Making A Mediaeval Nail

If for some reason I were to acknowledge the inevitability of encroaching middle age and abandon the hardware hacker community for the more sedate world of historical recreation, I know exactly which band of enthusiasts I’d join and what period I would specialise in. Not for me the lure of a stately home in Regency England or the Royal court of Tudor London despite the really cool outfits, instead I would head directly for the 14th century and the reign of King Edward the Third, to play the part of a blacksmith’s wife making nails. It seems apposite to pick the year 1337, doesn’t it.

The woman blacksmith forging a nail depicted in the Holkham Bible. British Library (Public domain)
The woman blacksmith forging a nail depicted in the Holkham Bible. British Library (Public domain)

Why am I so sure? To answer that I must take you to the British Library, and open the pages of the Holkham Bible. This is an illustrated book of Biblical stories from the years around 1330, and it is notable for the extent and quality of its illuminations. All of mediaeval life is there, sharply observed in beautiful colour, for among the Biblical scenes there are contemporary images of the people who would have inhabited the world of whichever monks created it. One of its more famous pages is the one that caught my eye, because it depicts a woman wearing a blacksmith’s apron over her dress while she operates a forge. She’s a blacksmith’s wife, and she’s forging a mediaeval carpenter’s nail. The historians tell us that this was an activity seen as women’s work because the nails used in the Crucifixion were reputed to have been forged by a woman, and for that reason she is depicted as something of an ugly crone. Thanks, unknown mediaeval monk, you really don’t want to know how this lady blacksmith would draw you!
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Retrotechtacular: Making Chains

We take the everyday materials of engineering for granted, as ubiquitous components rather than as complex items in their own right. Sure, we know that an integrated circuit represents the pinnacle of a hundred years’ development in the field of electronics, but to us it’s simply a black box with some wires. Even with more basic materials it’s easy to forget the work that goes into their manufacture, as for example with the two videos below the break. They both take a look from a very different angle at the creation of the same product: metal chain. However, the approaches couldn’t be more different as the two examples are separated by about a century and with vastly different techniques and material.

The first film follows the manufacture of the chain and anchor that would have been found on a ship around the turn of the twentieth century. One of the text frames mentions Netherton Works, allowing us to identify it as being filmed at N. Hingley & Sons, a specialist anchor and chain manufacturer based in the area to the west of the English city of Birmingham known as the Black Country. It’s a window on a manufacturing world that has entirely disappeared, as large gangs of men do almost every task in the process by hand, with very few automated steps. There is scant regard for health and safety in handling the huge pieces of red-hot metal, and the material in question is not the steel we’d be used to today but wrought iron. The skill required to perform some of the steps such as forge-welding large anchor parts under a steam hammer is very significant, and the film alone can not convey it. More recent videos of similar scenes in Chinese factories do a better job.

The other video is contemporary, a How It’s Made look at chain manufacture. Here the chains involved are much smaller, everything is done by automated machinery, and once we have got over marveling at the intricacy of the process we can see that there is far more emphasis on the metallurgy. The wire is hard drawn before the chain is formed, and then hardened and annealed in a continuous process by a pair of induction heaters and water baths. I’m trying really hard to avoid a minor rant about the propensity of mass-market entertainment such as this for glossing over parts of the process. A keen eye notices that each link has become welded but we are not shown the machine that performs the task.

Most of us will never have the chance of a peek into a chain factory, so the medium of YouTube industrial films and videos is compulsive viewing. These two views of what is essentially the same process could not be more different, however it would be wrong to assume that one has replaced the other. There would have been mechanised production of small chains when the first film was made, and large chains will still be made today with fewer workers and from arc-welded steel rather than wrought iron. Plants like the Hingley one in Netherton may have closed in the 1980s, but there is still a demand for chains and anchors.

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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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