Tech In Plain Sight: Escalators

If you are designing a building and need to move many people up or down, you probably will at least consider an escalator. In fact, if you visit most large airports these days, they even use a similar system to move people without changing their altitude. We aren’t sure why the name “slidewalk” never caught on, but they have a similar mechanism to an escalator. Like most things, we don’t think much about them until they don’t work. But they’ve been around a long time and are great examples of simple technology we use so often that it has become invisible.

Of course, there’s always the elevator. However, the elevator can only service one floor at a time, and everyone else has to wait. Plus, a broken elevator is useless, while a broken escalator is — for most failures — just stairs.

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Tech In Plain Sight: Skyscrapers

It is hard to imagine that for thousands of years, the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest manmade structure in the world. However, like the Lincoln Cathedral and the Washington Monument, which also held that title, these don’t count as skyscrapers because they didn’t provide living or working space to people. But aside from providing living, retail, or office space, skyscrapers also share a common feature that explains why they are even possible: steel frame construction.

Have you ever wondered why pyramids appear in so many ancient civilizations? The answer is engineering. You build something. Then, you build something on top of it. Then you repeat. It just makes sense. But each upper layer adds weight to all the lower layers, so you must keep getting smaller. Building a 381-meter skyscraper like the Empire State Building using self-supporting walls would mean the ground floor walls would be massive. Steel lets you get around this.

In Antiquity

You might think of high-rise buildings as a modern thing, but that’s actually not true. People seem to have built up to the best of their abilities for a very long time. Some Roman structures were as high as ten stories. Romans built so high that Augustus even tried to limit building height to 25 meters — probably after some accidents.  In the 12th century, Bologna had as many as 100 towers, one nearly 100 meters tall.

There are many other examples, including mudbrick structures rising 30 meters in Yemen and 11th-century Egyptian structures rising 14 stories. In some cases, building up was due to the cost or availability of property. In others, it was to stay inside a defensive wall. But whatever the reason, self-supporting walls can only go so high before they are impractical.

So steel and iron frames grabbed the public’s attention with things like Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in 1851, and Gustav Eiffel’s Tower in 1887.

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Tech In Plain Sight: Microwave Ovens

Our homes are full of technological marvels, and, as a Hackaday reader, we are betting you know the basic ideas behind a microwave oven even if you haven’t torn one apart for transformers and magnetrons. So we aren’t going to explain how the magnetron rotates water molecules to produce uniform dielectric heating. However, when we see our microwave, we think about two things: 1) this thing is one of the most dangerous things in our house and 2) what makes that little turntable flip a different direction every time you run the thing?

First, a Little History

Westinghouse Powercaster which could, among other things, toast bread in six seconds

People think that Raytheon engineer Percy Spenser, the chief of their power tube division, noticed that while working with a magnetron he found his candy bar had melted. This is, apparently, true, but Spenser wasn’t the first to notice. He was, however, the first to investigate it and legend holds that he popped popcorn and blew up an egg on a colleague’s face (this sounds like an urban legend about “egg on your face” to us). The Raytheon patent goes back to 1945.

However, cooking with radio energy was not a new idea. In 1933, Westinghouse demonstrated cooking foods with a 10 kW 60 MHz transmitter (jump to page 394). According to reports, the device could toast bread in six seconds.  The same equipment could beam power and — reportedly — exposing yourself to the field caused “artificial fever” and an experience like having a cocktail, including a hangover on overindulgence. In fact, doctors would develop radiothermy to heat parts of the body locally, but we don’t suggest spending an hour in the device.

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Tech In Plain Sight: Rain-Sensing Wipers

While it is definitely a first-world problem that you don’t want to manually turn on your windshield wipers when it starts raining, it is also one of those things that probably sounds easier to solve than it really is. After all, you can ask a four-year-old if it is raining and expect a reasonable answer. But how do you ask that question of a computer? Especially a tiny cheap computer that is operating pretty much on its own.

You might want to stop here and try to think of how you’d do it. Measure the conductivity of the glass? Maybe water on the glass affects its dielectric constant and you could measure the resulting capacitance? Modern cars don’t do either. The problem is complicated because you need a solution that works with the glass and isn’t prone to false positives due to dirt or debris.

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Tech In Plain Sight: Fire Hydrants

You probably see them so often that you don’t even notice they are there. Fire hydrants are one of those things that aren’t interesting until you need them, but then they are of paramount importance. You sometimes hear them called fireplugs and it made us wonder what was a plug about it. Perhaps it was because that’s where you plug in your hose? Turns out, no. The real story is much stranger. Not to mention, did you know that there are even “dry” fire hydrants?

Apparently, in the 16th century, water mains were made of wood. When there was a fire, a team would dig the cobblestones out to expose the wooden mains and cut a hole to make an ad hoc well to fill buckets or to pump. Of course, after the fire, you had to repair the mains and that was done with a plug. The city would keep a record of plugs so that if a fire was nearby in the future, you could just “pull the plug” instead of making a new hole.

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Tech In Plain Sight: Car Doors

There are a lot of common phrases that no longer mean what they used to. For example, you may have used the term “turn on the lights.” What are you actually turning? Where does this come from? Old gas lights had a valve that you did physically turn, and the phrase simply stuck around. Kids of the 90s have no idea why they “dial” a phone number. What about “roll up the car window”?  You don’t often encounter old-fashioned car doors with manual locks or a crank to roll up the window. These days it is all electronic. But have you ever wondered what’s going on inside there?

Let’s take a look at car doors, how they keep you safe, and how that sheet of glass slides into place, sealing against wind, rain, and noise. Of course, there are fancy car doors like suicide doors or sexy-but-impractical gull wing doors. At least one concept car even has a door that disappears under the vehicle when it opens; check out the video below. But even garden-variety doors are marvels of mechanical engineering. A compact structure that is secure and — mostly — reliable. Let’s look at how they do that.

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Tech In Plain Sight: Tough As Nails

When you think of machines you see around you every day, you probably think about your car, computer, or household appliances. However, the world is full of simple machines. One simple machine in particular, the inclined plane, shows up a lot. For example, think of the humble nail. If you are a woodworker or even a homeowner you probably have bags of them. They certainly are all around you if you are indoors and maybe even if you are outdoors right now. Nails have been the fastener of choice for a very long time and they are a form of a wedge which is a type of inclined plane.

What else can you say about nails? Turns out, there is a lot to know. Like other fasteners, there are nails for very specific purposes. There are even nails with two heads and — no kidding — nails with two points. Exactly what kind of nail you need depends on what you are doing and what’s important to you.

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