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.

Continue reading “On Point: The Yagi Antenna”

History of Git

Git is one of those tools that is so simple to use, that you often don’t learn a lot of nuance to it. You wind up cloning a repository from the Internet and that’s about it. If you make changes, maybe you track them and if you are really polite you might create a pull request to give back to the project. But there’s a lot more you can do. For example, did you know that Git can track collaborative Word documents? Or manage your startup files across multiple Linux boxes?

Git belongs to a family of software products that do revision (or version) control. The idea is that you can develop software (for example) and keep track of each revision. Good systems have provisions for allowing multiple people to work on a project at one time. There is also usually some way to split a project into different parts. For example, you might split off to develop a version of the product for a different market or to try an experimental feature without breaking the normal development. In some cases, you’ll eventually bring that split back into the main line.

Although in the next installment, I’ll give you some odd uses for Git you might find useful, this post is mostly the story of how Git came to be. Open source development is known for flame wars and there’s at least a few in this tale. And in true hacker fashion, the hero of the story decides he doesn’t like the tools he’s using so… well, what would you do?

Continue reading “History of Git”

A Queen Mystery: The Legend of The Deacy Amp

It sounds like a scene from a movie. A dark night in London, 1972. A young man walks alone, heading home after a long night of practicing with his band. His heavy Fender bass slung over his back, he’s weary but excited about the future. As he passes a skip (dumpster for the Americans out there), a splash of color catches his attention. Wires – not building power wires, but thinner gauge electronics connection wire. A tinkerer studying for his Electrical Engineering degree, the man had to investigate. What he found would become rock and roll history, and the seed of mystery stretching over 40 years.

The man was John Deacon, and he had recently signed on as bassist for a band named Queen. Reaching into the skip, he found the wires attached to a circuit board. The circuit looked to be an amplifier. Probably from a transistor radio or a tape player. Queen hadn’t made it big yet, so all the members were struggling to get by in London.

Deacon took the board back home and examined it closer. It looked like it would make a good practice amplifier for his guitar. He fit the amp inside an old bookshelf speaker, added a ¼ “ jack for input, and closed up the case. A volume control potentiometer dangled out the back of the case. Power came from a 9-volt battery outside the amp case. No, not a tiny transistor battery; this was a rather beefy PP-9 pack, commonly used in radios back then. The amp sounded best cranked all the way up, so eventually, even the volume control was removed. John liked the knobless simplicity – just plug in the guitar and play. No controls to fiddle with.

And just like that, The Deacy amp was born.

Continue reading “A Queen Mystery: The Legend of The Deacy Amp”

Maintenance, Emissions, and Privacy: The OBD Story

The 90s were a pivotal time in world history, and 1996 was no different. You might have spent the year glued to the TV playing Super Mario 64, or perhaps you were busy campaigning for Bill Clinton or Bob Dole, or maybe you were so depressed that Princess Diana and Prince Charles divorced that you spent the whole year locked in your room, a prisoner of your own existential nihilism. Whatever you did, though, it’s likely that one major event passed you by without a thought: The standardization of on-board vehicle diagnostics (in the US), otherwise known as OBD-II.

In the 1970s, vehicles (in some western countries, at least) were subject to ever-increasing restrictions on emissions. Most companies began switching from carburetors to efficient fuel injection systems, but even that wouldn’t be enough for the new standards. Cars began to carry rudimentary computer systems to manage and control the influx of valves, meters, and sensors that became the new norm. And, as one would guess, every car company had their own standard for managing and monitoring these computer systems. Eventually they would settle on the OBD system that we have today.

Continue reading “Maintenance, Emissions, and Privacy: The OBD Story”