Hackaday Visits the Electric City

Much to the chagrin of local historians, the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania is today best known as the setting for the American version of The Office. But while the exploits of Dunder Mifflin’s best and brightest might make for a good Netflix binge, there’s a lot more to the historic city than the fictional paper company. From its beginnings as a major supplier of anthracite coal to the introduction of America’s first electrically operated trolley system on its streets, Scranton earned its nickname “The Electric City” by being a major technological hub from the Industrial Revolution through to the Second World War.

Today, the mines and furnaces of Scranton lie silent but not forgotten. In the 1980’s, the city started turning what remained of their industrial sites into historic landmarks and museums with the help of State and Federal grants. I recently got a chance to tour some of these locations, and came away very impressed. They’re an exceptional look into the early technology and processes which helped turn America into an industrial juggernaut.

While no substitute for visiting these museums and parks for yourself, hopefully the following images and descriptions will give you an idea of what kind of attractions await visitors to the modern day Electric City.

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Fail of the Week: When Good Foundries Go Bad

Like many of us, [Tony] was entranced by the idea of casting metal, and set about building the tools he’d need to melt aluminum for lost-PLA casting. Little did he know that he was about to exceed the limits of his system and melt a hole in his patio.

[Tony]’s tale of woe begins innocently enough, and where it usually begins for wannabe metal casters: with [The King of Random]’s homemade foundry-in-a-bucket. It’s just a steel pail with a homebrew refractory lining poured in place, with a hole near the bottom to act as a nozzle for forced air, or tuyère. [Tony]’s build followed the plans pretty faithfully, but lacking the spent fire extinguisher [The King] used for a crucible in the original build, he improvised and used the bottom of an old propane cylinder. A test firing with barbecue charcoal sort of worked, but it was clear that more heat was needed. So [Tony] got hold of some fine Welsh anthracite coal, which is where the fun began. With the extra heat, the foundry became a mini-blast furnace that melted the thin steel crucible, dumping the molten aluminum into the raging coal fire. The video below shows the near catastrophe, and we hope that once [Tony] changed his pants, he hustled off to buy a cheap graphite or ceramic crucible for the next firing.

All kidding aside, this is a vivid reminder of the stakes when something unexpected (or entirely predictable) goes wrong, and the need to be prepared to deal with it. A bucket of dry sand to smother a fire might be a good idea, and protective clothing is a must. And it pays to manage your work area to minimize potential collateral damage, too — we doubt that patio will ever be the same again.

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The Trouble with Old Model Steam Engines

Model steam engines have intrigued hackers and makers for over 100 years. Many of us have seen old steam engine models up for sale at garage sales and various internet auction sites. The problem with these engines is the fact that many of them were sold as rough casting kits. This means the quality of the model is only as good as the original owner’s machining and fabrication skills.

[Keith Appleton] is something of a steam engine expert. In this pair of videos, he takes us through troubleshooting two engines. Keith goes on to show some of the common failures he’s found while working on these wonderous little machines.

First off is the paint. If you find nuts, bolts and random parts painted in different colors, the engine is probably bad. It sounds strange, but [Keith] has found this to be a rule over his years of working with these engines.

Another problem is rattles. [Keith] found one of these engines rattled terribly. The culprit was the crankshaft. Not only was it the wrong size, but it was built wrong. These engines use built up crankshafts, rather than shafts machined from a single piece of metal. This engine’s crankshaft was threaded into the crank webs rather than pinned. Whoever built it tried to re-engineer the design of the crankshaft, and failed miserably.

You can check [Keith’s] videos out after the break. Want more displacement? We’ve covered the simplest steam engine, and an insanely detailed steampunk battleship, which of course is powered by steam.

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Are Powdered Metal Fuels Just a Flash in the Pan?

It’s no secret that fossil fuels are quickly becoming extinct. As technology charges ever forward, they are disappearing faster and faster. Many of our current dependencies on fossil fuels are associated with high-energy applications like transportation. Since it’s unlikely that global transportation will ever be in decline for any reason other than fuel shortage itself, it’s imperative that we find something that can replicate the high energy density of fossil fuels. Either that, or go back to the drawing board and change the entire scope of global transportation.

Energy, especially solar and wind, cannot be created all over the world. Traditionally, energy is created in situ and shipped to other places that need it. The proposed solutions for zero-carbon energy carriers—batteries and hydrogen—all have their weaknesses. Batteries are a fairly safe option, but their energy density is pretty poor. Hydrogen’s energy density is higher, but its flammability makes it dangerously volatile to store and transport.

Recently, a group of researchers at McGill University in Canada released a paper exploring the use of metal powders as our zero-carbon fuel of the future. Although metal powders could potentially be used as primary energy sources, the transitory solution they propose is to use them as secondary sources powered by wind and solar primaries.

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Building a coal forge

We don’t get to see Blacksmith hacks around here too often. But even if they were rolling in on a weekly basis we think this one would be considered the special expanded edition with full-color centerfold. The sixty-five images in this coal forge build log are all commented and just begging to steal your attention for part of the afternoon.

The build mostly involves fabricating a system for injecting air into the forge and providing a mechanism for evacuating the waste ash. [BillDaCat] starts with a 3″ pipe as the ash dump, adding a latching door used to empty it when full. He then welds together a metal trough with a slotted bottom to hold the fiery fury, attaching the ash dump below. He uses a plasma cutter to add an opening in the upper portion of the ash dump for a blast gate.

If you’re excited about his build you should also check out the metal pour and the induction furnace.

[via Reddit]