Retrotechtacular: 1990s CD Mastering Fit For A King

Before it was transformed into an ephemeral stream of ones and zeroes, music used to have a physical form of some kind. From wax cylinders to vinyl discs to tapes of various sizes in different housings and eventually to compact discs, each new medium was marketed as a technological leap over the previous formats, each of which justified incrementally more money to acquire.

But that’s the thing — each purchase resulted in you obtaining a physical item, which had an extensive manufacturing and distribution process behind it. And few artists demanded more manufacturing effort than Michael Jackson in his heyday, as revealed by this in-depth look at the CD manufacturing process for The King of Pop’s release of the HIStory double-disc set in 1995.

The video was produced as sort of a love letter to Michael from the staff and management of the Sony Music disc manufacturing plant in Pittman, New Jersey. The process is shown starting with the arrival of masters to the plant, strangely in the form of U-matic videocassettes; the 3/4″ continuous loop tape was normally used for analog video, but could also be used for recording digital audio. The digital audio is then sent for glass mastering, which is where the actual pits are created on a large glass disc under cleanroom conditions. In fact, much of the production process bears a strong similarity to semiconductor manufacturing, from the need for cleanrooms — although under less stringent conditions than in a fab — to the use of plasma etching, vapor deposition, and metal plating operations.

Once the master stampers are made, things really ramp up in replication. There the stamper discs go into injection molding machines, where hot polycarbonate is forced against the surface under pressure. The copies are aluminized, spin-coated with UV-cure lacquer, and sent on down the line to testing, screen printing, and packaging. Sony hired 40 extra full-time workers, who appear to have handled all the tedious manual tasks like assembling the jewel cases, to handle the extra load of this release.

As cheesy as this thank-you video may be, it was likely produced with good reason. This was a time when a Michael Jackson release was essentially a guarantee of full employment for a large team of workers. The team was able to produce something like 50,000 copies a day, and given that HIStory sold over 20 million copies, that’s a lot of workdays for the good folks at Pittman.

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Retrotechtacular: Clay Pipe The Hard Way

Troll YouTube long enough and chances are good that you’ll come across all kinds of videos of the “How It’s Made” genre. And buried in with the frying pans and treadmills and dental floss manufacturers, there no doubt will be deep dives on how pipe is made. Methods will vary by material, but copper, PVC, cast iron, or even concrete, what the pipe factories will all have in common is the high degree of automation they employ. With a commodity item like pipe, it’s hard to differentiate yourself from another manufacturer on features, so price is about the only way to compete. That means cutting costs to the bone, and that means getting rid of as many employees as possible.

Such was not always the case, of course, as this look at how Irish Stoneware & Fireclays Ltd. made clay pipe, drain tiles, and chimney flues back in the 1980s shows. The amount of handwork involved in making a single, simple piece of clay pipe is astonishing, as is the number of hands employed at the various tasks. The factory was located in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, Ireland, near an outcropping of shale that forms the raw material for its products. Quarrying the shale and milling it into clay were among the few mechanized steps in the process; although the extrusion of the pipe itself was also mechanized, the machines required teams of workers to load and unload them.

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Retrotechtacular: The Power To Stop

In everyday life, the largest moving object most people are likely to encounter is probably a train. Watching a train rolling along a track, it’s hard not to be impressed with the vast amount of power needed to put what might be a mile-long string of hopper cars carrying megatons of freight into motion.

But it’s the other side of that coin — the engineering needed to keep that train under control and eventually get it to stop — that’s the subject of this gem from British Transport Films on “The Power to Stop.” On the face of it, stopping a train isn’t exactly high-technology; the technique of pressing cast-iron brake shoes against the wheels was largely unchanged in the 100 years prior to the making of this 1979 film. The interesting thing here is the discovery that the metallurgy of the iron used for brakes has a huge impact on braking efficiency and safety. And given that British Railways was going through about 3.5 million brake shoes a year at the time, anything that could make them last even a little longer could result in significant savings.

It was the safety of railway brakes, though, that led to research into how they can be improved. Noting that cast iron is brittle, prone to rapid wear, and liable to create showers of dangerous sparks, the research arm of British Railways undertook a study of the phosphorus content of the cast iron, to find the best mix for the job. They turned to an impressively energetic brake dynamometer for their tests, where it turned out that increasing the amount of the trace element greatly reduced wear and sparking while reducing braking times.

Although we’re all for safety, we have to admit that some of the rooster-tails of sparks thrown off by the low-phosphorus shoes were pretty spectacular. Still, it’s interesting to see just how much thought and effort went into optimizing something so seemingly simple. Think about that the next time you watch a train go by.

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Retrotechtacular: A DIY Television For Very Early Adopters

By our very nature, hackers tend to get on the bandwagon of new technology pretty quickly. When something gee-whiz comes along, it’s folks like us who try it out, even if that means climbing steep learning curves or putting together odd bits of technology rather than waiting for the slicker products that will come out if the new thing takes off. But building your own television receiver in 1933 was probably pushing the envelope for even the earliest of adopters.

“Cathode Ray Television,” reprinted by the Antique Valve Museum in all its Web 1.0 glory, originally appeared in the May 27, 1933 edition of Popular Wireless magazine, and was authored by one K D Rogers of that august publication’s Research Department. They apparently took things quite seriously over there at the time, at least judging by the white lab coats and smoking materials; nothing said serious research in the 1930s quite like a pipe. The flowery language and endless superlatives that abound in the text are a giveaway, too; it’s hard to read without affecting a mental British accent, or at least your best attempt at a Transatlantic accent.

In any event, the article does a good job showing just what was involved in building a “vision radio receiver” and its supporting circuitry back in the day. K D Rogers goes into great detail explaining how an “oscillograph” CRT can be employed to display moving pictures, and how his proposed electronic system is vastly superior to the mechanical scanning systems that were being toyed with at the time. The build itself, vacuum tube-based though it was, went through the same sort of breadboarding process we still use today, progressing to a finished product in a nice wood cabinet, the plans for which are included.

It must have been quite a thrill for electronics experimenters back then to be working on something like television at a time when radio was only just getting to full market penetration. It’s a bit of a puzzle what these tinkerers would have tuned into with their DIY sets, though — the airwaves weren’t exactly overflowing with TV broadcasts in 1933. But still, someone had to go first, and so we tip our hats to the early adopters who figured things out for the rest of us.

Thanks to [BT] for the tip.

 

Retrotechtacular: Measuring TV Audiences With The “Poll-O-Meter”

It may come as a shock to some, but TV used to be a big deal — a very big deal. Sitting down in front of the glowing tube for an evening’s entertainment was pretty much all one had to do after work, and while taking in this content was perhaps not that great for us, it was a goldmine for anyone with the ability to monetize it. And monetize it they did, “they” being the advertisers and marketers who saw the potential of the new medium as it ramped up in early 1950s America.

They faced a bit of a problem, though: proving to their customers exactly how many people they were reaching with their ads. The 1956 film below shows one attempt to answer that question with technology, rather than guesswork. The film features the “Poll-O-Meter System,” a mobile electronic tuning recorder built by the Calbest Electronics Company. Not a lot of technical detail is offered in the film, which appears aimed more at the advertising types, but from a shot of the Poll-O-Meter front panel (at 4:12) and a look at its comically outsized rooftop antenna (12:27), it seems safe to assume that it worked by receiving emissions from the TV set’s local oscillator, which would leak a signal from the TV antenna — perhaps similar to the approach used by the UK’s TV locator vans.

The Poll-O-Meter seems to have supported seven channels; even though there were twelve channels back in the day, licenses were rarely granted for stations on adjacent channels in a given market, so getting a hit on the “2-3” channel would have to be considered in the context of the local market. The Poll-O-Meter had a charming, homebrew look to it, right down to the hand-painted logos and panel lettering. Each channel had an electromechanical totalizing counter, plus a patch panel that looks like it could be used to connect different counters to different channels. There even appears to be a way to subtract counts from a channel, although why that would be necessary is unclear. The whole thing lived in the back of a 1954 VW van, and was driven around neighborhoods turning heads and gathering data about what channels were being watched “without enlisting aid or cooperation of … users.” Or, you know, their consent.

It was a different time, though, which is abundantly clear from watching this film, as well as the bonus ad for Westinghouse TVs at the end. The Poll-O-Meter seems a little silly now, but don’t judge 1956 too hard — after all, our world is regularly prowled by equally intrusive and consent-free Google Street View cars. Still, it’s an interesting glimpse into how one outfit tried to hang a price tag on the eyeballs that were silently taking in the “Vast Wasteland.”

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Screenshot of a 1988 news report on the Morris Worm computer virus

Retrotechtacular: Cheesy 1980s News Report On Early Internet Virus

It was a cold autumn night in 1988. The people of Cambridge, Massachusetts lay asleep in their beds unaware of the future horror about to be unleashed from the labs of the nearby college. It was a virus, but not just any virus. This virus was a computer program whose only mission was to infect every machine it could come in contact with. Just a few deft keystrokes is all that separated law abiding citizens from the…over the top reporting in this throwback news reel posted by [Kahvowa].

Computer History Museum exhibit of the floppy disk used to distribute the Morris worm computer virus.
Computer History Museum exhibit featuring the original floppy disk used to distribute the Morris Worm computer virus.

To be fair, the concept of a computer virus certainly warranted a bit of explanation for folks in the era of Miami Vice. The only places where people would likely run into multiple computers all hooked together was a bank or a college campus. MIT was the campus in question for this news report as it served as ground zero for the Morris Worm virus.

Named after its creator, Robert Tappan Morris, the Morris Worm was one of the first programs to replicate itself via vulnerabilities in networked computer systems. Its author intended the program to be a benign method of pointing out holes, however, it ended up copying itself onto systems multiple times to the point of crashing. Removing the virus from an infected machine often took multiple days, and the total damage of the virus was estimated to be in the millions of dollars.

In an attempt to anonymize himself, Morris initially launched his worm program from a computer lab at MIT as he was studying at Cornell at the time. It didn’t work. Morris would go onto to be the first person to receive a felony conviction under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. After the appeals process, he received a sentence a community service and a fine. After college Morris co-founded the online web store software company Viaweb that Yahoo! would acquire in 1998 for 49 million dollars. Years later in an ironic twist, Morris would return to academia as a professor at MIT’s department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Interested in some info on viruses of a different nature? Check out this brief history on viruses from last year.
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Featured image of Aladdin's Castle Arcade

Retrotechtacular: Raw Video From Inside A 1980s Arcade

It was just this year that Sega left the arcade business for good. A company synonymous with coin-op games for over a half century completely walked away from selling experiences you can only get on location. No more Outrun or Virtua Fighter machines, because arcades these days tend to resemble The House of the Dead. Arcades still exist to a degree, it’s just that headlines like that serve only as a reminder of an era gone by. Which is what makes raw footage like the video [Jon] posted of an Aladdin’s Castle arcade from the 1980s so compelling.

scan of Aladdin's Castle Arcade pamphlet ad
Aladdin’s Castle ad brochure circa 1983. Credit: John Andersen

The raw VHS footage starts with a sweep around the location’s pinball machines and arcade cabinets. There’s an extended shot of a rare TX-1 tri-monitor sitdown cabinet. The racing game was the first of its kind to feature force feedback in the steering wheel, so it’s no wonder it received the focus. The arcade’s lighting tech was also a point of pride as it allowed for programmable lighting cues. A far cry from the flickering fluorescent tubes no doubt in use elsewhere. Eventually the employee filming takes us to the back room where it the owner has made it abundantly clear that they are not a fan of Mondays, judging by the amount of Garfield merchandise.

Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle was a chain of arcades and had nearly 400 locations across the US at its height in the mid 1980s (at least according to their brochure seen above). Those neon red letters were a mainstay of American shopping malls throughout the decade. Namco, the Pac-Man people, acquired Aladdin’s Castle in 1993 and the brand faded away soon after. Although there is a lone location in Quincy, IL that is still open for business today.

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