For the word to change, things got chemical. [Alessandro Volta] introduces his voltaic pile. Once scientists latched onto the idea of a stable reaction giving a steady stream of magic pixies for them to play with, it wasn’t long before the great minds were turning their attention to improving this new technology.
In the classic game of one-upmanship loved by technical people all over, we quickly skip forward to the modern era. An era where no man is unburdened with the full weight of constant communication. It’s all thanks to a technology that’s theoretically unchanged from that first pile. Video after the break.
The best way to pull off this deception: tell your significant other that you’d want nothing more than a romantic week in Paris. Arrive in Paris, stash your bags, and then take either the number three or eleven Metro. When you get to the station that looks like the inside of a giant steam engine, Arts et Métiers, get out. You’re now ten Euros away from one of the coolest museums a hacker could visit.
A significant portion of modern science’s beginnings is sitting in the Musée, polished and beautiful. Most of them are housed in cabinets so old they’re part of the exhibit. Now, the Henry Ford museum in Detroit Michigan is a monument to industrialization, and cool in its own right, but it leaves some questions unanswered. We’re all spoiled by desktop CNCs, precision measurement tools for pennies, and more. How did we get here? How did they measure a shaft or turn a screw before precision digital micrometers? What did early automation look like? Early construction?
Also did I mention it has Foucault’s Pendulum? You know, the one that finally convinced everyone that the Earth rotated around an axis? No big deal.
The museum has a few permanent exhibits: instruments scientifique, matériaux, construction, communication, énergie, mécanique et transports.
Instruments Scientifiques was one of my favorites. Not only did it include old scientific instruments, it had sections containing some of the original experiments in optics, computation, and more. For example you can see not just one but a few original examples of Pascal’s Pascaline, arguably the first mechanical calculators in the modern era to be used by the layman for every day calculation, signed by Pascal. It’s also worth noting just how incredible the workmanship of these tools are. They’re beautiful.
Matériaux was initially a disappointment as I entered it from the wrong end. For me it started of with a tragically boring and simplistic display on recycling materials designed primarily to torture children on field trips. Luckily it quickly ramped into a fascinating display on materials manufacturing technology. How did we go from hand looms to fully automated Jacquard looms (of which you can see some of the first examples) to our modern day robotic looms? How did ceramic evolve? What was early steelmaking like? It’s very cool and models are all in beautiful condition.
By the time I got to Communication I was reaching the limit of my endurance and also what you can fit into a single day of the museum. It’s a large building. It was packed through many of the early examples of computing, television, and space. There was quite a display of early camera equipment. You could get close enough to some truly massive old computers to smell the still off-gassing phenolics.
Construction held my interest for a long time. It’s not my usual interest, but after living in Paris for a month or so I was absolutely burning with curiosity. How did anyone without a single powered crane or vehicle build so many buildings out of stone? It’s packed for four rooms and two stores from floor to ceiling of beautiful little wood models explaining exactly how.
Énergie was quite cool. It followed the development of steam power for the most part. It started with primitive waterwheels. Moved on to turbines. Then showed the gradual increase in complexity until the the modern day. It had some internal combustion too, but much of that was reserved for the transports section of the museum. It also had some interactive displays to entertain children and Hackaday writers. However they were in desperate need of an oiling and this is by far the most ear-piercingly squeaky exhibit in the whole building.
Mécanique is competing with instruments scientifique as my favorite exhibit. Have you ever wanted to see hundreds of examples of screw machines, old lathes, and the evolution of the milling machine? What about models of the factories that built steam engines or massive wagon wheels. They even had a lathe that belonged to a French king. Apparently he thought metalworking was the way to get in touch with the common people.
Transports was a nice exhibit, but it fell a little short for me since I’d been to the aforementioned Henry Ford museum. However, it covered the history of some of the European automobile manufacturers pretty well. Had a nice section on trains and subways. And even had some models of the ships used in the European Space Agency.
The last exhibit is the museum itself. It’s an historic building. It was originally built as a school for training engineers in 1794 but as the school grew out of it, it slowly transformed into the museum it is today. The architecture is beautiful. It’s adorned in stone and statue like all the French museums. It also has sections cut out in some of the higher storeys of the building so you can see how it was constructed.
Part of its beauty is also related to the school swallowing up the Priory of Saint Martin des Champs (Google translate does a great job if you don’t read French). The Priory is a beautiful old church, founded in 1079. It was home to the last trial by combat the country would see. You can piece together the story between the two pages dedicated to the combatants Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris.
The final display in the museum is in the church. It holds Foucault’s pendulum, dangling from the center of the sanctuary. If you get there early enough in the day you may get to watch it knock over a peg or two and prove the rotation for yourself.
Rather than the statues of the saints there are statues of the muses of Industrie and Agriculture. The hall is filled with more exhibits. There are cutaway original automobiles. A model of the Statue of Liberty. A catwalk lets you take a high view of the surroundings. It is also beautiful in and of itself. The church is well maintained and painted in the style original to them.
If you find yourself in Paris with a few hours (or days) to spare I highly recommend this museum. Any technical person would be hard pressed to leave uninspired and unawed by the display. It’s good to get a perspective on the past.
Transistors have come a long way. Like everything else electronic, they’ve become both better and cheaper. According to a recent IEEE article, a transistor cost about $8 in today’s money back in the 1960’s. Consider the Regency TR-1, the first transistor radio from TI and IDEA. In late 1954, the four-transistor device went on sale for $49.95. That doesn’t sound like much until you realize that in 1954, this was equivalent to about $441 (a new car cost about $1,700 and a copy of life magazine cost 20 cents). Even at that price, they sold about 150,000 radios.
Part of the reason the transistors cost so much was that production costs were high. But another reason is that yields were poor. In some cases, 4 out of 5 of the devices were not usable. The transistors were not that good even when they did work. The first transistors were germanium which has high leakage and worse thermal properties than silicon.
Early transistors were subject to damage from soldering, so it was common to use an alligator clip or a specific heat sink clip to prevent heat from reaching the transistor during construction. Some gear even used sockets which also allowed the quick substitution of devices, just like the tubes they replaced.
When the economics of transistors changed, it made a lot of things practical. For example, a common piece of gear used to be a transistor tester, like the Heathkit IT-121 in the video below. If you pulled an $8 part out of a socket, you’d want to test it before you spent more money on a replacement. Of course, if you had a curve tracer, that was even better because you could measure the device parameters which were probably more subject to change than a modern device.
Of course, germanium to silicon is only one improvement made over the years. The FET is a fundamentally different kind of transistor that has many desirable properties and, of course, integrating hundreds or even thousands of transistors on one integrated circuit revolutionized electronics of all types. Transistors got better. Parameters become less variable and yields increased. Maximum frequency rises and power handling capacity increases. Devices just keep getting better. And cheaper.
A Brief History of Transistors
The path from vacuum tube to the Regency TR-1 was a twisted one. Everyone knew the disadvantages of tubes: fragile, power hungry, and physically large, although smaller and lower-power tubes would start to appear towards the end of their reign. In 1925 a Canadian physicist patented a FET but failed to publicize it. Beyond that, mass production of semiconductor material was unknown at the time. A German inventor patented a similar device in 1934 that didn’t take off, either.
Bell labs researchers worked with germanium and actually understood how to make “point contact” transistors and FETs in 1947. However, Bell’s lawyers found the earlier patents and elected to pursue the conventional transistor patent that would lead to the inventors (John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley) winning the Nobel prize in 1956.
Two Germans working for a Westinghouse subsidiary in Paris independently developed a point contact transistor in 1948. It would be 1954 before silicon transistors became practical. The MOSFET didn’t appear until 1959.
Of course, even these major milestones are subject to incremental improvements. The V channel for MOSFETs, for example, opened the door for FETs to be true power devices, able to switch currents required for motors and other high current devices.
The history of capacitors starts in the pioneering days of electricity. I liken it to the pioneering days of aviation when you made your own planes out of wood and canvas and struggled to leap into the air, not understanding enough about aerodynamics to know how to stay there. Electricity had a similar period. At the time of the discovery of the capacitor our understanding was so primitive that electricity was thought to be a fluid and that it came in two forms, vitreous electricity and resinous electricity. As you’ll see below, it was during the capacitor’s early years that all this changed.
The history starts in 1745. At the time, one way of generating electricity was to use a friction machine. This consisted of a glass globe rotated at a few hundred RPM while you stroked it with the palms of your hands. This generated electricity on the glass which could then be discharged. Today we call the effect taking place the triboelectric effect, which you can see demonstrated here powering an LCD screen.
Josef Prusa’s designs have always been trustworthy. He has a talent for scouring the body of work out there in the RepRap community, finding the most valuable innovations, and then blending them together along with some innovations of his own into something greater than the sum of its parts. So, it’s not hard to say, that once a feature shows up in one of his printers, it is the direction that printers are going. With the latest version of the often imitated Prusa i3 design, we can see what’s next.
The handheld screw driver is a wonderful tool. We’re often tempted to reach for its beefier replacement, the power drill/driver. But the manually operated screw driver has an extremely direct feedback mechanism; the only person to blame when the screw strips or is over-torqued is you. This is a near-perfect tool and when you pull the right screwdriver from the stone you will truly be the ruler of the fastener universe.
A Bit of Screw Driver History:
In order to buy a good set of screw drivers, it is important to understand the pros and cons of the geometry behind it. With a bit of understanding, it’s possible to look at a screw driver and tell if it was built to turn screws or if it was built to sell cheap.
Screw heads were initially all slotted. This isn’t 100 percent historically accurate, but when it comes to understanding why the set at the big box store contains the drivers it does, it helps. (There were a lot of square headed screws back in the day, we still use them, but not as much.)
Flat head screws could be made with a slitting saw, hack saw, or file. The flat-head screw, at the time, was the cheapest to make and had pretty good torque transfer capabilities. It also needed hand alignment, a careful operator, and would almost certainly strip out and destroy itself when used with a power tool.
These shortcomings along with the arrival of the industrial age brought along many inventions from necessity, the most popular being the Phillips screw head. There were a lot of simultaneous invention going on, and it’s not clear who the first to invent was, or who stole what from who. However, the Philips screw let people on assembly lines turn a screw by hand or with a power tool and succeed most of the time. It had some huge downsides, for example, it would cam out really easily. This was not an original design intent, but the Phillips company said, “to hell with it!” and marketed it as a feature to prevent over-torquing anyway.
The traditional flathead and the Phillips won over pretty much everyone everywhere. Globally, there were some variations on the concept. For example, the Japanese use JST standard or Posidriv screws instead of Philips. These do not cam out and let the user destroy a screw if they desire. Which might show a cultural difference in thinking. That aside, it means that most of the screws intended for a user to turn with a screw driver are going to be flat-headed or Philips regardless of how awful flat headed screws or Philips screws are.
[Robert Glaser] kept all his projects, all of them, from the 1960s to now. What results is a collection so pure we feel an historian should stop by his house, if anything, to investigate the long-term effects of the knack.
He starts with an opaque projector he built in the third grade, which puts it at 1963. Next is an, “idiot box,” which looks suspiciously like “the Internet”, but is actually a few relaxation oscillators lighting up neon bulbs. After that, the condition really sets in, but luckily he’s gone as far as to catalog them all chronologically.
We especially enjoyed the computer projects. It starts with his experiences with punch cards in high school. He would hand-write his code and then give it to the punch card ladies who would punch them out. Once a week, a school-bus would take the class to the county’s computer, and they’d get to run their code. In university he got to experience the onset of UNIX, C, and even used an analog computer for actual work.
There’s so much to read, and it’s all good. There’s a section on Ham radio, and a very interesting section on the start-up and eventual demise of a telecom business. Thanks to reader, [Itay Ramot], for the tip!