The Modding, Restoration, And Demise Of A $3M Analog Computer

How do you rapidly record the output from your three million dollar analog computer in the 1940s when the results are only available on analog meters? The team responsible for the Westinghouse 1947 AC Network Calculator at Georgia Tech was faced with just this problem and came up with a nifty solution — hack the control panel and wire in a special-purpose drafting table.

What Is It?

What is this beast of a computer? Machines of this type were developed during and after World War 2, and strictly speaking, belong in the category of scale models rather than true computers. Although these machines were very flexible, they were primarily designed to simulate power distribution grids. There is a lot of theory under the hood, but basically a real world, multi-phase distribution system would be scaled to single-phase at 400 Hz for modeling.

The engineers would “program” the machine by connecting together the appropriate circuit elements (like capacitors, inductors, transmission lines, generators, etc.) on big patch panels. Thus programmed, a 10 kW motor-generator located in the basement would be started up and the simulation was underway. Continue reading “The Modding, Restoration, And Demise Of A $3M Analog Computer”

Retrotechtacular: Design For Assembly, 1980s-Style

To get its engineers thinking about design for assembly back in the 1980s, Westinghouse made a video about a product optimized for assembly: the IBM Proprinter. The technology may be dated, but the film presents a great look at how companies designed not only for manufacturing, but also for ease of assembly.

It’s not clear whether Westinghouse and IBM collaborated on the project, but given the inside knowledge of the dot-matrix printer’s assembly, it seems like they did. The first few minutes are occupied by an unidentified Westinghouse executive talking about design for assembly in general terms, and how it impacts the bottom line. Skip ahead to 3:41 if talking suits aren’t your thing.

Once the engineer gets going on the printer, though, things get really interesting. The printer’s guts are laid out before him, ready to be assembled. What’s notably absent from the table are tools — the Proprinter was so well designed that the only tool needed is a pair of human hands. And they don’t have to be particularly dexterous hands, either — the design favors motions that are straight down, letting gravity assist the assembly process and preventing assemblers from the need to contort their bodies. Almost everything is held in place by compliant mechanisms built into the plastic parts. There are a few gems in the film, like the plastic lead screw that drives the printhead, obviating the need to string a fussy timing belt, or the unique roller that twists to lock onto a long shaft, rather than having to be pushed to its center.

We found this film which we’ve placed below the break to be very instructive, and the fact that a device as complex as a printer can be assembled in just a few minutes without picking up a single tool is pretty illustrative of the power of designing for assembly. Slick designs that can’t be manufactured at scale are all too common in this age of powerful design tools and desktop manufacturing, so these lessons from the past might be worth relearning.

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Lewis Latimer Drafted The Future Of Electric Light

These days, we have LED light bulbs that will last a decade. But it wasn’t so long ago that incandescent lamps were all we had, and they burned out after several months. Thomas Edison’s early light bulbs used bamboo filaments that burned out very quickly. An inventor and draftsman named Lewis Latimer improved Edison’s filament by encasing it in cardboard, earning himself a patent the process.

Lewis had a hard early life, but he succeeded in spite of the odds and his lack of formal education. He was a respected draftsman who earned several patents and worked directly with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Although Lewis didn’t invent the light bulb, he definitely made it better and longer-lasting. Continue reading “Lewis Latimer Drafted The Future Of Electric Light”

A Tale Of Two Phases And Tech Inertia

What kind of power service is in the United States? You probably answered 120-volt service. If you thought a little harder, you might remember that you have some 240-volt outlets and that some industrial service is three phase. There used to be DC service, but that was a long time ago. That’s about it, right? Turns out, no. There are a very few parts of the United States that have two-phase¬†power. In addition, DC didn’t die as quickly as you might think. Why? It all boils down to history and technological inertia.

Split Phase Power by Charles Esson CC-BY-SA 3.0

You probably have quite a few 120-volt power jacks in sight. It is pretty hard to find a residence or commercial building these days that doesn’t have these outlets. If you have a heavy duty electric appliance, you may have a 240-volt plug, too. For home service, the power company supplies 240 V from a center tapped transformer. Your 120V outlets go from one side to the center, while your 240V outlets go to both sides. This is split phase service.

Industrial customers, on the other hand, are likely to get three-phase service. With three-phase, there are three wires, each carrying the line voltage but out of phase with each other. This allows smaller conductors to carry more power and simplifies motor designs. So why are there still a few pockets of two-phase?

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