Historical Hackers: The Hacker Of Cragside, Circa 1870

Imagine visiting a home that was off the grid, using hydroelectric power to run lights, a dishwasher, a vacuum cleaner, and a washing machine. There’s a system for watering the plants and an intercom between rooms. Not really a big deal, right? This is the twenty first century, after all.

Armstrong with a 7 inch gun of his design
Image of Armstrong and his 7-inch gun from an 1887 edition of Illustrated London News

But then imagine you’ve exited your time machine to find this house not in the present day, but in the year 1870. Suddenly things become quite a bit more impressive, and it is all thanks to a British electrical hacker named William Armstrong who built a house known as Cragside. Even if you’ve never been to Northumberland, Cragside might look familiar. It’s appeared in several TV shows, but — perhaps most notably — played the part of Lockwood Manor in the movie Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

Armstrong was a lawyer by training but dabbled in science including hydraulics and electricity — a hot topic in the early 1800s. He finally abandoned his law practice to form W. G. Armstrong and Company, known for producing Armstrong guns, which were breech-loading artillery pieces ranging from 2.5 inch bores up to 7 inches. By 1859, he was knighted and became the principal supplier of armaments to both the Army and the Navy.

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Who Flew Across The Atlantic First? The Airborne Boats Of 1919

Aviation history is a bit strange. People tend to remember some firsts but not others and — sometimes — not even firsts. For example, everyone knows Amelia Earhart attempted to be the first woman to fly around the globe. She failed, but do you know who succeeded? It was Jerrie Mock. How about the first person to do it? Wiley Post, a name largely forgotten by the public. Charles Lindbergh is another great example. He was the first person to fly across the Atlantic, right? Not exactly. The story of the real first transatlantic flight is one of aviation hacking by the United States Navy.

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This Group Of Women Tried To Break Into Astronaut Program In 1960s; One Just Made It

When Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk reached the boundary of space aboard the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule earlier today, it marked the end of a journey she started 60 years ago. In 1961 she became the youngest member of what would later become known as the “Mercury 13”, a group of accomplished female aviators that volunteered to be put through the same physical and mental qualification tests that NASA’s Mercury astronauts went through. But the promising experiment was cut short by the space agency’s rigid requirements for potential astronauts, and what John Glenn referred to in his testimony to the Committee on Science and Astronautics as the “social order” of America at the time.

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Despite Uncertainty, WWII Warbirds Resume Tours

Back in September of 2019, I had the opportunity to climb aboard the restored B-17G bomber Nine-O-Nine as part of a national “Wings of Freedom” airport tour operated by the Collings Foundation. I was excited to get up close and personal with such an iconic aircraft, particularity since Hackaday gave me a platform to share the experience with a global audience. With fewer than 50 B-17s left in the world, and most of those in the United States, taking this sort of “virtual tour” was as close as most people would ever get to seeing what it was really like for the crews who operated these machines over the skies of Europe more than 75 years ago.

Tragically, just a week after the article was published, the Nine-O-Nine crashed during a visit to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. The pilot, co-pilot, and five paying passengers were all killed in either the initial impact or the subsequent fire. When crews were finally able to extinguish the flames, the left wing and tail were all that remained of the once mighty bomber. In a twist of fate, some of the images I took for the Hackaday article ended up being included in the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report, as they represented perhaps the most detailed photographic record of the aircraft’s condition before the crash.

Wreckage of the Nine-O-Nine.

In the weeks and months that followed, many voiced their concerns over what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) calls “Living History Flight Experience” aircraft such as those operated by the Collings Foundation. The main point of contention was whether or not these planes were too old to safely carry passengers, and by extension, whether continuing to fly them around the country presented a menace to the national airspace. Critics argued that whatever cultural benefit offered by the chance for the public to tour or ride these antique aircraft was not worth anyone losing their lives over; a line of logic that’s difficult to find fault in.

Then came COVID-19. By March of 2020, individual states had already started going into lockdown, and suddenly there were far more pressing matters to address than the fate of a few dozen teetering WWII aircraft. It was around this time that the FAA pulled the Collings Foundation’s license to conduct any more paid flights, but since outdoor gatherings such as airshows were being put on hold for the foreseeable future, the measure had little immediate impact. It was clear these airborne museum pieces were going to spend most of 2020 in their hangers anyway.

Now, thankfully, the pall of COVID-19 is finally beginning to lift over the United States. In response to widespread vaccine availability, most states are ending or at least reducing their restrictions on outdoor events. With major airshows like the “World War II Weekend” in Reading, Pennsylvania given the green light to proceed, these legendary aircraft are being awakened from their long slumber and making their first tentative flights of the post-pandemic era.

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The History Of Neon Lights

We always enjoy history videos from [The History Guy] but they don’t always cover technology history. When they do, though, we enjoy them twice as much as with the recent video he posted on the history of neon signs. Of course, as he points out, many neon lights don’t have actual neon in them — they use various noble gasses depending on the color you want. Sure, some have neon, but the name has stuck.

The back part of the video is more about the signs themselves, but the early portion talks about [William Ramsay], a Scot chemist who started extracting component gasses out of the atmosphere. The first one found was argon and then helium. Krypton and neon were not far behind. The other noble gas, Xenon, also fell to his experiments. He and another scientist won the Nobel for this work.

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Historical Hackers: Emergency Antennas Launched By Kite

Your airplane has crashed at sea. You are perched in a lifeboat and you need to call for help. Today you might reach for a satellite phone, but in World War II you would more likely turn a crank on a special survival radio.

These radios originated in Germany but were soon copied by the British and the United States. In addition to just being a bit of history, we can learn a few lessons from these radios. The designers clearly thought about the challenges stranded personnel would face and came up with novel solutions. For example, how do you loft a 300-foot wire up to use as an antenna? Would you believe a kite or even a balloon?

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The Modding, Restoration, And Demise Of A $3M Analog Computer

How do you rapidly record the output from your three million dollar analog computer in the 1940s when the results are only available on analog meters? The team responsible for the Westinghouse 1947 AC Network Calculator at Georgia Tech was faced with just this problem and came up with a nifty solution — hack the control panel and wire in a special-purpose drafting table.

What Is It?

What is this beast of a computer? Machines of this type were developed during and after World War 2, and strictly speaking, belong in the category of scale models rather than true computers. Although these machines were very flexible, they were primarily designed to simulate power distribution grids. There is a lot of theory under the hood, but basically a real world, multi-phase distribution system would be scaled to single-phase at 400 Hz for modeling.

The engineers would “program” the machine by connecting together the appropriate circuit elements (like capacitors, inductors, transmission lines, generators, etc.) on big patch panels. Thus programmed, a 10 kW motor-generator located in the basement would be started up and the simulation was underway. Continue reading “The Modding, Restoration, And Demise Of A $3M Analog Computer”