Hand-Forged Cases Make Nixie Clocks into Works of Art

Both “Nixie” and “Steampunk” are getting a bit overused. It’s hard to count the number of clock projects we’ve seen recently that combine the two, and normally we’d be loath to feature yet another variation on that theme without a good reason. This is a good reason.

The single-digit Nixie clocks that [Claes Vahlberg] built are, simply put, works of art. There’s a small version of the clock, featuring a single IN-16 Nixie, and a larger version that uses a Dalibor Farny custom Nixie, a work of art in its own right. Each clock has features like time and date, temperature and barometric pressure, and even days remaining in the current lunar cycle. The cases for the clocks, though, are the real treat. Hand forged from steel, they remind us of steam whistles on top of a boiler.

[Claes] doesn’t have many details on the build process — we’ve been in contact and he says he’s working on documentation — but it doesn’t matter. As if all that weren’t enough, the clocks are controlled by a remote, which has its own IN-16 tube and is motion controlled. The last bit is a nice touch since there are no buttons to distract from the smooth lines of the hammered metal case.

We gush, but we think this one really shines. That’s not to take anything away from previous Nixie-steampunk mashups, like this single-digit clock or this solar power meter. But these clocks are a step beyond.

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Retrotechtacular: The Iron Giants That Built The Jet Age

In the closing months of World War II, the Axis and the Allies were throwing everything they had at each other. The tide was turning to the Allies’ favor, but the Germans were showing a surprising resilience, at least in terms of replacing downed fighter and bomber aircraft. When the Allies examined the wreckage of these planes, they discovered the disturbing truth: the planes contained large pieces forged from single billets of metal, which suggested a manufacturing capability none of the Allies possessed and which allowed the Germans to quickly and cheaply make better and faster planes.

When the war was over, the Allies went looking for the tools the Germans had used to make their planes, and found massive closed-die forging presses that could squeeze parts out of aluminum and magnesium alloys in a single step. The Soviets carted off a 30,000 ton machine, while the Americans went home with a shipload of smaller presses and the knowledge that the Russians had an edge over them. Thus began the Heavy Press Program, an ultimately successful attempt by the US military to close a huge gap in strategic manufacturing capabilities that [Machine Thinking] details in the excellent video below.

One doesn’t instantly equate monstrous machines such as the Mesta 50,000-ton press, over nine stories tall with half of it buried underground and attached directly to bedrock, with airplane manufacture. But without it and similar machines that came from the program, planes from the B-52 to the Boeing 747 would have been impossible to build. And this isn’t dead technology by any means; sold to Alcoa in 1982 after having been operated by them for decades, the “Fifty” recently got a $100 makeover after cracks appeared in some castings, and the press and its retro-brethren are still squeezing out parts for fighters as recent as the F-35.

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Getting to Know an 18th Century Hacker

Here at Hackaday we tend to stay pretty close to the bleeding edge in tech, not by any conscious effort, but simply because that’s what most hackers are interested in. Sure we see the occasional vintage computer rebuild, or reverse engineering of some component that was put into service before most of us were born; but on the whole you’re way more likely to see projects involving the latest and greatest microcontroller to hit AliExpress than ones involving the once ubiquitous vacuum tube.

Bill Maddox

But occasionally it’s nice to take a step back from the latest and greatest, to really look at what makes the hacker spirit without the all modern trappings of blinking LEDs and Wi-Fi connectivity. We make and explore because it’s something we are passionate about, and while today most of us are doing that with a soldering iron or a compiler, that hasn’t always been the case. In the video below, historic interpreter and woodworker [Bill Maddox] talks about what draws him to 18th century technology. His tools may look foreign to us, but the passion he shows while talking about his creations will be familiar to anyone who’s ever set foot in a hackerspace.

Even with a vastly different set of interests than the modern hacker, [Bill] runs into some very familiar problems. When the highly specialized tools he needed to work like an 18th century craftsman weren’t available, he decided to make his own. But to make his own tools he needed to learn how to forge, and after he forged his hand tools he moved on to forging chisels for the lathe he decided to build.

Whether or not we ever take a knife to a piece of wood and try to carve out a spoon, it’s impossible to watch [Bill] speak about his creations and not see him as a kindred spirit. Like many of us, he’s honed skills in a niche that the everyday person takes for granted. Makes you wonder what people from 300 years in the future would think of us if they could peer back through the centuries.

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