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!

This image and the history behind it have intrigued me for years, to the extent that I’ve eyed up more than a few seven-century-old metal fastenings in my time Until recently though I’d never had a go at making my own, but with a weekend at Hack42 and a portable forge to play with it seemed like an opportune moment to do my nails.

A Brief History Of Nails

The first nails were entirely hand forged from a piece of wrought-iron bar into a tapered point about 6″ (150 mm) long, with a head hand-formed by hammering flat a piece of untapered original stock. These are the nails that the Holkham blacksmith is making, as well as those that I am interested in. There are special dies for forming nail heads into which the point is inserted so the head can be hammered flat, but it is also possible with a little skill to hammer the end flat upon the edge of the anvil.

A pair of Roman nails, part of an exhibit in the British Museum.
A pair of Roman nails, part of an exhibit in the British Museum.

The shape of a nail changed little from Roman times until the first nail-making machinery appeared in the 17th century. Even then, the first machines were designed only to speed up production of these traditional nails, the finished product is very similar to its predecessor. It was around the end of the 18th century when the first significantly different nails emerged, the cut nail, so-called because it was formed as a tapered piece cut from a sheet of metal. These retained the four-sided taper of the hand-forged older nails, but had a much more uniform look. The modern round wire nail appeared in the second half of the 19th century, and because it could be made by automated machinery it quickly displaced the cut nail.

In a sense it’s difficult to properly replicate the hand-forged nails of old in the 21st century because of the lack of the wrought iron they were made from, but the steel nail I can make is functionally equivalent even if it requires a lot more effort to forge. There’s no sense at all in forging a mediaeval nail, but if that were the only criterion I suspect half the awesome stuff we feature on Hackaday would never see the light of day. So picking up a piece of rebar, it’s time to head for the anvil and give this unexpected project a go.

Making the nail

Forming the "slug" of metal that will become the head of the nail. Photo: © Martina Short, used here with permission..
Forming against the edge of the anvil the “slug” of metal that will become the head of the nail. Photo: © Martina Short, used here with permission.

The idea is to take a piece of rebar and forge it to a tapered point with about half its diameter, then cut it off about 10 mm to 20 mm above the start of the tapered section. The resulting “slug” of metal can then be hammered flat to form a nail head, and the result should be a usable nail.

Drawing out the tapered point is a very straightforward process of hammering equally on all sides that shouldn’t detain any smith for long. I tried one brought to a round point and a couple of square points, and I am told that the square one makes for a better nail. The head, by comparison, was not so straightforward, and of the three I produced I didn’t manage to fully form any the way I’d originally hoped to on the edge of the anvil alone.

My three nails, of varying competence.
My three nails, of varying competence.

The idea is that I should be able to take my “slug” of metal on the thick end of my taper, hold it against the edge of the anvil, and hammer it at an angle while continuously turning it such that it flattens out. In practice I either didn’t crack the method of holding it against the anvil or I hit it at the wrong angle, and I had to finish it in the leg vice in which I was able to hammer directly down upon it. The mediaeval lady has no leg vice, so in that I failed. Another attempt at a head involved flattening the slug into a spatula-like shape, before bending it at right angles and folding it backwards and forwards to make a head. A success, but not how the real mediaeval nails would have been made.

So having never made a nail before I was able to learn something of the technique and knock out a few of them with relative ease. It’s not quite a truly authentic nail, but I’m getting closer. If there’s one place I’ve gone wrong though it’s one in which the lady in the Holkham Bible would have beaten me hands-down. Each of these nails took me between a quarter hour and twenty minutes to make, while she would have been able to knock out one a minute. Maybe I’m not quite up to historical recreation standard after all.

Header image: © Martina Short, used here with permission.

An Evening With Space Shuttle Atlantis

When I got the call asking if I’d be willing to fly down to Kennedy Space Center and cover an event, I agreed immediately. Then about a week later, I remembered to call back and ask what I was supposed to be doing. Not that it mattered, I’d gladly write a few thousand words about the National Crocheting Championships if they started holding them at KSC. I hadn’t been there in years, since before the Space Shuttle program had ended, and I was eager to see the exhibit created for the fourth member of the Shuttle fleet, Atlantis.

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned that the event Hackaday wanted me to cover, the Cornell Cup Finals, would culminate in a private viewing of the Atlantis exhibit after normal park hours. After which, the winners of the competition would be announced during a dinner held under the orbiter itself. It promised to be a memorable evening for the students, a well deserved reward for the incredible work they put in during the competition.

Thinking back on it now, the organizers of the Cornell Cup and the staff at Kennedy Space Center should truly be commended. It was an incredible night, and everyone I spoke to felt humbled by the unique experience. There was a real, palpable, energy about it that you simply can’t manufacture. Of course, nobody sitting under Atlantis that night was more excited than the students. Though I may have come in as a close second.

I’ll admit it was somewhat bittersweet to see such an incredible piece of engineering turned into a museum piece; it looked as if Atlantis could blast off for another mission at any moment. But there’s no denying that the exhibit does a fantastic job of celebrating the history and accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program. NASA officially considers the surviving Shuttle orbiters to be on a “Mission of Inspiration”, so rather than being mothballed in a hangar somewhere in the desert, they are out on display where the public can get up close and personal with one of humanities greatest achievements. Judging by the response I saw, the mission is going quite well indeed.

If you have the means to do so, you should absolutely make the trip to Cape Canaveral to see Atlantis and all the other fascinating pieces of space history housed at KSC. There’s absolutely no substitute for seeing the real thing, but if you can’t quite make the trip to Florida, hopefully this account courtesy of your humble scribe will serve to give you a taste of what the exhibit has to offer.

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Twenty Five Years Since The End Of Commodore

This week marks the twenty-five year anniversary of the demise of Commodore International. This weekend, pour one out for our lost homies.

Commodore began life as a corporate entity in 1954 headed by Jack Tramiel. Tramiel, a Holocaust survivor, moved to New York after the war where he became a taxi driver. This job led him to create a typewriter repair shop in Bronx. Wanting a ‘military-style’ name for his business, and the names ‘Admiral’ and ‘General’ already taken, and ‘Lieutenant’ simply being a bad name, Tramiel chose the rank of Commodore.

Later, a deal was inked with a Czechoslovakian typewriter manufacture to assemble typewriters for the North American market, and Commodore Business Machines was born. Of course, no one cares about this pre-history of Commodore, for the same reason that very few people care about a company that makes filing cabinets. On the electronics side of the business, Commodore made digital calculators. In 1975, Commodore bought MOS, Inc., manufacturers of those calculator chips. This purchase of MOS brought Chuck Peddle to Commodore as the Head of Engineering. The calculators turned into computers, and the Commodore we know and love was born.

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Put An Arduino Enigma In Your Pocket

The German Enigma device has always been a fascinating gadget for hackers. We’ve seen various replicas and emulators created over the years, and it was recently even the subject of our weekly Hack Chat. But if you think about it it’s not really a surprise; the Enigma has the perfect blend of historical significance and engineering wizardry, with a healthy dash of mystery thrown in. Why do the bad guys always have the coolest toys?

If you’ve ever wanted your own little Enigma replica to explore, [Mark Culross] has put together a project which makes it easier than ever. In fact, it’s so straightforward that some of you reading this post will probably be able to put one together as soon as you’ve read this post from stuff you already have lying around in the parts bin. All you need is an Arduino Uno, an Adafruit 2.8″ TFT Touch Shield, and a penchant for World War II technology.

Thanks to the relatively high-resolution touch screen, [Mark] was able to develop a user interface for his Enigma that really gives you a feel for how the original machine worked. Obviously it’s considerably simplified from the real-world version, but using a stylus to tap the rotors you want to spin or the wires you want plugged in makes for a more immersive experience than many of the previous attempts we’ve seen. With a tap you’re even able to load historical machine configurations, such as how the Enigma aboard the submarine U-262 was configured when the Allies intercepted its encoded messages in 1942.

[Mark] says this project was always about developing the software, and he leaves the actual hardware implementation as an exercise for the user. Just to play around with the software it’s enough to hook up an Arduino and the touch screen, but we’d love to see somebody really take the idea and run with it. Add some batteries, a charging circuit, and put it all in a little wooden box for that authentic Enigma look. Can’t forget that iconic wrinkle finish paint, either.

Over the years, we’ve seen replica Enigma machines in all shapes and sizes. From ones you could mount on your wrist, to full size replicas using modern components. We’ve even seen one variation that you can print out on a couple of sheets of paper. The parade of recreations shows no sign of stopping, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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MIT IAP Tackles Radio

MIT is well known for rigorous courses, but they also have a special four-week term at the start of each year called the IAP — Independent Activities Period. This year, the MIT Radio Society had several interesting presentations on both the history and application of radio. You weren’t there? No problem, as the nine lecture were all recorded for you to watch at your leisure. You can see one of the nine, below.

These aren’t some five minute quicky videos, either. They are basically live captures that run anywhere from an hour to almost two hours in length. The topics are a great mix including radio history, software-defined radio, propagation, radio astronomy, RADAR, and even 5G.

You might have to pick and choose. Some of the lectures are suitable for just about anyone. Some assume a bit more radio expertise in electronics or math. Still, they are all worth at least a cursory skim to see if you want to really sit and watch in detail. The only nitpick is that some presenters used a laser pointer that doesn’t show up on the inset slide graphics in the video. That makes sense because the inset slides are not really in the room, but it can make it a little difficult to understand what the speaker is pointing to on a crowded slide.

Of course, if you want to dive deep and you need more background, MIT — along with many other institutions — will let you use their learning material for free. We were especially fans of the circuits class but there are many others including just raw materials from OCW.

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The Mother Of All Demos, 50 Years On

If you’re like me, chances are pretty good that you’ve been taught that all the elements of the modern computer user interface — programs running in windows, menus, icons, WYSIWYG editing of text documents, and of course, the venerable computer mouse — descended from the hallowed halls of the Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center in the early 1970s. And it’s certainly true that PARC developed these technologies and more, including the laser printer and object-oriented programming, all of which would grace first the workplaces of the world and later the homes of everyday people.

But none of these technologies would have existed without first having been conceived of by a man with a singular vision of computing. Douglas Engelbart pictured a future in which computers were tools to sharpen the human intellectual edge needed to solve the world’s problem, and he set out to invent systems to allow that. Reading a Twitter feed or scanning YouTube comments, one can argue with how well Engelbart’s vision worked out, but there’s no arguing with the fact that he invented almost all the trappings of modern human-computer interaction, and bestowed it upon the world in one massive demonstration that became known as “The Mother of All Demos.”

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The Evolution Of Wireless Game Controllers

The story goes that Atari was developing a premium model of their popular home video game console, the Atari 2600, for the 1981 fiscal year. Internally known as the Stella RC, this model revision promised touch sensitive game selection toggles, LED indicators, and onboard storage for the controllers. The focus of the project, however, was the “RC” in Stella RC which stood for remote control. Atari engineers wanted to free players from the constraints of the wires that fettered them to their televisions.

Problem with the prototypes was that the RF transmitters in the controllers were powerful enough to send a signal over a 1000 ft. radius, and they interfered with a number of the remote garage door openers on the market. Not to mention that if there were another Stella RC console on the same channel in an apartment building, or simply across the street, you could be playing somebody else’s Pitfall run. The mounting tower of challenges to making a product that the FCC would stamp their approval on were too great. So Atari decided to abandon the pioneering Stella RC project. Physical proof of the first wireless game controllers would have been eliminated at that point if it were created by any other company… but prototypes mysteriously left the office in some peculiar ways.

“Atari had abandoned the project at the time…[an Atari engineer] thought it would be a great idea to give his girlfriend’s son a videogame system to play with…I can’t [comment] about the relationship itself or what happened after 1981, but that’s how this system left Atari…and why it still exists today.”

Joe Cody,

Atari did eventually get around to releasing some wireless RF 2600 joysticks that the FCC would approve. A couple years after abandoning the Stella RC project they released the Atari 2600 Remote Control Joysticks at a $69.95 MSRP (roughly $180 adjusted for inflation). The gigantic price tag mixed with the video game market “dropping off the cliff” in 1983 saw few ever getting to know the bliss of wire-free video game action. It was obvious that RF game controllers were simply ahead of their time, but there had to be cheaper alternatives on the horizon.

Out of Sight, Out of Control with IR Schemes

Nintendo AVS 1985 Display
Nintendo AVS console deck and IR controller on display.

Video games were a dirty word in America in 1985. While games themselves were still happening on the microcomputer platforms, the home console business was virtually non-existent. Over in Japan, Nintendo was raking in money hand over fist selling video games on their Famicom console. They sought to replicate that success in North America by introducing a revised model of the Famicom, but it had to impress the tech journos that would be attending its reveal at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

The prototype system was called the Nintendo Advanced Video System (AVS). It would feature a keyboard, a cassette tape drive, and most importantly two wireless controllers. The controllers used infrared (IR) communication and the receiver was built-into the console deck itself. Each controller featured a square metallic directional pad and four action buttons that gave the impression of brushed aluminum. The advancement in video game controller technology was too good to be true though, because the entire system received a makeover before releasing as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that Christmas. The NES lacked the keyboard, the tape drive, and the IR controllers and its change in materials hardly captured the high-end flash of the AVS. The removal of IR meant the device was cheaper to manufacture. A decision that ultimately helped the NES to become a breakout success that in turn brought back dedicated video game consoles single-handedly.

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