It may seem a bit obvious to say so, but when a munition of just about any kind is designed, little thought is typically given to how to dispose of it. After all, if you build something that’s supposed to blow up, that pretty much takes care of the disposal process, right?
But what if you design something that’s supposed to blow up only if things go really, really wrong? Like nuclear weapons, for instance? In that case, you’ll want to disassemble them with the utmost care. This 1993 film, produced by the US Department of Energy, gives a high-level overview of nuclear weapons decommissioning at the Pantex plant in Texas. Fair warning: this film was originally on a VHS tape, one that looks like it sat in a hot attic for quite a few years before being transferred to DVD and thence to YouTube. So the picture quality is lousy, in some points nearly unwatchably so. Then again, given the subject matter that may be a feature rather than a bug.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid Of A Nuclear Bomb”
When motion pictures came along as a major medium in the 1920s or so, it didn’t take long for corporations to recognize their power and start producing promotional pieces. A lot of them are of the “march of progress” genre, featuring swarms of workers happy in their labors and creating the future with their bare hands. If we’re being honest, a lot of it is hard to watch, but “Master Hands,” which shows the creation of cars in the 1930s, is somehow more palatable, mostly because it’s mercifully free of the flowery narration that usually accompanies such flicks.
“Master Hands” was produced in 1936 and focuses on the incredibly labor-intensive process of turning out cars, which appear to be the Chevrolet Master Deluxe, likely the 1937 model year thanks to its independent front suspension. The film is set at General Motors’ Flint Assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, and shows the entire manufacturing process from start to finish. And by start, we mean start; the film begins with the meticulous work of master toolmakers creating the dies and molds needed for forging and casting every part of the car. The mold makers and foundrymen come next, lighting their massive furnaces and packing the countless sand molds needed for casting parts. Gigantic presses stamp out everything from wheels to frame rails to body panels, before everything comes together at the end of the line in a delicate ballet of steel and men.
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Those who haven’t experienced the destruction of a house fire should consider themselves lucky. The speed with which fire can erase a lifetime of work — or a life, for that matter — is stunning. And the disruption a fire causes for survivors, who often escape the blaze with only the clothes on their backs, is almost unfathomable. To face the task of rebuilding a life with just a few smoke-damaged and waterlogged possessions while wearing only pajamas and slippers is a devastating proposition.
As bad as a residential fire may be, though, its impact is mercifully limited to the occupants. Infrastructure fires are another thing entirely; the disruption they cause is often felt far beyond the building or facility involved. The film below documents a perfect example of this: the 1975 New York Telephone Exchange fire, which swept through the company’s central office facility at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan and cut off service to 300 blocks of the East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Rebuilding A Fire-Ravaged Telephone Exchange”
If someone in 2023 has ever had much call to use turpentine, chances are good it was something to do with paint or other wood finishes, like varnish. Natural turpentine is the traditional solvent of choice for oil paints, which have decreased in popularity with the rise of easy-to-clean polymer-based paints and coating. Oh sure, there are still those who prefer oil paint, especially for trim work — it lays up so nice — but by and large, turpentine seems like a relic from days gone by, like goose grease and castor oil.
It wasn’t always so, though. Turpentine used to be a very big deal indeed, as shown by this circa 1940 documentary on the turpentine harvesting and processing industry. Even then it was only a shadow of its former glory, when it was a vital part of a globe-spanning naval empire and a material of the utmost strategic importance. “Suwanee Pine” shows the methods used in the southern United States, where fast-growing pines offer up a resinous organic gloop in response to wounds in their bark. The process shown looks a lot like the harvesting process for natural latex, with slanting gashes or “catfaces” carved into the trunks of young trees, forming channels to guide the exudate down into a clay collecting cup.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Story Of Turpentine”
If you ever thought that being a television camera operator was a simple job, this BBC training film on studio camera operations will quickly disabuse you of that notion.
The first thing that strikes you upon watching this 1982 gem is just how physical a job it is to stand behind a studio camera. Part of the physicality came from the sheer size of the gear being used. Not only were cameras of that vintage still largely tube-based and therefore huge — the EMI-2001 shown has four plumbicon image tubes along with tube amplifiers and weighed in at over 100 kg — but the pedestal upon which it sat was a beast as well. All told, a camera rig like that could come in at over 300 kg, and dragging something like that around a studio floor all day under hot lights had to be hard. It was a full-body workout, too; one needed a lot of upper-body strength to move the camera up and down against the hydropneumatic pedestal cylinder, and every day was leg day when you had to overcome all that inertia and get the camera moving to your next mark.
Operating a beast like this was not just about the bull work, though. There was a lot of fine motor control needed too, especially with focus pulling. The video goes into a lot of detail on maintaining a smooth focus while zooming or dollying, and shows just how bad it can look when the operator is inexperienced or not paying attention. Luckily, our hero Allan is killing it, and the results will look familiar to anyone who’s ever seen any BBC from the era, from Dr. Who to I, Claudius. Shows like these all had a distinctive “Beeb-ish” look to them, due in large part to the training their camera operators received with productions like this.
There’s a lot on offer here aside from the mechanical skills of camera operation, of course. Framing and composing shots are emphasized, as are the tricks to making it all look smooth and professional. There are a lot of technical details buried in the video too, particularly about the pedestal and how it works. There are also two follow-up training videos, one that focuses on the camera skills needed to shoot an interview program, and one that adds in the complications that arise when the on-air talent is actually moving. Watch all three and you’ll be well on your way to running a camera for the BBC — at least in 1982.
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There are those among us who might bristle at something from the early 1980s qualifying for “Retrotechtacular” coverage, but it’s been more than 40 years since the California Department of Transportation’s truck-mounted attenuators crash testing efforts, so we guess it is what it is.
If you’re worried that you have no idea what a “truck-mounted attenuator” might be, relax — you’ve probably seen these devices attached to the backs of trucks in highway work zones. They generally look like large boxes attached to frames at the rear of the truck which are intended to soften the blow should a car somehow not see the giant orange truck covered with flashing lights and drive into the rear of it at highway speeds. Truck-mounted attenuators are common today, but back in 1982 when this film was produced, the idea was still novel enough to justify crash-testing potential designs.
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There was a time when the very idea of building a complex circuit with the intention of destroying it would have been anathema to any electrical engineer. The work put into designing a circuit, procuring the components, and assembling it, generally with point-to-point wiring and an extravagant amount of manual labor, only to blow it up? Heresy!
But, such are the demands of national defense, and as weapons morphed into “weapon systems” after World War II, the need arose for electronics that were not only cheap enough to blow up but also tough enough to survive the often rough ride before the final bang. The short film below, simply titled “Potted and Printed Circuits“, details the state of the art in miniaturization and modularization of electronics, circa 1952. It was produced by the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), the main electronics R&D entity in the UK during the war which was responsible for inventions such as radar, radio navigation, and jamming technology.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Circuit Potting, And PCBs The Hard Way”