A high school friend once related the story about how his father, a chemist for an environmental waste concern, disposed of a problematic quantity of metallic sodium by dumping it into one of the more polluted rivers in southern New England. Despite the fact that the local residents were used to seeing all manner of noxious hijinx in the river, the resulting explosion was supposedly enough to warrant a call to the police and an expeditious retreat back to the labs. It was a good story, but not especially believable back in the day.
After seeing this video of how the War Department dealt with surplus sodium in 1947, I’m not so sure. I had always known how reactive sodium is, ever since demonstrations in chemistry class where a flake of the soft gray metal would dance about in a petri dish full of water and eventually light up for a few exciting seconds. The way the US government decided to dispose of 20 tons of sodium was another thing altogether. The metal was surplus war production, probably used in incendiary bombs and in the production of aluminum for airplanes. No longer willing to stockpile it, the government tried to interest industry in the metal, but to no avail due to the hazard and expense of shipping the stuff. Sadly (and as was often the case in those days), they just decided to dump it.
In the closing months of World War II, the Axis and the Allies were throwing everything they had at each other. The tide was turning to the Allies’ favor, but the Germans were showing a surprising resilience, at least in terms of replacing downed fighter and bomber aircraft. When the Allies examined the wreckage of these planes, they discovered the disturbing truth: the planes contained large pieces forged from single billets of metal, which suggested a manufacturing capability none of the Allies possessed and which allowed the Germans to quickly and cheaply make better and faster planes.
When the war was over, the Allies went looking for the tools the Germans had used to make their planes, and found massive closed-die forging presses that could squeeze parts out of aluminum and magnesium alloys in a single step. The Soviets carted off a 30,000 ton machine, while the Americans went home with a shipload of smaller presses and the knowledge that the Russians had an edge over them. Thus began the Heavy Press Program, an ultimately successful attempt by the US military to close a huge gap in strategic manufacturing capabilities that [Machine Thinking] details in the excellent video below.
One doesn’t instantly equate monstrous machines such as the Mesta 50,000-ton press, over nine stories tall with half of it buried underground and attached directly to bedrock, with airplane manufacture. But without it and similar machines that came from the program, planes from the B-52 to the Boeing 747 would have been impossible to build. And this isn’t dead technology by any means; sold to Alcoa in 1982 after having been operated by them for decades, the “Fifty” recently got a $100 makeover after cracks appeared in some castings, and the press and its retro-brethren are still squeezing out parts for fighters as recent as the F-35.
Technology vanishes. It either succeeds and becomes ubiquitous or fails. For example, there was a time when networking and multimedia were computer buzzwords. Now they are just how computers work. On the other hand, when was the last time you thought about using a CueCat barcode reader to scan an advertisement? Then there are the things that have their time and vanish, like pagers. It is hard to decide which category digital cameras fall into. They are being absorbed into our phones and disappearing as a separate category for most consumers. But have you ever wondered about the first digital camera? The story isn’t what you would probably guess.
The first digital camera I ever had was a Sony that took a floppy disk. Surely that was the first, right? Turns out, no. There were some very early attempts that didn’t really have the technology to make them work. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was using analog electronic imaging as early as 1961 (they had been developing film on the moon but certainly need a better way). A TI engineer even patented the basic outline of an electronic camera in 1972, but it wasn’t strictly digital. None of these bore any practical fruit, especially relative to digital technology. It would take Eastman Kodak to create a portable digital camera, even though they were not the first to commercialize the technology.
Oxford is a city world-famous for its university, and is a must-see stop on the itinerary of many a tourist to the United Kingdom. It features mediaeval architecture, unspoilt meadows, two idylic rivers, and a car plant. That’s the part the guide books don’t tell you, if you drive a BMW Mini there is every chance that it was built in a shiny new factory on the outskirts of the historic tourist destination.
The origins of the Mini factory lie over the road on a site that now houses a science park but was once the location of the Morris Motors plant, at one time Britain’s largest carmaker. In the 1930s they featured in a British Pathé documentary film which we’ve placed below the break, part of a series on industry in which the production of an internal combustion engine was examined in great detail. The music and narration is charmingly of its time, but the film itself is not only a fascinating look inside a factory of over eight decades ago, but also an insight into engine manufacture that remains relevant today even if the engine itself bears little resemblance to the lump in your motor today.
Morris produced a range of run-of-the-mill saloon cars in this period, and their typical power unit was one of the four-cylinder engines from the film. It’s a sidevalve design with a three-bearing crank, and it lacks innovations such as bore liners. The metallurgy and lubrication in these engines was not to the same standard as an engine of today, so a prewar Morris owner would not have expected to see the same longevity you’d expect from your daily.
Anyone old enough to have driven before the GPS era probably wonders, as we do, how anyone ever found anything. Navigation back then meant outdated paper maps, long detours because of missed turns, and the far too frequent stops at dingy gas stations for the humiliation of asking for directions. It took forever sometimes, and though we got where we were going, it always seemed like there had to be a better way.
Indeed there was, but instead of waiting for the future and a constellation of satellites to guide the way, some clever folks in the early 1970s had a go at dead reckoning systems for car navigation. The video below shows one, called Cassette Navigation, in action. It consisted of a controller mounted under the dash and a modified cassette player. Special tapes, with spoken turn-by-turn instructions recorded for a specific route, were used. Each step was separated from the next by a tone, the length of which encoded the distance the car would cover before the next step needed to be played. The controller was hooked to the speedometer cable, and when the distance traveled corresponded to the tone length, the next instruction was played. There’s a long list of problems with this method, not least of which is no choice in road tunes while using it, but given the limitations at the time, it was pretty ingenious.
Dead reckoning is better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from GPS navigation. If you’re still baffled by how that cloud of satellites points you to the nearest Waffle House at 3:00 AM, check out our GPS primer for the details.
We tend to think of electricity as part of the modern world. However, Thales of Mietus recorded information about static electricity around 585 BC. This Greek philosopher found that rubbing amber with fur would cause the amber to attract lightweight objects like feathers. Interestingly enough, a few hundred years later, the aeolipile — a crude steam engine sometimes called Hero’s engine — appeared. If the ancients had put the two ideas together, they could have invented the topic of this post: electrostatic generators. As far as we know, they didn’t.
It would be 1663 before Otto von Guericke experimented with a sulfur globe rubbed by hand. This led to Isaac Newton suggesting glass globes and a host of other improvements from other contributors ranging from a woolen pad to a collector electrode. By 1746, William Watson had a machine consisting of multiple glass globes, a sword, and a gun barrel. Continue reading “Hair-Raising Tales of Electrostatic Generators”→
As part of writing tech stories such as those we feature here at Hackaday, there is a huge amount of research to be done. We trawl through pages and pages of obscure blogs, videos, and data sheets. Sometimes we turn up resources interesting enough that we file them away, convinced that they contain the nucleus of another story at some point in the future.
Today’s topic of entertainment is just such a resource, courtesy of the Internet Archive. It’s not a video as we’d often provide you in a Retrotechtacular piece, instead it’s the February 1973 edition of the Fairchild Semiconductor Linear Integrated Circuits Catalog. Books like this one that could be had from company sales representatives were highly prized in the days before universal Internet access to data sheets, and the ink-on-paper datasheets within it provide a fascinating snapshot of the integrated electronics industry as it was 45 years ago.
The first obvious difference between then and now is one of scale, this is a single volume containing Fairchild’s entire range. At 548 pages it wouldn’t have been a slim volume by any means, but given that Fairchild were at the time one of the big players in the field it is unimaginable that the entire range of a 2018 equivalent manufacturer could be contained in the same way. Given that the integrated circuit was at the time an invention barely 15 years old, we are looking at an industry still in relative infancy.
The catalog has a series of sections with familiar headings: Operational amplifiers, comparators, voltage regulators, computer/interface, consumer, and transistor/diode arrays with analog switches. Any modern catalog will have similar headings, and there are even a few devices you will find have survived the decades. The μA741 op-amp (page 64) from its original manufacturer has not yet become a commodity product here, and it sits alongside familiar devices such as the μA7800 series (page 201) or μA723 (page 194) regulators.