why did we not have paper mobile phones as part of the ephemera of the early years of the last decade? It was not a product without promise; a ten-dollar phone might have been a great success. And the description of a cheap laptop that talks to a remote server for its software sounds not unlike today’s Chromebooks.
Some of you might claim the product was vapourware, but given that they demonstrated a working prototype we’d hesitate to go that far. The likelihood is that it did not find the required combination of component price and manufacturing ease to exploit its intended market segment before its competition improved to the point that it could no longer compete. If you have ever taken apart a typical mobile phone of the period you’ll have some idea of why they were not cheap devices, for example the RF filter modules of the day were individually adjusted precision components. And paper-and-ink printed circuit boards are still a technology with a way to go even now, perhaps the idea was simply too far ahead of its time. Meanwhile within a relatively short period of time the price of simple candybar phones dropped to the point at which they would tempt the $10 buyer to spend more for a better product, so the window of opportunity had passed.