Patents And The Missing Museum

A beautiful chapter of the history of invention in the United States ended with a fire in 1880. Well, the fire took place in 1877, but the wheels of government turn slowly. For the first 90 years that patents were granted in the USA, applications were required to be accompanied by a working model – to prove that the idea works and rule out “the perpetual motion cranks”.

During this time, the US Patent Office put all of these models on display, or at least as many of them as they could. The idea was that, alongside the printed documents, people would learn from seeing the inventions in the flesh. This tremendous resource got the Patent Office nicknamed the “Temple of Invention”, and rightly so. Many of the crucial innovations of the industrial revolution were there, in miniature. From Samuel Morse’s model telegraph, through Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, to more than a thousand inventions of Thomas Edison’s, working models were to be seen in the flesh, if in the small. We can only imagine how awe-inspiring it would have been to walk through those halls.

Two fires put significant dents in this tremendous collection. First in 1836, in a fire that consumed most of the approximately 10,000 patents that had been issued to that date, models and paper copies alike. Ironically, these included the patent for the first cast-iron fire hydrant. This fire was so devastating that it led to a dramatic patent reform in that same year, and to the building of a new fireproof Patent Office.

And the “new” Patent Office building still stands today, and proudly displayed patent models until the fire that broke out inside the building in 1877. (The contents of the building weren’t fireproof.) In this second fire, brave employees saved many of the works by staying and battling the fire from inside, but the second demoralizing beatdown, and the accelerating number of patent applications, it became obvious that there just wasn’t enough space to store a model of each patentable invention, and the requirement was dropped in 1880.

A small portion of the remaining patent models were put on display in one wing of the National Portrait Gallery, housed in the Patent Office building, and I had the wonderful opportunity to see it live in the early 2000s. I have no idea if the exhibit is still there – I’m guessing it’s not. The Smithsonian owns the lion’s share of the existing models, and we imagine they are in a warehouse somewhere, like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

A shame, because seeing a real 3D model of a thing is different from seeing line drawings. Maybe in the future, 3D CAD drawings will take their place? They’d be a lot easier to save in event of a fire.

A small circuit board glowing purple inset with computer code

Power Cycling Museum Computers On The Cheap

Flicking a circuit breaker to power cycle hundreds of desktop computers inside interactive museum exhibits is hardly ideal. Computers tend to get cranky when improperly shutdown, and there’s an non-zero risk of data loss. However, financial concerns ruled out commercial computer management solutions, and manually shutting down each exhibit at the end of the day is not practical. Tasked with finding a solution, [Jeff Glass] mixed off-the-shelf UPS (uninterruptible power supply) hardware, a Featherwing and some Python to give the museum’s computer-run exhibits a fighting chance.

Without drastically changing the one-touch end-of-day procedure, the only way to properly shutdown the hundreds of computers embedded in the museum exhibits involved using several UPS units, keeping the PCs briefly powered on after the mains power was cut. This in itself solves nothing – while the UPS can trigger a safe shutdown via USB, this signal could only be received by a single PC. These are off-the-shelf consumer grade units, and were never intended to safely shut down more than one computer at a time. However, each 300 watt UPS unit is very capable of powering multiple computers, the only limitation is the shutdown signal and the single USB connection.

To get around this, the Windows task scheduling service was setup to be triggered by the UPS shutdown signal, which itself then triggered a custom Python script. This script then relays the shutdown signal from the UPS to every other computer in the museum, before shutting itself down for the evening.

While many computers can be enabled to boot on power loss, the UPS and safe shutdown scripts meant that this wasn’t an option. To get around this, an ESP32 Featherwing and a little bit if CircuitPython code sends out WOL (wake-on-LAN) signals over Ethernet automatically on power up. This unit is powered by a non-UPS backed power outlet, meaning that it only sends the WOL signal in the morning when mains power is restored via the circuit breaker.

There are undoubtedly a variety of alternative solutions that appear ‘better’ on paper, but these may gloss over the potential costs and disruption to a multi-acre museum. Working within the constraints of reality means that the less obvious fix often ends up being the right one. How would you have tackled this problem? Sound off in the comments below. And while you’re here, make sure to check out our coverage of other UPS solutions, like this supercap UPS.

[Look Mum No Computer] sits inside his new museum of obsolete technology and synth oddities.

This (Obsolete Technology) Museum Is (Not) Obsolete

You know, we’re not sure how this escaped our attention for so long. Blame it on the summer heat. Did you know that [Look Mum No Computer] opened a museum of obsolete technology a few weeks ago?

Inside a new museum of obsolete technology and synth oddities.This Museum is (Not) Obsolete is located by the seaside in the Ramsgate section of Kent, England, where you’ll also find the Micro Museum, a collection of computing and video game history. [LMNK] says it took 10 months to build the museum, which is a maze of vintage delights including decades of computers and computer accessories, signal generators, VFDs, vacuum tubes, old phone equipment, and 50 years’ worth of 150-in-one electronics kits. This list doesn’t even sort of start to scratch the surface.

Around every turn there are forgotten technological gems and never-heard-ofs, plus the space is peppered with [LMNK]’s own superb synth creations. (Who could forget the Furby Organ?) The goal is to make it as interactive as possible, and to keep growing the collection. So far, [LMNK] has welcomed visitors of all backgrounds and ages, which is exactly what he was after. Can’t quite make it to Ramsgate? Us either. Do what we did and take the video tour below.

If you can get there, you might want to check out the National Museum of Computing, too.

Continue reading “This (Obsolete Technology) Museum Is (Not) Obsolete”

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Hackaday Links: November 8, 2020

Saturday, November 7, 2020 – NOT PASADENA. Remoticon, the virtual version of the annual Hackaday Superconference forced upon us by 2020, the year that keeps on giving, is in full swing. As I write this, Kipp Bradford is giving one of the two keynote addresses, and last night was the Bring a Hack virtual session, which I was unable to attend but seems to have been very popular, at least from the response to it. In about an hour, I’m going to participate in the SMD Soldering Challenge on the Hackaday writing crew team, and later on, I’ll be emceeing a couple of workshops. And I’ll be doing all of it while sitting in my workshop/office here in North Idaho.

Would I rather be in Pasadena? Yeah, probably — last year, Supercon was a great experience, and it would have been fun to get together again and see everyone. But here we are, and I think we’ve all got to tip our hacker hats to the Remoticon organizers, for figuring out how to translate the in-person conference experience to the virtual space as well as they have.

The impact of going to a museum and standing in the presence of a piece of art or a historic artifact is hard to overstate. I once went to an exhibit of artifacts from Pompeii, and was absolutely floored to gaze upon a 2,000-year-old loaf of bread that was preserved by the volcanic eruption of 79 AD. But not everyone can get to see such treasures, which is why Scan the World was started. The project aims to collect 3D scans of all kinds of art and artifacts so that people can potentially print them for study. Their collection is huge and seems to concentrate on classic sculptures — Michelangelo’s David is there, as are the Venus de Milo, the Pieta, and Rodin’s Thinker. But there are examples from architecture, anatomy, and history. The collection seems worth browsing through and worth contributing to if you’re so inclined.

For all the turmoil COVID-19 has caused, it has opened up some interesting educational opportunities that probably wouldn’t ever have been available in the Before Time. One such opportunity is an undergraduate-level course in radio communications being offered on the SDRPlay YouTube channel. The content was created in partnership with the Sapienza University of Rome. It’s not entirely clear who this course is open to, but the course was originally designed for third-year undergrads, and the SDRPlay Educators Program is open to anyone in academia, so we’d imagine you’d need some kind of academic affiliation to qualify. The best bet might be to check out the intro video on the SDRPlay Educator channel and plan to attend the webinar scheduled for November 19 at 1300 UTC. You could also plan to drop into the Learning SDR and DSP Hack Chat on Wednesday at noon Pacific, too — that’s open to everyone, just like every Hack Chat is.

And finally, as if bald men didn’t suffer enough disrespect already, now artificial intelligence is having a go at them. At a recent soccer match in Scotland, an AI-powered automatic camera system consistently interpreted an official’s glabrous pate as the soccer ball. The system is supposed to keep the camera trained on the action by recognizing the ball as it’s being moved around the field. Sadly, the linesman in this game drew the attention of the system quite frequently, causing viewers to miss some of the real action. Not that what officials do during sporting events isn’t important, of course, but it’s generally not what viewers want to see. The company, an outfit called Pixellot, knows about the problem and is working on a solution. Here’s hoping the same problem doesn’t crop up on American football.

A Double Shot Of Vintage Computing This Weekend

Going anywhere interesting this weekend? No, of course you aren’t. None of us are. So why not tune your computer or smartphone to the online stream of one of the virtual Vintage Computer Festivals that will be taking place between October 10th and 11th. Granted only one of them is in English, but we’ve often thought of blinky lights as something of a universal language anyway.

Vintage Computer Festival East, which normally would have happened in the Spring, has finally decided that 2020 is a wash for any in-person meetings and has decided to switch over to virtual. Interestingly, it sounds like they’ll be live streaming at least some of the exhibitor tables from the InfoAge museum in New Jersey where the physical event would have been held. So from an attendee perspective, the virtual event should be a bit closer to the real thing than if everyone had to figure out their own streaming setups from home. Presentations will run from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Eastern on both days.

On the other side of the globe, Vintage Computing Festival Berlin will be broadcasting their own exhibitions, workshops, and lectures. In an interesting use of the virtual format, they’ll be giving viewers an intimate look at vintage computers and technology that’s held in private collections, museums, or otherwise inaccessible storage and research facilities. Content will be streaming from 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM CEST on both days, with a musical performance overnight.

While there’s an understandable tendency to bemoan the trend of moving events online in the face of COVID-19, there are certainly situations where the format can actually bring you more content than you’d have access to otherwise. Especially when they end up being free, as is the case with both of these Festivals. We’re still eagerly awaiting the point where we can get back to attending these events in person, but we certainly aren’t complaining when so many incredible people are willing to put on these presentations without seeing a dime.

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Hackaday Links: July 5, 2020

Remember all the hubbub over Betelgeuse back in February? For that matter, do you even remember February? If you do, you might recall that the red giant in Orion was steadily dimming, which some took as a portent of an impending supernova. That obviously didn’t happen, but we now seem to have an explanation for the periodic dimming: an enormous dark spot on the star. “Enormous” doesn’t begin to describe this thing, which covers 70% of the face of a star that would extend past Jupiter if it replaced the sun. The dimming was originally thought to be dust being blown off the star as it goes through its death throes, but no evidence could be found for that, while direct observations in the terahertz range showed what amounted to a reduction in surface temperature caused by the enormous star spot. We just think it’s incredibly cool that Betelgeuse is so big that we can actually observe it as a disk rather than a pinpoint of light. At least for now.

F-15c cockpit
F-15a cockpit

If you think you’ve seen some challenging user interfaces, wait till you get a load of the cockpit of an F-15C Eagle. As part of a new series on human interfaces, Ars Technica invited Col. Andrea Themely (USAF-ret.) to give a tour of the fighter she has over 1,100 hours on. Bearing in mind that the Eagle entered service in 1976 and has been continually updated with the latest avionics — compare the video with the steam gauges of the cockpit of an F-15A — its cockpit is still a pretty busy place. As much as possible has been done to reduce pilot load, with controls being grouped by function and the use of color-coding — don’t touch the yellow and black stuff! — and the use of tactile feedback. It’s a fascinating deep dive into a workplace that few of us ever get to see, and we’re looking forward to the rest of the series.

Sad news from Seattle, where the Living Computers: Museum + Labs is closing up shop. The announcement only says they’re closing “for now”, so there’s at least some hope that the museum will be back once the COVID-19 downturn has run its course. We hope they do bounce back; it really was a great museum with a lot of amazing hardware on display. The Vintage Computer Festival PNW was held there in its inaugural year, an event we covered and had high hopes for in the future. We hope for the best for these educational and cultural institutions, but we can’t help but fear a little for their future.

So you suffer a partial amputation of your left hand, leaving you with only your thumb and your palm. That raises an interesting conundrum: you haven’t lost enough to replace the hand with a prosthetic one, but you still don’t have any fingers. That appears to be what happened to Ian Davis, and so he built his own partial prosthetic to replace his fingers. There’s not much backstory on his YouTube channel, but from what we can gather he has gone through several designs, most of which are myomechanical rather than myoelectric. Through a series of complex linkages, he’s able to control not only the opening and closing of the fingers, but also to splay them apart. It’s all in the wrist, as it were — his input gestures all come from flexing and extending his hand relative to his forearm, where the prosthesis is anchored. This results in a pretty powerful grip — much stronger than a myoelectric hand in a head-to-head test. And the coolness factor of his work is just off the scale. We’re looking forward to more from Ian, and hopefully enough background information for a full story on what he has accomplished.

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Hackaday Links: May 3, 2020

In a sign of the times, the Federal Communications Commission has officially signed off on remote testing sessions for amateur radio licensing in the United States. Testing in the US is through the Volunteer Examiner Coordinator program, which allows teams of at least three Volunteer Examiners to set up in-person testing sessions where they proctor amateur radio licensing exams. The VEs take their jobs very seriously and take pride in offering exam sessions on a regular schedule, so when social distancing rules made their usual public testing venues difficult to access, many of them quickly pivoted to remote testing using teleconferencing applications. Here’s hoping that more VEs begin offering remote testing sessions.

Another aspect of life changed by COVID-19 and social distancing rules has been the simple pleasure of a trip to the museum. And for the museums themselves, the lack of visitors can be catastrophic, both in terms of fulfilling their educational and research missions and through the lack of income that results. To keep the flame alive in a fun way, Katrina Bowen from The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge has recreated her museum in loving detail in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. For being limited to what’s available in the game, Katrina did a remarkable job on the virtual museum; we especially like the Megaprocessor wallpaper. She even managed to work in that staple last stop of every museum, the gift shop.

To the surprise of few, “spatial computing” startup Magic Leap has announced that it is laying off half its workforce as it charts a new course. The company, which attracted billions in funding based on its virtual retinal display technology, apparently couldn’t sell enough of their Magic Leap One headsets to pay the bills. The company is swiveling to industrial users, which honestly seems like a better application for their retinal display technology than the consumer or gaming markets.

And finally, as if 2020 hasn’t been weird enough already, the Department of Defense has officially released videos of what it calls “unidentified aerial phenomena.” These videos, taken from the head-up displays of US Navy fighter jets, had previously been obtained by private parties and released to the public. Recorded between 2004 and 2015, the videos appear to show objects that are capable of extremely high-speed flight and tight maneuvers close to the surface of the ocean. We find the timing of the release suspicious, almost as if the videos are intended to serve as a distraction from the disturbing news of the day. We want to believe we’re not alone, but these videos don’t do much to help.