Maria Mitchell: The First Woman Astronomy Professor

On an October night in 1847, a telescope on the roof of the Pacific National Bank building on Nantucket Island was trained onto the deep black sky. At the eyepiece was an accomplished amateur astronomer on the verge of a major discovery — a new comet, one not recorded in any almanac. The comet, which we today know by the dry designator C/1847 T1, is more popularly known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” named after its discoverer, a 29-year old woman named Maria Mitchell. The discovery of the comet would, after a fashion, secure her reputation as a scholar and a scientist, but it was hardly her first success, and it wouldn’t be her last by a long shot.

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Calculating Like It’s 1962

We sometimes forget that the things we think of as trivial today were yesterday’s feats of extreme engineering. Consider the humble pocket calculator, these days so cheap and easy to construct that they’re essentially disposable. But building a simple “four-banger” calculator in 1962 was anything but a simple task, and it’s worth looking at what one of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand today accomplished with practically nothing.

If there’s anything that [Cliff Stoll]’s enthusiasm can’t make interesting, we don’t know what it would be, and he certainly does the job with this teardown and analysis of a vintage electronic calculator. You’ll remember [Cliff] from his book The Cuckoo’s Egg, documenting his mid-80s computer sleuthing that exposed a gang of black-hat hackers working for the KGB. [Cliff] came upon a pair of Friden EC-132 electronic calculators, and with the help of [Bob Ragen], the engineer who designed them in 1962, got one working. With a rack of PC boards, cleverly hinged to save space and stuffed with germanium transistors, a CRT display, and an acoustic delay-line memory, the calculators look ridiculous by today’s standards. But when you take a moment to ponder just how much work went into such a thing, it really makes you wonder how the old timers ever brought a product to market.

As a side note, it’s great to see the [Cliff] is still so energetic after all these years. Watching him jump about with such excitement and passion really gets us charged up.

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Silicon Valley was Built on Tubes of Glass

Lee de Forest

Bill Shockley brought the transistor to a pasture in Palo Alto, but he didn’t land there by chance. There was already a plot afoot which had nothing to do with silicon, and it had already been a happening place for some time by then.

Often overshadowed by Edison and Menlo Park or Western Electric and its Bell Labs, people forget that the practical beginning of modern radio and telecommunications began unsuspectingly in the Bay Area on the shoestring-budgeted work benches of Lee de Forest at Federal Telegraph.

As the first decade of the 20th century passed, Lee de Forest was already a controversial figure. He had founded a company in New York to develop his early vacuum tubes as detectors for radio, but he was not very good at business. Some of the officers of the company decided that progress was not being made fast enough and drained the company of assets while de Forest was away. This led to years of legal troubles and the arrest of many involved due to fraud and loss of investors’ money.

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Do You Have An Endangered Craft?

It is probably fair to say that as Hackaday readers, you will all be people with the ability to make things. Some of you can make incredible things, as your writers we are in constant awe of the projects that pass through our hands. But even if you feel that your skills in the maker department aren’t particularly elite, you’ll have a propensity for work in this direction or you wouldn’t be here.

Most of the craft we feature involves technologies that are still very modern indeed to the majority of the population. We for example know that the first 3D printers were built decades ago and that we take them for granted on our benches, but to the Man In The Street they are still right up there with flying cars and time-travelling police telephone boxes.

We use 3D printers and microcontrollers because they are the tools of our age, but how different might our crafts have been if we’d been born a few centuries ago? Apprenticed to a master craftsman as teenagers, we (well, at least you boys!) would have learned  a single craft to a high level of expertise, making by hand the day-to-day products of life in those times.

The Industrial Revolution brought mechanisation and mass production, and today very few of the products you use will be hand-made. There may still be a few craftsmen with the skills to produce them by hand, but in the face of the mass-produced alternative there is little business for them and they are in inevitable decline. In an effort to do something about this and save what skills remain, the Heritage Crafts Association in the UK has published a list of dying crafts, that you can view either alphabetically, or by category of risk.

It’s a list with a British flavour as you might expect from the organisation behind it, after all for example hand stitched cricket balls are not in high demand in the Americas. But it serves also as a catalogue of some fascinating crafts, as well as plenty that will undoubtedly be of interest to Hackaday readers. Making hand-made planes, saws, or spades, for example, or at least where this is being written, coracle making.

As your Hackaday scribe this is close to home, a blacksmith carrying on her father’s business can’t earn enough to live in Southern England while an electronic engineer and technical journalist can. Eventually there will be one less blacksmith plying the craft, and though his tools and some of his skills will live on here, the business will not. Take a look at the list of crafts, do any of you have them? Or do you know of any craftspeople who have any of the skills listed, that the HCA might not know about? Let us know in the comments.

Treadle lathe image: Patrick-Emil Zörner (Paddy) [CC BY-SA 2.0].

Books You Should Read: IGNITION!

Isaac Asimov described the business of rocket fuel research as “playing footsie with liquids from Hell.” If that piques your interest even a little, even if you do nothing else today, read the first few pages of IGNITION! which is available online for free. I bet you won’t want to stop reading.

IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants is about how modern liquid rocket fuel came to be. Written by John D. Clark and published in 1972, the title might at first glance make the book sound terribly dry — it’s not. Liquid rocket fuel made modern rocketry possible. But most of us have no involvement with it at all besides an awareness that it exists, and that makes it easy to take for granted.

Most of us lack any understanding of the fact that its development was the result of a whole lot of hard scientific work, and that work required brilliance (and bravery) and had many frustrating dead ends. It was also an amazingly dangerous business to be in. Isaac Asimov put it this way in the introduction:

“[A]nyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad. I don’t mean garden-variety crazy or a merely raving lunatic. I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.

There are, after all, some chemicals that explode shatteringly, some that flame ravenously, some that corrode hellishly, some that poison sneakily, and some that stink stenchily. As far as I know, though, only liquid rocket fuels have all these delightful properties combined into one delectable whole.”

At the time that the book was written and published, most of the work on liquid rocket fuels had been done in the 40’s, 50’s, and first half of the 60’s. There was plenty written about rocketry, but very little about the propellants themselves, and nothing at all written about why these specific substances and not something else were being used. John Clark — having run a laboratory doing propellant research for seventeen years — had a unique perspective of the whole business and took the time to write IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants.

Liquid rocket propellant was in two parts: a fuel and an oxidizer. The combination is hypergolic; that is, the two spontaneously ignite and burn upon contact with each other. As an example of the kinds of details that mattered (i.e. all of them), the combustion process had to be rapid and complete. If the two liquids flow into the combustion chamber and ignite immediately, that’s good. If they form a small puddle and then ignite, that’s bad. There are myriad other considerations as well; the fuel must burn at a manageable temperature (so as not to destroy the motor), the energy density of the fuel must be high enough to be a practical fuel in the first place, and so on.

The actual process of discovering exactly what materials to use and how precisely to make them work in a rocket motor was the very essence of the phrase “the devil is in the details.” For every potential solution, there was a mountain of dead-end possibilities that tantalizingly, infuriatingly, almost worked.

The first reliable, workable propellant combination was Aniline and Red Fuming Nitric Acid (RFNA). “It had the one – but magnificent – virtue that it worked,” writes Clark. “Otherwise it was an abomination.” Aniline was difficult to procure, ferociously poisonous and rapidly absorbed through skin, and froze at an inconvenient -6.2 Celsius which limited it to warm weather only. RFNA was fantastically corrosive, and this alone went on to cause no end of problems. It couldn’t be left sitting in a rocket tank waiting to be used for too long, because after a while you wouldn’t have a tank left. It needed to be periodically vented while in storage. Pouring it gave off dense clouds of remarkably toxic gas. This propellant would go on to cause incredibly costly and dangerous problems, but it worked. Still, no one wanted to put up with any of it one moment longer than they absolutely had to. As a result, that combination was not much more than a first step in the whole process; there was plenty of work left to do.

By the mid-sixties, liquid rocket propellant was a solved problem and the propellant community had pretty much worked themselves out of a job. Happily, a result of that work was this book; it captures history and detail that otherwise would simply have disappeared.

Clark has a gift for writing, and the book is easy to read and full of amusing (and eye-widening) anecdotes. Clark doesn’t skimp on the scientific background, but always in an accessible way. It’s interesting, it’s relevant, it’s relatable, and there is plenty to learn about how hard scientific and engineering development actually gets done. Download the PDF onto your favorite device. You’ll find it well worth the handful of evenings it takes to read through it.

Know Thy LED

The invention of the LED is one of the most important discoveries of our times. They are everywhere, from our flashlights to household lighting and television sets. We don’t need to tell you that a project with more blinkies is better than a project with fewer blinkies. But an LED is not simply an LED; the sheer variety of LEDs is amazing, and so in this write-up, we’ll take a closer look at how to choose the right LED for your next masterpiece. Continue reading “Know Thy LED”

On Point: The Yagi Antenna

If you happened to look up during a drive down a suburban street in the US anytime during the 60s or 70s, you’ll no doubt have noticed a forest of TV antennas. When over-the-air TV was the only option, people went to great lengths to haul in signals, with antennas of sometimes massive proportions flying over rooftops.

Outdoor antennas all but disappeared over the last third of the 20th century as cable providers became dominant, cast to the curb as unsightly relics of a sad and bygone era of limited choices and poor reception. But now cheapskates cable-cutters like yours truly are starting to regrow that once-thick forest, this time lofting antennas to receive digital programming over the air. Many of the new antennas make outrageous claims about performance or tout that they’re designed specifically for HDTV. It’s all marketing nonsense, of course, because then as now, almost every TV antenna is just some form of the classic Yagi design. The physics of this antenna are fascinating, as is the story of how the antenna was invented.

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