If engineering choices a hundred years ago had been only slightly different, we could have ended up in a world full of steam engines rather than internal combustion engines. For now, though, steam engines are limited to a few niche applications and, of course, models built by enthusiasts. This one for example is built entirely in LEGO as a scale replica of a steam engine originally produced in 1907.
The model is based on a 2500 horsepower triple-expansion four-cylinder engine that was actually in use during the first half of the 20th century. Since the model is built using nothing but LEGO (and a few rubber bands) it operates using a vacuum rather than with working steam, but the principle is essentially the same. It also includes Corliss valves, a technology from c.1850 that used rotating valves and improved steam engine efficiency dramatically for the time.
This build is an impressive recreation of the original machine, and can even run at extremely slow speeds thanks to a working valve on the top, allowing its operation to be viewed in detail. Maximum speed is about 80 rpm, very close to the original machine’s 68 rpm operational speed. If you’d prefer your steam engines to have real-world applications, though, make sure to check out this steam-powered lawnmower.
Imagine traveling back in time about 2,200 years, to when nothing moves faster than the speed at which muscle or wind can move it. Think about how mind-shattering it would have been to see something like Hero’s Engine, the first known example of a steam turbine. To see a sphere whizzing about trailing plumes of steam while flames licked around it would likely have been a nearly mystical experience.
Of course we can’t go back in time like that, but seeing a modern replica of Hero’s Engine built and tested probably isn’t too far from such an experience. The engine, also known as an aeolopile, was made by the crew over at [Make It Extreme], whose metalworking videos are always a treat to watch. The rotor of the engine, which is fabricated from a pair of hemispherical bowls welded together, is supported by pipes penetrating the lid of a large kettle. [Make It Extreme] took great pains to make the engine safe, with relief valves and a pressure gauge that the original couldn’t have included. The aeolopile has a great look and bears a strong resemblance to descriptions of the device that may or may not have actually been invented by Greek mathemetician [Heron of Alexandria], and as the video below shows, when it spins up it puts on a great show.
One can’t help but wonder how something like this was invented without someone — anyone — taking the next logical step. That it was treated only as a curiosity and didn’t kick off the industrial revolution two millennia early boggles the mind. And while we’ve seen far, far simpler versions of Hero’s Engine before, this one really takes the cake on metalworking prowess.
Mention the term “heavy industry” and the first thing to come to mind might well be the metal foundry. With immense machines and cauldrons of molten metal being shuttled about by crane and rail, the image of the foundry is like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, with fumes filling a vast impersonal factory, and sparks flying through the air. It looks like a dangerous place, as much to the soul as to the body, as workers file in each day to suffer mindlessly at the hearths and ladles, consumed in dirty, exhausting work even as it consumes them.
Things are not always as they appear, of course. While there’s no doubting the risks associated with working in a foundry such as the sprawling Renfrew works of Babcock and Wilcox Ltd. in the middle of the previous century, as the video below shows the work there was anything but mindless, and the products churned out by the millions from this factory and places like it throughout the world were critical to today’s technology.
Many Hackaday readers have an interest in older technologies, and from antique motorcycles to tube radios to retrocomputers, you own, conserve and restore them. Sometimes you do so using new parts because the originals are either unavailable or downright awful, but as you do so are you really restoring the item or creating a composite fake without the soul of the original? It’s a question the railway film and documentary maker [Chris Eden-Green] considers with respect to steam locomotives, and as a topic for debate we think it has an interest to a much wider community concerned with older tech.
Along the way the film serves as a fascinating insight for the non railway cognoscenti into the overhaul schedule for a working steam locomotive, for which the mainline railways had huge workshops but which presents a much more significant challenge to a small preserved railway. We wrote a year or two ago about the world’s first preserved railway, the Welsh Tal-y-Llyn narrow gauge line, and as an example the surprise in the video below is just how little original metal was left in its two earliest locomotives after their rebuilding in the 1950s.
The film should provoke some thought and debate among rail enthusiasts, and no doubt among Hackaday readers too. We’re inclined to agree with his conclusion that the machines were made to run rather than gather dust in a museum, and there is no harm in a majorly-restored or even replica locomotive. After all, just as a retrocomputer is as much distinguished by the software it runs, riding a steam train is far more a case of sights and smells than it is of knowing exactly which metal makes up the locomotive.
The bike is of a recumbent design, featuring a relaxed riding position well suited to the sophisticated nature of a steam-powered vehicle. Sporting a wooden frame, the build carries a strong steampunk aesthetic. The flash boiler packs 100 feet of copper pipe, and there’s an electric pump and controller to handle water delivery from the stylish brass tank. The setup is capable of producing steam within 30 seconds of startup. Motive power is courtesy of a 1.5 inch bore single-cylinder steam engine, connected to the rear wheel via a belt drive.
The story of Linux so far, as short as it may be in the grand scheme of things, is one of constant forward momentum. There’s always another feature to implement, an optimization to make, and of course, another device to support. With developer’s eyes always on the horizon ahead of them, it should come as no surprise to find that support for older hardware or protocols occasionally falls to the wayside. When maintaining antiquated code monopolizes developer time, or even directly conflicts with new code, a difficult decision needs to be made.
Of course, some decisions are easier to make than others. Back in 2012 when Linus Torvalds officially ended kernel support for legacy 386 processors, he famously closed the commit message with “Good riddance.” Maintaining support for such old hardware had been complicating things behind the scenes for years while offering very little practical benefit, so removing all that legacy code was like taking a weight off the developer’s shoulders.
The rationale was the same a few years ago when distributions like Arch Linux decided to drop support for 32-bit hardware entirely. Maintainers had noticed the drop-off in downloads for the 32-bit versions of their distributions and decided it didn’t make sense to keep producing them. In an era where even budget smartphones are shipping with 64-bit processors, many Linux distributions have at this point decided 32-bit CPUs weren’t worth their time.
The Raspberry Pi the closest thing to a modular laptop. That’s the idea behind the Pi-Top, a laptop with a Raspberry Pi as a brain. Need an upgrade? No problem, just get the latest Pi, they’re up to four now.
Now the people behind the Pi-Top are releasing what can best be described as a brick of computing. The Pi-Top 4 is a designed as ‘The Sony Walkman for Making’, in which the form factor becomes a building block of anything you can imagine and probably a lot of things you can’t. Inside is a Raspberry Pi 4, a small OLED display, and a few buttons. On the bottom is a detachable ‘foundation plate’ that allows the Pi-Top 4 to connect to sensors, LEDs, and switches. The idea of all this building is that the brick-shaped Pi-Top 4 becomes a building block in anything you can imagine, be that a drone, a humanoid robot, or a portable photo booth. All of this is powered by the Raspberry Pi 4, no slouch when it comes to computational power.