Retrotechtacular: Balloons Go To War

To the average person, the application of balloon technology pretty much begins and ends with birthday parties. The Hackaday reader might be able to expand on that a bit, as we’ve covered several projects that have lofted various bits of equipment into the stratosphere courtesy of a high-altitude balloons. But even that is a relatively minor distinction. They might be bigger than their multicolored brethren, but it’s still easy for a modern observer to write them off as trivial.

But during the 1940’s, they were important pieces of wartime technology. While powered aircraft such as fighters and bombers were obviously more vital to the larger war effort, balloons still had numerous defensive and reconnaissance applications. They were useful enough that the United States Navy produced a training film entitled History of Balloons which takes viewers through the early days of manned ballooning. Examples of how the core technology developed and matured over time is intermixed with footage of balloons being used in both the First and Second World Wars, and parallels are drawn to show how those early pioneers influenced contemporary designs.

Even when the film was produced in 1944, balloons were an old technology. The timeline in the video starts all the way back in 1783 with the first piloted hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris, and then quickly covers iterative advancements to ballooning made into the 1800’s. As was common in training films from this era, the various “reenactments” are cartoons complete with comic narration in the style of W.C. Fields which were designed to be entertaining and memorable to the target audience of young men.

While the style might seem a little strange to modern audiences, there’s plenty of fascinating information packed within the film’s half-hour run time. The rapid advancements to ballooning between 1800 and the First World War are detailed, including the various instruments developed for determining important information such as altitude and rate of climb. The film also explains how some of the core aspects of manned ballooning, like the gradual release of ballast or the fact that a deflated balloon doubles as a rudimentary parachute in an emergency, were discovered quite by accident.

When the film works its way to the contemporary era, we are shown the process of filling Naval balloons with hydrogen and preparing them for flight. The film also talks at length about the so-called “barrage balloons” which were used in both World Wars. Including a rather dastardly advancement which added mines to the balloon’s tethers to destroy aircraft unlucky enough to get in their way.

This period in human history saw incredible technological advancements, and films such as these which were created during and immediately after the Second World War provide an invaluable look at cutting edge technology from a bygone era. One wonders what the alternative might be for future generations looking back on the technology of today.

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Military Surplus Repurposed For High Energy Physics

Performing high-energy physics experiments can get very expensive, a fact that attracts debate on public funding for scientific research. But the reality is that scientists often work very hard to stretch their funding as far as they can. This is why we need informative and entertaining stories like Gizmodo’s How Physicists Recycled WWII Ships and Artillery to Unlock the Mysteries of the Universe.

The military have specific demands on components for their equipment. Hackers are well aware MIL-SPEC parts typically command higher prices. That quality is useful beyond their military service, which lead to how CERN obtained large quantities of a specific type of brass from obsolete Russian naval ordnance.

The remainder of the article shared many anecdotes around Fermilab’s use of armor plate from decommissioned US Navy warships. They obtained a mind-boggling amount – thousands of tons – just for the cost of transport. Dropping the cost of high quality steel to “only” $53 per ton (1975 dollars, ~$250 today) and far more economical than buying new. Not all of the steel acquired by Fermilab went to science experiments, though. They also put a little bit towards sculptures on the Fermilab campus. (One of the few contexts where 21 tons of steel can be considered “a little bit”.)

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Hackaday Links: June 12, 2016

The Navy is doing some crazy stuff out in China Lake. They were planning to test something out that could potentially make GPS unusable from San Diego to Las Vegas to San Francisco. Those plans were cancelled for ‘internal’ reasons. They will be testing something in Indiana shortly, though. What are they doing? Who knows. That’s what idle speculation in the comments section is for.

3D Hubs, the distributed ‘3D printing service’ thing, now has 30,000 machines distributed around the globe. They also put together the definitive guide to 3D printing recently. For just about everyone reading this, a ‘introduction to 3D printing’ is old news, but this is a very good guide for telling your weird aunt what you’re building in the basement. Forward this one to your family on Facebook.

This one is amazing. Over on Hackaday.io, [Arsenijs] is working on a Raspberry Pi project. It uses a Raspberry Pi, and several accessories and components to make this Raspberry Pi project work. This Raspberry Pi project is already getting far more than the usual number of likes and follows, making this one of the most interesting Raspberry Pi projects in recent memory.

Moog is re-releasing the Minimoog, the original Moog synth from 1970. That’s cool, but what about a DIY Minimoog? That’s what [Scott Rider] is doing with the Crowminius Analog Music Synthesizer on Kickstarter. It’s an analog synth that’s more or less a Minimoog with MIDI, and one of the Kickstarter rewards is a bare PCB.

The future is dancing robots, so here’s a servo-driven Stewart platform that is sure to bring on the robot apocalypse.

What do you do when you need to get your Hackaday fix, but all you have is a laptop from 1995 and a dial-up modem? The Hackaday Retro Edition, of course. That’s a bunch of retro Hackaday posts, posted five at a time, with all the CSS and JavaScript cruft stripped. We’re always interested to see the old machines that are pulling the retro edition down, and [djnikochan] has the latest entry. He found a Thinkpad 380ED from 1997 at the Goodwill store for $15. The RAM was upgraded with a 64MB SIMM, giving this machine a total of 80MB. The Hackaday Retro Edition is viewable with IE 5.5 over a trusty PCMICA WiFi card. Awesome job, and we love to see old iron rendering the retro edition. Send some pics in if you get your old battlestation to load it.