Rulers Of The Ancient World — Literally!

If you were expecting a post about ancient kings and queens, you are probably at the wrong website. [Burn Heart] has a fascination with ancient measuring devices and set out to recreate period-correct rules, although using decidedly modern techniques.

The first example is a French rule for measuring the “pied du Roi” or king’s foot. Apparently, his royal highness had large feet as a the French variant is nearly 13 inches long. The next rulers hail from Egypt and measure cubits and spans. Turns out the pyramid builders left a lot of information about measurements and their understanding of math and tools like dividers.

Other rules from Rome, Japan, and the Indus Valley are also included. According to the post, one set of these rulers used locally sourced wood, but a second “limited” edition used wood that the originals might have. Most of the rulers were etched via CNC, although the French ruler was hand-etched.

The Romans, apparently, had smaller feet than French royalty, as their Pes or foot was about 11.65 inches. There are plenty of little tidbits in the post ranging from the origin of the word inch to why the black wood used for piano keys is called ebony.

We’ll stipulate this isn’t exactly a hack, although it is fine workmanship and part of hacker culture is obsessing over measuring things, so we thought it was fair game. These days, rulers are often electronic. Which makes it natural to put them on a PC board.

Giant Brains, Or Machines That Think

Last week, I stumbled on a marvelous book: “Giant Brains; or, Machines That Think” by Edmund Callis Berkeley. What’s really fun about it is the way it sounds like it could be written just this year – waxing speculatively about the future when machines do our thinking for us. Except it was written in 1949, and the “thinking machines” are early proto-computers that use relays (relays!) for their logic elements. But you need to understand that back then, they could calculate ten times faster than any person, and they would work tirelessly day and night, as long as their motors keep turning and their contacts don’t get corroded.

But once you get past the futuristic speculation, there’s actually a lot of detail about how the then-cutting-edge machines worked. Circuit diagrams of logic units from both the relay computers and the brand-new vacuum tube machines are on display, as are drawings of the tricky bits of purely mechanical computers. There is even a diagram of the mercury delay line, and an explanation of how circulating audio pulses through the medium could be used as a form of memory.

All in all, it’s a wonderful glimpse at the earliest of computers, with enough detail that you could probably build something along those lines with a little moxie and a few thousands of relays. This grounded reality, coupled with the fantastic visions of where computers would be going, make a marvelous accompaniment to a lot of the breathless hype around AI these days. Recommended reading!

Simple Hand Tools Turn Brass And Steel Into An Amazing Astrolabe

There’s something enchanting about ancient tools and instruments. The idea that our forebears were able to fashion precision mechanisms with nothing but the simplest hand tools is fascinating. And watching someone recreate the feat, such as by building an astrolabe by hand, can be very appealing too.

The astrolabe is an ancient astronomical tool of incredible versatility, allowing the user to do everything from calculating when the sun will rise to predicting the positions of dozens of stars in the night sky. That it accomplishes all this with only a few moving parts makes it all the more fascinating. [Uri Tuchman] began the astrolabe build shown in the video below with only a few hand tools. He quickly had his fill of the manual fretsaw work, though, and whipped up a simple scroll saw powered by an old sewing machine foot treadle to speed up his work. The real treat though is the hand engraving, a skill that [Uri] has clearly mastered. We couldn’t help musing that a CNC router could do the same thing so much more quickly, but watching [Uri] do it was so much more satisfying. Everything about the build really makes a statement, from the contrasting brass and steel parts to the choice of complex Arabic script for the markings. [Uri] has another video that goes over astrolabe basics and his design process that’s well worth watching too.

While it’s nowhere near as complicated an instrument, this astrolabe puts us in the mood to watch the entire Clickspring clock build again. And [Chris] is working on his own ancient instrument build at the moment, recreating the Antikythera mechanism. We can’t wait to binge-watch that one too.

Continue reading “Simple Hand Tools Turn Brass And Steel Into An Amazing Astrolabe”