Retrotechtacular: Making Chains

We take the everyday materials of engineering for granted, as ubiquitous components rather than as complex items in their own right. Sure, we know that an integrated circuit represents the pinnacle of a hundred years’ development in the field of electronics, but to us it’s simply a black box with some wires. Even with more basic materials it’s easy to forget the work that goes into their manufacture, as for example with the two videos below the break. They both take a look from a very different angle at the creation of the same product: metal chain. However, the approaches couldn’t be more different as the two examples are separated by about a century and with vastly different techniques and material.

The first film follows the manufacture of the chain and anchor that would have been found on a ship around the turn of the twentieth century. One of the text frames mentions Netherton Works, allowing us to identify it as being filmed at N. Hingley & Sons, a specialist anchor and chain manufacturer based in the area to the west of the English city of Birmingham known as the Black Country. It’s a window on a manufacturing world that has entirely disappeared, as large gangs of men do almost every task in the process by hand, with very few automated steps. There is scant regard for health and safety in handling the huge pieces of red-hot metal, and the material in question is not the steel we’d be used to today but wrought iron. The skill required to perform some of the steps such as forge-welding large anchor parts under a steam hammer is very significant, and the film alone can not convey it. More recent videos of similar scenes in Chinese factories do a better job.

The other video is contemporary, a How It’s Made look at chain manufacture. Here the chains involved are much smaller, everything is done by automated machinery, and once we have got over marveling at the intricacy of the process we can see that there is far more emphasis on the metallurgy. The wire is hard drawn before the chain is formed, and then hardened and annealed in a continuous process by a pair of induction heaters and water baths. I’m trying really hard to avoid a minor rant about the propensity of mass-market entertainment such as this for glossing over parts of the process. A keen eye notices that each link has become welded but we are not shown the machine that performs the task.

Most of us will never have the chance of a peek into a chain factory, so the medium of YouTube industrial films and videos is compulsive viewing. These two views of what is essentially the same process could not be more different, however it would be wrong to assume that one has replaced the other. There would have been mechanised production of small chains when the first film was made, and large chains will still be made today with fewer workers and from arc-welded steel rather than wrought iron. Plants like the Hingley one in Netherton may have closed in the 1980s, but there is still a demand for chains and anchors.

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Televox: The Past’s Robot Of The Future

When I read old books, I like to look for predictions of the future. Since we are living in that future, it is fun to see how they did. Case in point: I have a copy of “The New Wonder Book of Knowledge”, an anthology from 1941. This was the kind of book you wanted before there was a Wikipedia to read in your spare time. There are articles about how coal is mined, how phonographs work, and the inner workings of a beehive. Not the kind of book you’d grab to look up something specific, but a great book to read if you just want to learn something interesting. In it there are a few articles about technology that seemed ready to take us to the future. One of those is the Televox — a robot from Westinghouse poised to usher in an age of home and industrial mechanical servants. Robots in 1941? Actually, Televox came into being in 1927.

If you were writing about the future in 2001, you might have pictured city sidewalks congested with commuters riding Segways. After all, in 2001, we were told that something was about to hit the market that would “change everything.” It had a known inventor, Dean Kamen, and a significant venture capitalist behind it. While it has found a few niche markets, it isn’t the billion dollar personal transportation juggernaut that was predicted.

But technology is like that. Sometimes things seem poised for greatness and disappear — bubble memory comes to mind. Sometimes things have a few years of success and get replaced by something better. Fax machines or floppy drives, for example. The Televox was a glimpse of what was to come, but not in any way that people imagined in 1941. Continue reading “Televox: The Past’s Robot Of The Future”

Retrotechtacular: Apex Radio — The Forgotten HiFi

Broadcasting has changed a lot in the last few decades. We have satellite radio, internet streaming, HD radio all crowding out the traditional AM and FM bands. FM became popular because the wider channels and the modulation scheme allowed for less static and better sound reproduction. If you’ve never tried to listen to an AM radio station at night near a thunderstorm, you can’t appreciate how important that is. But did you know there was another U.S. broadcast band before FM that tried to solve the AM radio problem? You don’t hear about it much, but Apex or skyscraper radio appeared between 1937 and 1941 and then vanished with the onslaught of FM radio.

If you’ve heard of Apex radio — or if you are old enough to remember it — then you are probably done with this post. For everyone else, consider what radio looked like in 1936. The AM band had 96 channels between 550 and 1500 kHz. Because those frequencies propagate long distances at night, the FCC had a complex job of ensuring stations didn’t interfere with each other. Tricks like carefully choosing the location of stations, reducing power at night, or even shutting a station down after dark, were all used to control interference.

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Who Made The First Human Audio Recordings? Edison? Not So Fast!

You probably learned in school that Thomas Edison was the first human voice recorded, reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb. As it turns out though, that’s not strictly true. Edison might have been the first person to play his voice back, but he wasn’t the first to deliberately record. That honor goes to a French inventor named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. He wanted to study sound and created the phonautograph — a device which visualized sound on soot-covered paper. They were not made to be played back, but the information is there. These recordings were made around 1860. There’s a 9-part video series about how the recordings were made — and more interestingly — how they were played back using modern technology. Part 1 appears below.

We say around 1860 because there were some early recordings starting around 1857 that haven’t been recovered. Eventually, the recordings would have a tuning fork sound which allows modern playback since the known signal can estimate the speed of the hand-cranked cylinder. The date of the first recovered recording was today, April 9th, 158 years ago.

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Retrotechtacular: A 180 GB Drive From 1994

Hard drive storage has gone through the roof in recent years. Rotating hard drives that can hold 16 terabytes of data are essentially available today, although pricey, and 12 terabyte drives are commonplace. For those who remember when a single terabyte was a lot of storage, the idea that you can now pick up a drive of that size for under $40 is amazing. Bear in mind, we are talking terabytes.

In 1994, that was an unimaginable amount of storage. Just a scant 24 years ago, though, you could get 90 gigabytes — 0.09 terabytes — if you didn’t mind buying an IBM mainframe and a RAMAC disk storage unit. You can see a promotional video digitized by, below. Just keep in mind that IBM has a long history of calling disk drives DASD — an acronym for Direct Access Storage Device. You pronounce that “dazz-dee”, as you’ll hear in the video.

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Retrotechtacular: Hacking Wartime Mail

I’m guessing you got quite a few e-mails today. But have you ever had a v-mail? That sounds like some new term for video e-mail, but it actually dates back to World War II. If you are in Europe, the term was Airgraph — not much more descriptive.

If you make a study of war, you’ll find one thing. Over the long term, the winning side is almost always the side that can keep their troops supplied. Many historians think World War II was not won by weapons but won by manufacturing capability. That might not be totally true, but supplies are critical to a combat force. Other factors like tactics, doctrine, training, and sheer will come into play as well.

On the other hand, morale on the front line and the home front is important, too. Few things boost morale as much as a positive letter from home. But there’s a problem.

While today’s warfighter might have access to a variety of options to communicate with those back home, in World War II, communications typically meant written letters. The problem is ships going from the United States to Europe needed to be full of materials and soldiers, not mailbags. With almost two million U.S. soldiers in the European Theater of Operations, handling mail from home was a major concern.

British Mail Hack

The British already figured out the mail problem in the 1930s. Eastman Kodak and Imperial Airways (which would later become British Airways) developed the Airgraph system to save weight on mail-carrying aircraft.  Airgraph allowed people to write soldiers on a special form. The form was microfilmed and sent to the field. On the receiving end, the microfilm was printed and delivered as regular mail.

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