Flying Submarine Documentary Is A Story Of Defied Assumptions

Donald Reid had a passion for applying himself to challenging problems, and in many ways his life’s work was that of developing a prototype submersible aircraft — or flying submarine — for which his son Bruce was a test pilot. [Jesse Moody] brought to our attention a fantastic documentary he created (with a short teaser trailer here) in which he interviews Bruce, and in the process teaches us all about a story that spanned decades and formed an important part of aviation history. Bruce experienced his share of hair-raising moments while testing the craft, but still has all of his fingers and limbs. Still, in his own words, “you wouldn’t be doing that kind of testing today!”

In many ways, the story revolves around defying assumptions. Without context, a “flying submarine” project might sound like a lone kook’s obsession, but Donald Reid was nothing of the sort. He was a brilliant engineer who was able solve problems by applying his skill and intellect with a laser-like focus. And it turns out that getting a submerged vehicle to successfully transition from waterbound craft to airborne is a source of numerous and novel problems that were not trivial to solve. In fact, these problems needed to be solved in order to develop the Tomahawk cruise missile, which is launched by submarine. And that brings us to the lawsuit that bookended it all.

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A DR-DOS console showing the IDLE command

Missing DR-DOS Power Management Source Code Found In Patent

Modern processors come with all kinds of power management features, which you don’t typically notice as a user until you start a heavy program and hear the CPU fan spin up. Back in the early 1990s however, power management was largely unheard of, meaning that a CPU with nothing to do would run through an idle loop that dissipated about as much power as a real computing task. [Michal Necasek] noticed this while experimenting with DR-DOS 6.0 in a virtual machine – his laptop fan would start running on full blast whenever he opened the VM. His search for a solution to this annoyance led him down a fascinating journey into the intricacies of DOS power management.

As it turned out, DR-DOS 6.0 does have functionality built in for putting the CPU in power saving mode when it’s idle. This feature is not complete, however: Digital Research required each computer manufacturer to develop an IDLE driver customized to their specific hardware platform in order to enable power management. Sadly, no manufacturer ever bothered to do so, leaving [Michal] with no option other than writing a driver himself. While there was some documentation available, it didn’t include any example code or sufficient detail to write a driver from scratch.

A snippet of x86 assembly code found in a patentWhat it did include was a reference to U.S. Patent No. 5,355,501. Normally this sort of information is of interest only to those planning to sell a competing system, but this specific patent happens to include dozens of pages of well-documented but poorly-scanned x86 assembly code, including source code for a basic IDLE86.SYS driver. As [Michal] wasn’t looking forward to chasing bugs caused by OCR errors, he simply copied the source code by hand, then ran it through an assembler. The end result was a working IDLE driver, which is now available for download from his website.

[Michal]’s blog post also includes lots of details on early power saving implementations, including all the DOS interrupt calls involved in the process. Patents might seem boring in contrast, but they sometimes contain surprising amounts of usable information. You might find enough details to reverse-engineer a wireless protocol, or even to help track down an obscure instrument’s original designer.

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Hackaday Links: March 5, 2023

Well, we guess it had to happen eventually — Ford is putting plans in place to make its vehicles capable of self-repossession. At least it seems so from a patent application that was published last week, which reads like something written by someone who fancies themselves an evil genius but is just really, really annoying. Like most patent applications, it covers a lot of ground; aside from the obvious capability of a self-driving car to drive itself back to the dealership, Ford lists a number of steps that its proposed system could take before or instead of driving the car away from someone who’s behind on payments.

Examples include selective disabling conveniences in the vehicle, like the HVAC or infotainment systems, or even locking the doors and effectively bricking the vehicle. Ford graciously makes allowance for using the repossessed vehicle in an emergency, and makes mention of using cameras in the vehicle and a “neural network” to verify that the locked-out user is indeed having, say, a medical emergency. What could possibly go wrong?

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One-Size-Fits-All Wrench Points To A Nut Job

When [Hand Tool Rescue] came across a 1919 patent for a one size fits all wrench, he couldn’t help but recreate it. Described in the patent as “a new, original, ornamental design for a wrench”, the wrench had a slot for possibly every fastener that the inventor could think of. Not only did it have slots for several hexagonal fasteners, but many others for octagonal, square and even a pentagonal fastener.

[Hand Tool Rescue] reckons there are 47 slots for various sizes and types of fasteners, not counting the ones whose purpose he could not fathom. Just in case he missed any fastener sizes, the original designer decided to add an alligator wrench at the other end of the handle, potentially negating the need for any of the other slots. The tool even features a sharp edge along one of the sides, possibly for use as a scraper of some kind.

Why such a crazy design was patented, or what were the functions of some of its slots are questions that will likely remain unanswered. At best, we can all take guesses at solving the mystery of this tool. [Hand Tool Rescue] scales the original drawing such that one of the slots has a width of 1 inch, and then uses that as a template to recreate the wrench. He starts with a slab of 3/8th inch thick, grade 4140 steel, which has a high strength to weight ratio and can be case hardened after machining, making it suitable for this ornamental project.

He then embarks on his journey of excessive milling, drilling, filing, band sawing and shaping (using a slotting attachment), totaling about 11 hours worth of drudgery. Of course, one could argue that it would have been much easier, and accurate, to have used modern machining methods. And we are spoilt for choices here among laser cutting, water jet cutting or even EDM machining, any of which would have done the job faster, cleaner and more precisely. But we guess [Hand Tool Rescue] wanted to stick to traditional methods as would have been available in 1919 to an inventor who wanted to make a prototype of his awesome, all in one wrench.

If you can help explain the overall function of this wrench, or identify some of the more vague slots in it, then [Hand Tool Rescue] would be happy to get the feedback. And talking about less desirable wrenches, check out how this Sliding Wrench Leaves a Little to be Desired.

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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.

Lewis Latimer Drafted The Future Of Electric Light

These days, we have LED light bulbs that will last a decade. But it wasn’t so long ago that incandescent lamps were all we had, and they burned out after several months. Thomas Edison’s early light bulbs used bamboo filaments that burned out very quickly. An inventor and draftsman named Lewis Latimer improved Edison’s filament by encasing it in cardboard, earning himself a patent the process.

Lewis had a hard early life, but he succeeded in spite of the odds and his lack of formal education. He was a respected draftsman who earned several patents and worked directly with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Although Lewis didn’t invent the light bulb, he definitely made it better and longer-lasting. Continue reading “Lewis Latimer Drafted The Future Of Electric Light”

Fail Of The Week: Bright Idea For LED Signs Goes Bad

Typically when we select a project for “Fail to the Week” honors, it’s because something went wrong with the technology of the project. But the tech of [Leo Fernekes]’ innovative LED sign system was never the problem; it was the realities of scaling up to production as well as the broken patent process that put a nail in this promising project’s coffin, which [Leo] sums up succinctly as “The Inventor’s Paradox” in the video below.

The idea [Leo] had a few years back was pretty smart. He noticed that there was no middle ground between cheap, pre-made LED signs and expensive programmable signboards, so he sought to fill the gap. The result was an ingenious “LED pin”, a tiny module with an RGB LED and a microcontroller along with a small number of support components. The big idea is that each pin would store its own part of a display-wide animation in flash memory. Each pin has two terminals that connect to metal cladding on either side of the board they attach to. These two conductors supply not only power but synchronization for all the pins with a low-frequency square wave. [Leo]’s method for programming the animations — using a light sensor on each pin to receive signals from a video projector — is perhaps even more ingenious than the pins themselves.

[Leo]’s idea seemed destined for greatness, but alas, the cruel realities of scaling up struck hard. Each prototype pin had a low part count, but to be manufactured economically, the entire BOM would have to be reduced to almost nothing. That means an ASIC, but the time and expense involved in tooling up for that were too much to bear. [Leo] has nothing good to say about the patent game, either, which his business partners in this venture insisted on playing. There’s plenty of detail in the video, but he sums it up with a pithy proclamation: “Patents suck.”

Watching this video, it’s hard not to feel sorry for [Leo] for all the time he spent getting the tech right only to have no feasible way to get a return on that investment. It’s a sobering tale for those of us who fancy ourselves to be inventors, and a cautionary tale about the perils of participating in a patent system that clearly operates for the benefit of the corporations rather than the solo inventor. It’s not impossible to win at this game, as our own [Bob Baddeley] shows us, but it is easy to fail.

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