Books You Should Read: IGNITION!

Isaac Asimov described the business of rocket fuel research as “playing footsie with liquids from Hell.” If that piques your interest even a little, even if you do nothing else today, read the first few pages of IGNITION! which is available online for free. I bet you won’t want to stop reading.

IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants is about how modern liquid rocket fuel came to be. Written by John D. Clark and published in 1972, the title might at first glance make the book sound terribly dry — it’s not. Liquid rocket fuel made modern rocketry possible. But most of us have no involvement with it at all besides an awareness that it exists, and that makes it easy to take for granted.

Most of us lack any understanding of the fact that its development was the result of a whole lot of hard scientific work, and that work required brilliance (and bravery) and had many frustrating dead ends. It was also an amazingly dangerous business to be in. Isaac Asimov put it this way in the introduction:

“[A]nyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad. I don’t mean garden-variety crazy or a merely raving lunatic. I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.

There are, after all, some chemicals that explode shatteringly, some that flame ravenously, some that corrode hellishly, some that poison sneakily, and some that stink stenchily. As far as I know, though, only liquid rocket fuels have all these delightful properties combined into one delectable whole.”

At the time that the book was written and published, most of the work on liquid rocket fuels had been done in the 40’s, 50’s, and first half of the 60’s. There was plenty written about rocketry, but very little about the propellants themselves, and nothing at all written about why these specific substances and not something else were being used. John Clark — having run a laboratory doing propellant research for seventeen years — had a unique perspective of the whole business and took the time to write IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants.

Liquid rocket propellant was in two parts: a fuel and an oxidizer. The combination is hypergolic; that is, the two spontaneously ignite and burn upon contact with each other. As an example of the kinds of details that mattered (i.e. all of them), the combustion process had to be rapid and complete. If the two liquids flow into the combustion chamber and ignite immediately, that’s good. If they form a small puddle and then ignite, that’s bad. There are myriad other considerations as well; the fuel must burn at a manageable temperature (so as not to destroy the motor), the energy density of the fuel must be high enough to be a practical fuel in the first place, and so on.

The actual process of discovering exactly what materials to use and how precisely to make them work in a rocket motor was the very essence of the phrase “the devil is in the details.” For every potential solution, there was a mountain of dead-end possibilities that tantalizingly, infuriatingly, almost worked.

The first reliable, workable propellant combination was Aniline and Red Fuming Nitric Acid (RFNA). “It had the one – but magnificent – virtue that it worked,” writes Clark. “Otherwise it was an abomination.” Aniline was difficult to procure, ferociously poisonous and rapidly absorbed through skin, and froze at an inconvenient -6.2 Celsius which limited it to warm weather only. RFNA was fantastically corrosive, and this alone went on to cause no end of problems. It couldn’t be left sitting in a rocket tank waiting to be used for too long, because after a while you wouldn’t have a tank left. It needed to be periodically vented while in storage. Pouring it gave off dense clouds of remarkably toxic gas. This propellant would go on to cause incredibly costly and dangerous problems, but it worked. Still, no one wanted to put up with any of it one moment longer than they absolutely had to. As a result, that combination was not much more than a first step in the whole process; there was plenty of work left to do.

By the mid-sixties, liquid rocket propellant was a solved problem and the propellant community had pretty much worked themselves out of a job. Happily, a result of that work was this book; it captures history and detail that otherwise would simply have disappeared.

Clark has a gift for writing, and the book is easy to read and full of amusing (and eye-widening) anecdotes. Clark doesn’t skimp on the scientific background, but always in an accessible way. It’s interesting, it’s relevant, it’s relatable, and there is plenty to learn about how hard scientific and engineering development actually gets done. Download the PDF onto your favorite device. You’ll find it well worth the handful of evenings it takes to read through it.

Book Review: The Art Of The Patent

In bringing suitable illustrations to our articles, we Hackaday scribes use a variety of sources that offer images featuring permissive licences. Among the usual free image libraries there is one particularly rich source, the line drawings contained within the huge archives of patents granted by the various countries around the world. These are the illustrations used as part of the patent itself to describe the working of the patent being claimed. We use them because though the items they depict are legally protected from copying by the patents they are part of, they as part of the patents themselves are in the public domain. Thus we can easily find detailed hand drawn pictures of all kinds of technical innovations from the last couple of hundred years or so, and from time to time you as our readers reap the benefit.

The beauty in hand-rendered fonts from patent artwork, collected within the book.
The beauty in hand-rendered fonts from patent artwork, collected within the book.

If you spend a while browsing old patents through a search engine such as Google Patents, you can quickly become engrossed in these beautiful images of inventions past. Though their purpose is a functional one to convey the workings of an invention, the anonymous artists have often poured all of their skill into rendering them as considerably more than mere draughtsmanship. In those dusty Government archives lurk masterpieces, just waiting to be found.

It seems we here at Hackaday are not alone in sharing a fascination with these images, for a US patent agent, [Kevin Prince], wrote a fascinating exploration of the medium in his book, The Art of the Patent. Continue reading “Book Review: The Art Of The Patent”

Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker

There’s no one quite like Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang. His unofficial resume begins with an EE degree from MIT, the author of Hacking the Xbox, creator of the Chumby, developer of the Novena, the first Open Source laptop, and has mentored thousands of people with dozens of essays from his blog.

Above all, Bunnie is a bridge across worlds. He has spent the last decade plying the markets of Shenzhen, working with Chinese manufacturers, and writing about his experiences of taking an idea and turning it into a product with the help of Chinese partners. In short, there is no person better suited to tell the story of how Shenzhen works, what can be done, and how to do it.

Bunnie’s The Hardware Hacker ($29.95, No Starch Press) is the dead tree expression of years of living and working in Shenzhen, taking multiple products to market, and exploring the philosophy that turned a fishing village into a city that produces the world’s electronic baubles.

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Wooden Puzzle Book Will Twist and Dazzle Your Brain

In what might be one of the coolest applications of laser cutting, joinery, puzzles, writing, and bookbinding, [Brady Whitney] has created the Codex Silenda — a literal puzzle book of magnificent proportions.

[Whitney] had originally conceived the idea of the Codex for his senior thesis research project at Iowa State University, and the result is something for almost everyone. On each of the Codex’s five pages lies a mechanical puzzle that must be solved to progress to the next, while an accompanying text weaves a story as you do so. These intricate pages were designed in SolidWorks and painstakingly assembled from laser cut wood. Breaking the fourth wall of storytelling by engaging the reader directly in uncovering the book’s mysteries is a unique feat, and it looks gorgeous to boot.

Continue reading “Wooden Puzzle Book Will Twist and Dazzle Your Brain”

Books You Should Read: Poorly Made In China

This book is scary, and honestly I can’t decide if I should recommend it or not. It’s not a guide, it doesn’t offer solutions, and it’s full of so many cautionary tales and descriptions of tricks and scams that you will wonder how any business gets done in China at all. If you are looking for a reason not to manufacture in China, then this is the book for you.

The author is not involved in the electronics industry. Most of the book describes a single customer in the personal products field (soap, shampoo, lotions, creams, etc.). He does describe other industries, and says that in general most factories in any industry will try the same tricks, and confirms this with experiences from other similar people in his position as local intermediary for foreign importers.

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Books You Should Read: Engineer to Win By Carroll Smith

One problem with engineering education today is a lack of experimental teaching. Oh sure you may have a project or two, but it’s not the focus of the program because it’s hard to standardize a test around. Typically sections of the field are taught in a highly focused theoretical course by a professor or graduate student with a specialization in that section. Because classes treat individual subject areas, it’s entirely possible to get a really good understanding of two pieces of the same puzzle, but never realize that they fit together to make a picture. It’s only when a freshly minted engineer gets out into the real world that they start to make the connections between seemingly disparate fields of knowledge.

This is why Carroll Smith’s book “Engineer to Win” is so good. He spent a lifetime as a practicing engineer in a field where a small failure could mean the death of a friend. So when he set out to write a book, he wrote a book that related everything needed to properly conceptualize and solve the mechanical engineering problems in his field.

One warning though; the book is not for the faint of heart. If you want to learn something difficult well, then this is book for you. Carroll skips the comforting analogies and gives the information exactly. It can get a little dense, but he makes the assumption that the reader is there to learn and, most importantly, understand. This takes work.

2016-08-01_02h06_34For example, you can’t really understand why a rolled bolt is stronger than a bolt cut on a screw machine until you understand how metal works on a crystalline level. The same goes for metal fatigue, brittle fractures, ductile failures, and all the maladies that metal can suffer. The difference between an engineer and a technician is this deep understanding. Otherwise the equations learned are just parts in a toolbox and not paint on an artist’s palette.

This is why the first half of the book is dominated by all things metallurgical. The book starts with the simple abstractions of the crystalline structures of metal. Unlike my materials class in university, it maintains a practical bend to the presentation of the information throughout the whole process. For example, it moves on to what all this practically means for metals undergoing stresses and failures before it launches into a (short) digression on how metals are made and their history.

However, if racecar plumbing is your thing his treastise, "Carroll Smith's Nuts, Bolts, Fasteners and Plumbing Handbook" is also fantastic.
However, if racecar plumbing and fasteners are kinda your thing, “Carroll Smith’s Nuts, Bolts, Fasteners and Plumbing Handbook” is also a fantastic read.

This first half of the book touches on non-ferrous metals and their proper use as well. After that comes some of the best explanations of metal fatigue, fasteners, and metal bonding I’ve ever read. When the failure of a joint causes a mechanism to fail in a toaster that’s one thing, but when it fails in a racecar people get hurt. Carroll is very exacting in what constitutes a forgivable oversight in engineering, and what does not.

Once the book has finished conveying a working understanding of metals and fasteners it seems to fracture into a pot-luck of different racecar-related topics. During my first reading of the book I resisted this strange turn of events. For example, I didn’t really want to read about racecar plumbing in the eighties, or what kind of springs and aerofoils Carroll likes. However, when I reread those sections in a more focused manner, I realized that many of them were teaching the practical application of the knowledge learned in the previous chapters. How does the metal make a good spring? Why is one kind of plumbing better than another?

Importantly, the anecdotes at the end of the book impart an understanding of the importance of professionalism in engineering. What is the true responsibility of an engineer? He teaches not to take the trust others place in your skills for granted. He teaches to trust in the skills of others. The book teaches humility as an engineer. He shows the kind of person one can become after a lifetime of earnest study in their craft.

Thanks to reader, [Dielectric], for recommending the book to me. Also, from the bit of research I’ve done, the older motorworks edition is generally considered to have better quality reproductions of the diagrams than the newer printings of the book.

Books You Should Read: Basic Electronics

I learned some basic electronics in high school physics class: resistors, capacitors, Kirchhoff’s law and such, and added only what was required for projects as I did them. Then around 15 years ago I decided to read some books to flesh out what I knew and add to my body of knowledge. It turned out to be hard to find good ones.

The electronics section of my bookcase has a number of what I’d consider duds, but also some gems. Here are the gems. They may not be the electronics-Rosetta-Stone for every hacker, but they are the rock on which I built my church and well worth a spot in your own reading list.

Grob’s Basic Electronics

Grob's Basic Electronics 12th Edition
Grob’s Basic Electronics 12th Edition

Grob’s Basic Electronics by Mitchel E Schultz and Bernard Grob is a textbook, one that is easy to read yet very thorough. I bought mine from a used books store. The 1st Edition was published in 1959 and it’s currently on the 12th edition, published in 2015. Clearly this one has staying power.

I refer back to it frequently, most often to the chapters on resonance, induction and capacitance when working on LC circuits, like the ones in my crystal radios. There are also things in here that I couldn’t find anywhere else, including thoroughly exhaustive online searches. One such example is the correct definitions and formulas for the various magnetic units: ampere turns, field intensity, flux density…

I’d recommend it to a high school student or any adult who’s serious about knowing electronics well. I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants to reduce frustration when designing or debugging circuits.

You can find the table of contents here but briefly it has all the necessary introductory material on Ohm’s and Kirchhoff’s laws, parallel and series circuits, and so on but to give you an idea of how deep it goes it also has chapters on network theorems and complex numbers for AC circuits. Interestingly my 1977 4th edition has a chapter on vacuum tubes that’s gone in the current version and in its place is a plethora of new ones devoted to diodes, BJTs, FETs, thyristors and op-amps.

You can also do the practice problems and self-examination, just to make sure you understood it correctly. (I sometimes do them!) But also, being a textbook, the newest edition is expensive. However, a search for older but still recent editions on Amazon turns up some affordable used copies. Most of basic electronics hasn’t changed and my ancient edition is one of my more frequent go-to books. But it’s not the only gem I’ve found. Below are a few more.

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