Retrotechtacular: Balloons Go To War

To the average person, the application of balloon technology pretty much begins and ends with birthday parties. The Hackaday reader might be able to expand on that a bit, as we’ve covered several projects that have lofted various bits of equipment into the stratosphere courtesy of a high-altitude balloons. But even that is a relatively minor distinction. They might be bigger than their multicolored brethren, but it’s still easy for a modern observer to write them off as trivial.

But during the 1940’s, they were important pieces of wartime technology. While powered aircraft such as fighters and bombers were obviously more vital to the larger war effort, balloons still had numerous defensive and reconnaissance applications. They were useful enough that the United States Navy produced a training film entitled History of Balloons which takes viewers through the early days of manned ballooning. Examples of how the core technology developed and matured over time is intermixed with footage of balloons being used in both the First and Second World Wars, and parallels are drawn to show how those early pioneers influenced contemporary designs.

Even when the film was produced in 1944, balloons were an old technology. The timeline in the video starts all the way back in 1783 with the first piloted hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris, and then quickly covers iterative advancements to ballooning made into the 1800’s. As was common in training films from this era, the various “reenactments” are cartoons complete with comic narration in the style of W.C. Fields which were designed to be entertaining and memorable to the target audience of young men.

While the style might seem a little strange to modern audiences, there’s plenty of fascinating information packed within the film’s half-hour run time. The rapid advancements to ballooning between 1800 and the First World War are detailed, including the various instruments developed for determining important information such as altitude and rate of climb. The film also explains how some of the core aspects of manned ballooning, like the gradual release of ballast or the fact that a deflated balloon doubles as a rudimentary parachute in an emergency, were discovered quite by accident.

When the film works its way to the contemporary era, we are shown the process of filling Naval balloons with hydrogen and preparing them for flight. The film also talks at length about the so-called “barrage balloons” which were used in both World Wars. Including a rather dastardly advancement which added mines to the balloon’s tethers to destroy aircraft unlucky enough to get in their way.

This period in human history saw incredible technological advancements, and films such as these which were created during and immediately after the Second World War provide an invaluable look at cutting edge technology from a bygone era. One wonders what the alternative might be for future generations looking back on the technology of today.

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Making Microfluidics Simpler With Shrinky Dinks

It’s as if the go-to analogy these days for anything technical is, “It’s like a series of tubes.” Explanations thus based work better for some things than others, and even when the comparison is apt from a physics standpoint it often breaks down in the details. With microfluidics, the analogy is perfect because it literally is a series of tubes, which properly arranged and filled with liquids or gasses can perform some of the same control functions that electronics can, and some that it can’t.

But exploring microfluidics can be tough, what with the need to machine tiny passages for fluids to flow. Luckily, [Justin] has turned the process into child’s play with these microfluidic elements made from Shrinky Dinks. For those unfamiliar with this product, which was advertised incessantly on Saturday morning cartoon shows, Shrinky Dinks are just sheets of polystyrene film that can be decorated with markers. When placed in a low oven, the film shrinks about three times in length and width while expanding to about nine times its pre-shrunk thickness. [Justin] capitalized on this by CNC machining fine grooves into the film which become deeper after shrinking. Microfluidics circuits can be built up from multiple layers. The video below shows a mixer and a simple cell sorter, as well as a Tesla valve, which is a little like a diode.

We find [Justin]’s Shrinky Dink microfluidics intriguing and can’t wait to see what kind of useful devices he comes up with. He’s got a lot going on, though, from spider-powered beer to desktop radio telescopes. And we wonder how this technique might help with his CNC-machined microstrip bandpass filters.

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The Photo Lab That Flew To The Moon

When planning a trip by car these days, it’s pretty much standard practice to spin up an image of your destination in Google Maps and get an idea of what you’re in for when you get there. What kind of parking do they have? Are the streets narrow or twisty? Will I be able to drive right up, or will I be walking a bit when I get there? It’s good to know what’s waiting for you, especially if you’re headed someplace you’ve never been before.

NASA was very much of this mind in the 1960s, except the trip they were planning for was 238,000 miles each way and would involve parking two humans on the surface of another world that we had only seen through telescopes. As good as Earth-based astronomy may be, nothing beats an up close and personal look, and so NASA decided to send a series of satellites to our nearest neighbor to look for the best places to land the Apollo missions. And while most of the feats NASA pulled off in the heyday of the Space Race were surprising, the Lunar Orbiter missions were especially so because of how they chose to acquire the images: using a film camera and a flying photo lab.

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Shutter Bug Goes Extreme With Scratch-Built Film Camera

Should a camera build start with a sand mold and molten aluminum? That’s the route [CroppedCamera] took with this thoroughly impressive camera project.

When we think of cameras these days, chances are we picture the ones that live inside the phones in our pockets. They’re the go-to image capture devices for most of us, but even for the more photographically advanced among us, when a more capable camera is called for, it’s usually an off-the-shelf DSLR from Canon, Nikon, or the like. Where do hand-built cameras fall in today’s photography world? They’re a great way to add a film option to your camera collection.

[CroppedCamera] previously built a completely custom large-format view camera, but for this build he decided that something a bit more portable might do. The body of the camera is scratch-built from aluminum, acting as the lightproof box to hold the roll film and mount the leaf-shutter lens. There’s an impressive amount of metalwork here — sand casting, bending, TIG welding, and machining all came into play, and most of them new skills to [CroppedCamera]. We were especially impressed with the shrink-fit of the lens cone to the body. It’s unconventional looking for sure, but not without its charm, and it’s sure to make a statement dangling around his neck.

It’s tough to find non-digital DIY camera builds around here — best we could do were these laser-cut plywood modular cameras. Then again, you can’t beat this wearable camera for functional style.

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Tearing Down A Darkroom Relic For Buried Treasure

If your goal is to harvest unique parts from defunct devices, the further back in time you go, the better the pickings stand to be. At least that’s what [Kerry Wong] discovered during his tear-down of a darkroom color analyzer from the early 1980s.

For readers whose experience with photography has been solely digital, you need to understand that there once was a time when images were made with real cameras on real film, and serious amateurs and pros had darkrooms to process the film. Black and white processing was pretty straightforward in terms of chemistry — it was just developer, stop, and fixing. Color processes were much trickier, and when it came to enlarging your film onto color photo paper, things could get really complicated. [Kerry]’s eBay find, a Besler PM1A color analyzer, was intended to help out in the color lab by balancing the mix of cyan, blue, and yellow components in the enlarger.

The instrument, which no doubt demanded a princely sum back in the day, is actually really simple, with the object of [Kerry]’s desire, a PM1A photomultiplier tube and its driver, being the only real find.  Still, it’s an interesting teardown, and we’re eager to see what [Kerry] makes of the gem. A muon detector, perhaps? An X-ray backscatter machine? Or perhaps repeating his old speed of light experiments is on the docket.

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Joe Kim: Where Technology And Art Collide

The rewards of being a writer for Hackaday are many, but aside from the obvious perks like the secret Hackaday handshake and admission to the private writer’s washroom, having the opportunity to write original content articles is probably the best part of the job. It gets even better, though, because after you submit an article, you’ll eventually get an email from Supplyframe Art Director Joe Kim with a Dropbox link to the original art he has created to accompany your piece. No matter where I am when that email comes in, I click on the link immediately, eager to see what Joe has come up with. And I’m never disappointed.

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Retrotechtacular: The Bell Laboratory Science Series

For those of a certain vintage, no better day at school could be had than the days when the teacher decided to take it easy and put on a film. The familiar green-blue Bell+Howell 16mm projector in the center of the classroom, the dimmed lights, the chance to spend an hour doing something other than the normal drudgery — it all contributed to a palpable excitement, no matter what the content on that reel of film.

But the best days of all (at least for me) were when one of the Bell Laboratory Science Series films was queued up. The films may look a bit schlocky to the 21st-century eye, but they were groundbreaking at the time. Produced as TV specials to be aired during the “family hour,” each film is a combination of live-action for the grown-ups and animation for the kiddies that covers a specific scientific topic ranging from solar physics with the series premiere Our Mr. Sun to human psychology in Gateways to the Mind. The series even took a stab at explaining genetics with Thread of Life in 1960, an ambitious effort given that Watson and Crick had only published their model of DNA in 1953 and were still two years shy of their Nobel Prize.

Produced between 1956 and 1964, the series enlisted some really big Hollywood names. Frank Capra, director of Christmas staple It’s a Wonderful Life, helmed the first four films. The series featured exposition by “Dr. Research,” played by Dr. Frank Baxter, an English professor. His sidekick was usually referred to as “Mr. Fiction Writer” and first played by Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame. A list of voice actors and animators for the series reads like a who’s who of the golden age of animation: Daws Butler, Hans Conried, Sterling Halloway, Chuck Jones, Maurice Noble, Bob McKimson, Friz Freleng, and queen and king themselves, June Foray and Mel Blanc. Later films were produced by Warner Brothers and Walt Disney Studios, with Disney starring in the final film. The combined star power really helped propel the films and help Bell Labs deliver their message.

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