Retrotechtacular: Manufacturing Philco Germanium Transistors

There was a time when all major corporations maintained film production departments to crank out public relations pieces, and the electronic industry was no exception. Indeed, in the sea-change years of the mid-20th century, corporate propaganda like this look at Philco transistor manufacturing was more important than ever, as companies tried to pivot from vacuum tubes to solid-state components, and needed to build the consumer electronics markets that would power the next few decades of rapid growth.

The film below was produced in 1957, just a decade since the invention of the transistor and only a few years since Philco invented the surface-barrier transistor, the technology behind the components. It shows them being made in their “completely air-conditioned, modern plant” in Pennsylvania. The semiconductor was germanium, of course — the narrator only refers to “silly-con” transistors once near the end of the film — but the SBT process, with opposing jets of indium sulfate electrolyte being used to both etch the germanium chip and form the collector and emitter of the transistor, is a fascinating process, and these transistors were quite the advance back in the day. It’s interesting, too, to watch the casual nature of the manufacturing process — no clean rooms, no hair nets, and only a lab coat and “vacuum welcome mats” to keep things reasonably clean.

As in most such corporate productions, superlatives abound, so be prepared for quite a bit of hyperbole on the part of the Mid-Atlantic-accented narrator. And we noticed a bit of a whoopsie near the end, when he proudly intoned that Philco transistors would be aboard the “first Earth satellite.” They were used in the radio of Explorer 1, but the Russians had other ideas about who was going to be first.

And speaking of propaganda, don’t forget that at around this time, vacuum tube companies were fighting for their lives too. That’s where something like this designer’s guide to the evils of transistors came from.

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Retrotechtacular: Philips Factory Tour, Circa 1930s

If you’ve got a half-hour or so to spare, you could do worse than this video trip through a Philips factory in the 1930s.

The film is presented without narration, but from the Dutch title cards and the fact that it’s Philips, we gather that this factory of gigantic proportions was somewhere in the Netherlands. In any case, it looks like something right out of [Fritz Lang]’s Metropolis and turned the rawest of materials into finished consumer products.

Much of the film focuses on the making of vacuum tubes; the sheer physicality of the job is what really stands out here. The upper body strength that the glassblowers had to have boggles the mind. Check out the chops — and the soon-to-be very unfashionable mustache — on the glassblower at the 12:00 mark. And it wasn’t just the gents who had mad skills — the fine motor control needed for the delicate assembly of the innards of the tubes, which seems to be mostly staffed by women, is just as impressive. We were also surprised by the amount these manual crafts were assisted by automated systems.

Especially interesting is the section where they build the luidspreker. Without narration or captions, it’s a little hard to tell what’s going on, but it appears that they used an enormous press to form chips of Bakelite into sleek covers for the speakers, which themselves are super-chunky affairs made from scratch in the factory. We’re also treated to assembly of the radios, packaging of finished products, and a group of dockworkers who clearly didn’t read the “Fragile” labels pasted on the boxes.

One can’t help but wonder if these people had the slightest inkling of what was about to sweep over them and the rest of the world. And if they did, would they even begin to comprehend how much the very products that they were making would contribute to both the slaughter of the coming war as well as to the sparing of so many lives? Likely not, but the film is still an interesting glimpse into the creation of an industry, one that relied very much on craftsmanship to get it started.

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Retrotechtacular: Shake Hands With Danger

OK, you’re going to have to engage your safety squints and sit back to enjoy this one: a classic bit of safety propaganda from US heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar from 1980 entitled “Shake Hands with Danger.”

Actually, you’ll probably need to engage your schlock filters for this 23-minute film too, as both the writing and the theme song are pretty hard to take. The film is one of those “Scared Straight” attempts to show just how horrifically wrong things can go both in the field and in the shop when working on anything made of stuff stronger than human flesh and bone. And in that regard, the film is highly effective — we found ourselves getting a bit queasy at a few points, with the poor dude who got his hand sucked into a bench grinder being both terrifying and relatable. [Three-Finger Joe] indeed.

Now, you might take exception with the acting, but as you watch all these vignettes, keep in mind that these are all old-school stunts — that’s actually a gigantic D9 bulldozer they crashed, and that brake chamber explosion really blew out that truck’s windows. They did a great job making the potential consequences of a moment’s thoughtlessness sickeningly vivid. Especially that arm-in-the-linkages scene. Ugh.

Whatever way you practice the hacking arts, stay safe out there. And don’t “Shake Hands with Danger.”

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Grey Gear: French TV Encryption, 1980s Style

Who among us didn’t spend some portion of their youth trying in vain to watch a scrambled premium cable TV channel or two? It’s a wonder we didn’t blow out our cones and rods watching those weird colors and wavy lines dance across the screen like a fever dream.

In the early days of national premium television in America, anyone who’d forked over the cash and erected a six-foot satellite dish in the backyard could tune in channels like HBO, Showtime, and the first 24-hour news network, CNN. Fed up with freeloaders, these channels banded together to encrypt their transmissions and force people to buy expensive de-scrambling boxes. On top of that, subscribers had to pay a monthly pittance to keep the de-scrambler working. Continue reading “Grey Gear: French TV Encryption, 1980s Style”

Retrotechtacular: The Nernst Lamp

After dominating the illumination market for more than a century, it’s easy to think of the glowing filament of the standard incandescent lamp as the only way people found to turn electricity into light. But plenty of fertile minds turned out alternative designs, one of which is the fascinating Nernst lamp, which we’d previously never heard of.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s likely through exposure to [Walther Nernst]’s equation for electrochemistry, or for his “New Heat Theorem” which eventually became the Third Law of Thermodynamics. Pal of [Einstein] and eventual Nobel laureate, [Nernst] was also a bit of a tinkerer, and he came up with a design for an incandescent lamp in 1897 that was twice as efficient as carbon-filament lamps. The video below, from the Edison Tech Center, details the design, which used a ceramic “glower rod” that would incandesce when current flowed through it. The glower, though, was not conductive until it was quite hot, so separate heater coils that gave the glower a start on the process were included; these were switched off by a relay built into the base of the lamp once the glower started conducting.

It’s a complicated design, but its efficiency, coupled with a better light spectrum and the fact that it didn’t need a vacuum bulb since the glower wouldn’t oxidize like a carbon or tungsten filament, gave it certain advantages that let it stake out a decent share of the early market for electric illumination. It was even the light source for one of the first facsimile machines. We find it a very clever use of what were at the time exotic materials, and wonder if this could have lead to something like vacuum tubes without the vacuum.

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Retrotechtacular: Wire Splicing The Army Way

For those of us who started experimenting with electricity when we were very young, one of the essential first skills was learning how to twist wires together. It seems like there’s not much to learn, but after a few failed attempts with nothing but your fingers, you learned a few tricks that are probably still with you to this day. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s an official US Army way to twist wires together, as this Signal Corps training film from 1941 shows.

Considering that the Signal Corps had nearly 80 years of experience with wiring battlefield communications at the outbreak of World War II, their methods were pretty solid, as were their materials. The film mainly concerns the splicing together of rolls of type W110-B field wire, used by the Signal Corps to connect command posts to forward positions, observation posts, and the rear echelons. More often than not laid directly upon the ground, the wire had to be tough, waterproof, and conductive enough that field telephone gear would still work over long loop lengths. As such, the steel-reinforced, rubber-and-fabric clad cable was not the easiest stuff to splice. Where we might cringe at the stresses introduced by literally tying a conductor in knots, it was all part of the job for the wire-laying teams that did the job as quickly as possible, often while taking enemy fire.

The film also has a section on splicing a new line into an existing, in-service circuit, using a T-splice and paying careful attention to the topology of the knots used, lest they come undone under stress. It’s fascinating how much thought was put into something as mundane as twisting wires, but given the stakes, we can appreciate the attention to detail.

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Retrotechtacular: Automotive Suspension Is All About Waves

In addition to driving home the need for Steadicam or Optical Image Stabilization, this eighty-year-old video illustrates some elegant solutions the automotive industry developed in their suspension systems. Specifically, this Chevrolet video from 1938 is aimed at an audience that values science and therefore the reel boils down the problem at hand using models that will remind you of physics class.

Model of a wheel with a leaf spring records the effect of a bump on a piece of paper above

The problem is uneven ground — the “waves in the Earth’s surface” — be it the terrain in an open field, a dirt road, or even a paved parkway. Any vehicle traveling those surfaces will face the challenge of not only cushioning for rough terrain, but accounting for the way a suspension system itself reacts to avoid oscillation and other negative effects. In the video this is boiled down to a 2-dimensional waveform drawn by a model which begins with a single tire and evolves to include a four wheeled vehicle with different suspension systems in the front and the rear.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the video is the explanation of how the car’s front suspension actually works. The wheels need to be able to steer the vehicle, while the suspension must also allow the tire to remain perpendicular to the roadway. This is shown in the image at the top of this article. Each wheel has a swing arm that allows for steering and for vertical movement of the wheel. A coil spring is used in place of the leaf springs shown in the initial model.

You probably know what’s coming next. The springs are capable of storing and releasing energy, and left to their own devices, they’ll dissipate the energy of a bump by oscillating. This is exactly what we don’t want. The solution is to add shock absorbers which limit how the springs perform. The waveforms drawn by the model encountering bumps are now tightly constrained to the baseline of flat ground.

This is the type of advertising we can wholeheartedly get behind. Product engineers of the world, please try to convince your marketing colleagues to show us the insides, tell us why the choices were made, and share the testing that helps users understand both how the thing works and why it was built that way. The last eighty years have brought myriad layers of complexity to most of the products that surround us, but human nature hasn’t changed; people are still quite curious to see the scientific principles in action all around us.

Make sure you don’t bomb out of the video before the very end. A true bit of showmanship, the desktop model of a car is recreated in a full-sized Chevy, complete with “sky-writing smoke” to draw the line. I don’t think it’s a true analog, but it’s certainly the kind of kitsch I always look for in a great Retrotechtacular subject.

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